Sorry I’ve been away for so long! Moving house has been keeping me busy (perhaps a blog post on juggling the PhD and the rest of your life to follow!).
It seems ’tis the season…not just for mince pies and mulled wine, but for PhD assessments, as Heather’s last post coincides with some thinking I’ve been doing on the subject lately. Yesterday I attended a workshop on ‘Ensuring Successful Confirmation of Registration’ to talk about my experiences, so I’ll share my musings here.
(Note: here at Reading we have an annual review process throughout a PhD student’s studies, plus a meeting in the second year – or part-time equivalent – to confirm your registration as a PhD student, transfer to MPhil, or discontinue your studies. As always, my perspectives below are largely arts and humanities biased.)
I’m sure Heather’s not alone in her grumbling about preparing material for her review! It can seem like it’s just a hoop to jump through, but there are ways of making the experience productive and forward-focussed. For me, it’s helpful to think of the interview part of the annual review system as a great opportunity to train myself for the viva. Learning to listen attentively to eminent academics whilst remaining calm and composed, and acknowledge their criticisms or defend your work as appropriate, are vital skills.
If, like me, your review interview is conducted by a panel of assessors, one of them will be a member of academic staff with experience of your subject area. This person is therefore a valuable resource, not just in their ability to comment on the piece of work you submit, but as a chance to expand your circle of contacts. Impress her or him, and you just might hear about some proposed conference, or publication in the pipeline, or the possibility of a postdoctoral research post.
Speaking from a slightly painful (though self-inflicted!) experience, my strongest advice would be to submit your best work to the review: this is primarily an assessment procedure, not a developmental one. Particularly if you’re approaching your penultimate yearly review, you need to think a little strategically: if you’re planning to apply for academic work, applications are likely to commence almost a year in advance, meaning references will be needed before your final annual review, and certainly before your submission and viva. You want to give the panel confidence to write shining testaments to the quality of your work and your ability to handle your research and personal development. I submitted something tentative and first-drafty, with the intention that it would help me develop the piece for publication. With hindsight, the opportunity to have a number of experts focussed intently on my writing is one I should have offered my best work to, in the hope of real improvement, rather than wasting on something I already knew needed improving.
Finally, one of the most difficult things about the transition between taught MA and independent PhD research for me has been the lack of milestones. There’s no way to tangibly measure your achievement and progress: no grades, no end of term papers, no seminar discussions by which to reassure yourself you fit amongst your peers. So take heart, the annual review is a chance to be formally encouraged that you are in the right place, doing the right thing, and that you will make it through!