A few reflections on a PhD so far

The third and final year of my PhD is starting now, and I thought I’d share a few reflections on the process as I’ve experienced it.

One thing that has surprised me is that I’ve not actually been as open with my own practices as I thought I would be. Of course, all publications I’ve written are openly available under CC BY or CC0 licenses and that will continue to be the case. I’ve used open source software for all my work; something that might have been more tricky if I needed any specialist programmes. And I have been publishing draft chapters as I go. This last step is not common – humanities researchers rarely share works in progress at this early a stage, especially in such a piecemeal way. There are excellent reasons for this and I wouldn’t expect many people to do to same. (There are trade-offs between openness and privacy, and it’s not always appropriate for everyone to make everything open.) I’m not sure whether publishing early drafts is of much value but I thought it would be a way to experiment that is relevant to the thesis topic.

However, all of that is about openness of content, not the process itself. I’ve not blogged about it much and haven’t even been sharing my progress on Twitter as much as some PhD students do now. One thing I have been able to do is publish documents that I’ve written for the formal stages of evaluation: the initial proposal, and then the upgrade. Hopefully this is useful for people to see what is involved. Again, it is also about sharing content, but this time content that is integral to the PhD process.

In my research I’ve been heavily leaning towards historical sources for several of the thesis chapters. I’ve found it necessary to firmly ground the more theoretical elements of the work in an empirical context. In doing so, I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which this style of research is about recombining other people’s insights in new ways in order to pose – and hopefully answer – new questions. To use the old cliché, by ‘standing on the shoulders’ of researchers who have come before, I’m able to contribute to the scholarship in an area that is often lacking in rigorous analysis.

As a full-time funded student, I really appreciate the time afforded me. It’s such a privilege to have three years to spend reading and writing about the topics that interest me. Having previously studied for a Masters degree while working full time, I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to do that again for another five or six years. I’ve been able to treat it as a job – with few exceptions, I only work on thesis-related things between nine and five on weekdays. (That might change as I get nearer to completion!) I’ve been consciously making sure I leave enough room in my life for other interests. And since my humanities-style approach allows me to work remotely from my university, I’ve moved several hundred miles away (to southern Scotland) with minimal interruption to the work.

On a personal level, the past year has not been the easiest time for me. This is another reason I’m grateful for the way I’ve been able to organise my time. My mum died last October after a long illness. The flexibility of being able to drop everything for several weeks, and then slowly get back into working, made it easier to deal with than it might have been otherwise.

Overall, I’m extremely glad I chose to pursue a PhD and was given the opportunity to do so. Only one year (and 30-40,000 words) to go now…