Starting a PhD

Earlier this week and still suffering from explosive head syndrome, I went to an introductory talk at the University of Southampton about starting a PhD. After the initial induction, I had been feeling somewhat confused, there were just too many online areas to search through,  another bunch of username and passwords to remember, and loads of training.

Apparently, I’m to undergo various online and face-to-face sessions, to become a doctoral researcher. Initially, I was a bit scathing; at my age did I really need more training? I’d had enough of e-learning and compulsory modules in the day job to last a few lifetimes. But, as I read through the Post Graduate Research Training timeline, I began to find the idea of the forthcoming process quite comforting. Even though I have very good research skills, through my job in a medical library, I realised there are some elements of undertaking a PhD that I know little or nothing about. For example, giving a research paper, even though I blagged it last year; I’d like to know how this is supposed to be done.

I was reminded that Doctoral degrees are awarded to students who have demonstrated the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship. We had to do a few group activities such as reading an ‘original contribution’ handout and discussing which categories our own research might fit into. I was seated next to Kostas, a South West & Wales DTP student and we discussed our differing interests. It seems that Kostas is an expert in literary theory, and apparently he eats those sorts of books for lunch. This was interesting because I am useless at understanding all that jargon. Do we really need to understand literary theory if we are writing a creative piece? Wasn’t the critical part of the thesis all about reflecting on our own writing, rather than apply theory? I hope by the end of the PhD that I will be able to understand theory a bit better than I do now. Click here for Mike Harris discussing theories of creative writing much better than I can ever hope to.

However, I did mention The Novel, A survival skillby Tim Parks, who I’d heard speaking a few weeks ago. I think this made me seem more clued up than I really am! Though if I was to include some sort of theoretical discussion about my writing, I would definitely be coming from the Parks school of thought. His new book, The Novel, looks at the relationship between writer, text, and reader. The author is very much alive in his book. Parks goes on to discuss how the novelist and the reader, read texts depending on their own backgrounds, family positioning, and habits of communication. I find this idea fascinating.

How does a care leaver, without family, without the usual societal confines, read a novel? How would a care leaver write a novel? What happens when we bring all our baggage to the narrative? For example, when I read Jane Eyre, as a young girl, I was very much rooting for her to succeed, to marry him. For me it was a love story, I believed in the happy ending. But what if I was sixteen and Jamaican? Would it be a love story or a narrative about an abused wife? Park’s ideas open up reading and writing to a whole new psychodynamic way of understanding texts.

By the end of the PhD introductory talk, I felt the brain fog beginning to lift. I was starting to understand what was expected of me and could see an emerging PhD structure which to someone who is a little on the OCD scale, and likes order, this was reassuring.

Back home, I feel a bit like a mine sweeper, ever alert for a new piece of writing. As English researchers, at this moment in history, it is our job to excavate literature and capture new thoughts in our nets, before sifting and sorting, creating neat piles of text and finally choosing what will and won’t be contributed to new knowledge.

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