Saturday, 13 March 2010

Confirmation and other deeply emotional tales

So, as has become usual, I'm posting in an effort to avoid doing what I should be doing. But this is a worthy post, I promise, particularly if you are at a certain august institution that insists on calling its doctorates DPhils rather than PhDs, and therefore have to look forward to the pre-submission funfest that is called confirmation.

A few weeks ago we organised a 'Confirmation Panel' at the department, to try to gather some crumbs of wisdom from students who had already been through the process. For some of them it had been smooth, for some of them less so, and everyone had some very useful tips to offer. I'm not going to create a list of them here - for one thing they have already been circulated around the Education students, to whom they are most relevant, and for another it wouldn't make very interesting reading.

But I do want to pick up on one or two of the things they said. One of the themes which emerged again and again is that a doctorate challenges not just your academic ability but also your emotional stability and your tenacity. It's an exercise, sometimes, in just clinging on by your fingertips. But you can do it. It's not a sprint, this degree, it's a marathon. Sometimes you get a stone in your shoe, or your trainer comes off, but you have to keep limping on anyway. Or you can get a friend to give you a hand up, keep cheering you on. In the end, the people with "Dr" at the beginning of their names are the completely determined ones, who just keep slogging away. (I have to say that since beginning my DPhil my admiration for my mother, who not only completed her PhD while looking after a small child on her own, but managed to finish on time in 3 years, has increased exponentially.)

The other thing that came out most strongly from the panel was more specific to confirmation, but has general applications for conferences, papers, etc. In confirmation you are showing two or three completed chapters of your thesis to two academics. It is not the whole thesis, or even most of the thesis, and the chances are that it won't make sense without context. Give context! Make your research comprehensible with all the surrounding information that people need to understand it. If they can see the context, they are more likely to be persuaded by your analysis and conclusions. We're back to finding research we can trust - and at the end of the day that means finding people we trust, and if all you've got is 6,000 - or 30,000 words to convince people that you are trustworthy, you'd better make the most of them.

So, trustworthiness and tenacity. The two qualities that the letters DPhil or PhD guarantee you've got. In spades.