Friday, 15 June 2012

Officially DPhil: Transfer of Status Tales

Well, it's official.  As of this week, I am actually a true blue DPhil candidate.  Up until now, I was technically a PRS (Probationary Researcher Student), along with everyone else in the first year of the doctoral programme.

To recap - the steps that brought me here.

First of all, I had to write a 10,000 word piece of written work that ended up being the first chapter of my thesis ('Heroes and Hero-Worship in Charlotte and Branwell Brontë’s Glass Town and Angrian Writings, 1829-1836').  This was a painful process, mostly because writing can be quite agonizing and also because I had to do a fair bit of revision, which plunged me into a bout of grad school anxiety on topics such as 'What if I can never make this chapter good?', etc.  Of course, all unfounded fears.

I also had to produce a 1000-word thesis proposal and outline, which was not too hard, since I could readily adapt the proposal I used last fall for all my scholarship applications.  (None of which panned out, by the way.  Still sadly unfunded.  There's still next year, however!)

And then, the Transfer Interview (of Doom!).  Which was actually fine.  I didn't really worry about that interview with my two assessors because the interviews are only supposed to be half an hour to an hour long and, at the end of my master's degree, I had managed to survive a two-hour oral defence with three examiners.  Also, my supervisor had been quite positive about my chapter after revision and had kindly prepped me on questions that might come, ie: gender theory, thesis structure, methodology, etc.  So I was well-prepared going in.

I didn't really start to worry until two hours before my interview, when I had finished going through my chapter and reminded myself of the content of my outline and thought through what I would say should the dreaded question of methodology come up.  (My fellow DPhil Judyta has written a blog post on the issue of methodology re: the transfer interview.)  There was one snag, as the porter at Magdalen College first sent me off on a wild goose chase to the wrong quad, but I found my way easily enough after that.

My assessors were very merciful and told me right off the bat that they weren't going to recommend that I didn't transfer (which, as I kept reminding myself, isn't the end of the world anyway, as they do let you have another free try the next Michaelmas).  Huge sigh of relief, though.  I don't remember all that much of the interview, which was spent in a state of processing information and calculating when to stop speaking, making sure I was actually answering the questions I was asked.  Regular interview fugue state stuff.  And overall, again, as I kept reminding myself, it was really and truly useful to gain feedback on my chapter, approach, and plan for the thesis as a whole from two academics other than my supervisor.  It was a great opportunity to challenge my own ideas about the thesis and make me think about, for instance, alternate structures.

So, transfer sounds rather traumatic, but in the end, I think it's actually a great opportunity to check in, to make sure you're on the right track, and to force yourself to produce relatively finished written work, especially as the Oxford DPhil is much less structured than a North American doctoral program (coursework, comprehensive exams, then dissertation).  And, as the maximum word limit for the thesis is 100,000 words, I'm definitely at least 10% done now, and that's quite a good feeling!

My next check in will be my Confirmation of Status, which you apply for when you're within a chapter or chapter and a half of finishing your thesis.  It also requires submission of written work, a plan, and, as of this year, an interview.  Another hurdle to look forward to!

(Here's a link to another account of the dreaded Transfer Interview by Sophie, who went through all of this last year.  I read this before coming up to Oxford last summer and I think it made me feel better about the prospect of transferring.)

Monday, 11 June 2012

Planting Seeds

I'm partly writing this post to see if anyone else does this.

That is, consciously planting seeds in one's subconscious.

I'll explain.  As we all know, our subconscious never shuts down.  We dream at night; we discover the best comebacks after the moment has passed; we figure out the crossword clue days later.  When our conscious mind goes off to other things, the subconscious keeps on rolling.

When I know I need/want to write something and I have only the foggiest idea of what my argument or approach might look like, I've discovered it's useful to do two things.

1)  Write it out.  While organizing papers last night, I discovered a few sheets that had my preliminary planning for thesis Chapter Two on them.  One of them I had very boldly titled "Things I Know About Chapter Two" and contained really early notes on areas I wanted to cover, books I knew I needed to read, conclusions I thought I might draw.  I've discovered that almost freewriting out or brainstorming ideas on purpose and on paper really helps me to think better and sparks off ideas that often make perfect sense, seemingly out of nowhere. 

This is also how I came up with my Master's thesis topic.  I knew I wanted to do a thesis (I had originally signed up for the shorter project-based course), but I didn't know what I wanted to do it on and I figured that if I was going to make English Department staff go to all the administrative trouble of helping me switch programs, I had better have a decent idea of what I wanted to do.  So, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down the bits of English Literature that most interested me.  On that list were the Brontes, the Gothic, and Heathcliff, which eventually led into my thesis on Gothic masculinity in three Bronte novels.

Most recently, I've used this scattershot method to try to shape a conference paper abstract whose deadline is not so very far away.  I wrote down everything I thought might be interesting to talk about.  And then I did Step Number Two.

2)  Walk away and tell one's Subconscious to figure it out.  I couldn't push my idea any further, so I left my scribbled-over notebook pages and quite sternly told myself to take those ideas and come up with an argument, or at least, a narrowed down, more complete version of my initial ideas.  And lo and behold, later that day, I suddenly figured out the perfect primary work to use as the centre of my discussion.  (Which then led to an exploration of the town centre of Kidlington, as I already owned the book I wanted to use, but hadn't brought it to the UK with me.  So, off we went to the public library to pick it up).  Now, I still have to write the abstract and, if it's accepted, the paper itself, but my subconscious certainly seemed to have done something with the seeds I planted.

I think this is another area where academic writing and creative writing overlap, but it's hard to say.  As Robin McKinley has said in essays, the imagination (at least, mine) is not nearly as "biddable" as my academic writing brain.  But I'm trying.  I've told my subconscious that after Belladonna is finished and, hopefully, out on submission, I would really like it to come up with a nice juicy Victorian-style ghost story or sensation fiction sort of plot.  I'll just have to wait and see what it comes up with.  (I should also mention that I've been trying to help it along by reading Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, and M.R. James...)