Ups and downs

Following my second supervisory meeting today, I was trying to think of an image which represented the flow of my studies. I settled on:

flickr photo by ARHiker http://flickr.com/photos/aerogel5711/5047206990 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

For those of you not familiar, this is a photo of a ‘standing wave’ on a vibrating string, such as that you might get on a stringed instrument. We can see five ‘nodes’ – places where the string doesn’t appear to be vibrating, and four ‘anti-nodes’ – places where the string seems to vibrating the most. I was minded to think that the timeline of my studies follows a similar pattern from one end to the other. The nodes are the milestones that form punctuations in the study; points where you need to bring things together. To gather up your thoughts and ideas, the information you’ve gathered and the learning you’ve experienced, and bring them to a focus. A supervisory meeting is one of those nodes. Today’s was to discuss the draft of a form I’m submitting as my first progress check. This submission will be assessed by a research committee to establish that the study I’m proposing has sufficient merit and rigour to potentially result in the award of PhD. No biggie then!

Things appear to be largely in order. I suspect that I would never have been accepted onto the programme if my initial proposal didn’t look likely to be able to vault this hurdle. An experienced supervisory team however, (and I’m fortunate to be blessed with such a one) can recognise, even at this early stage, potential banana skins. Which they did. The subsequent discussion then unpicked some of the issues and considered a multiplicity of possible routes forward. I now have to reflect on the outcomes of that discussion and consider which options sit most comfortably for what I want to achieve. My submission needs no more than a few small tweaks to provide those who will be judging it with a little more clarity. For me though, there’s likely to be quite a shift in my next steps – I’ll now be moving towards an anti-node on the string where the vibrations are greater. This will be mirrored in my activity as I seek explore the new avenues which have been suggested; as I try to get to make sense of new possibilities and as I attempt to become more familiar with the new terrain.

This switching between periods of calm and turbulent activity can be very unsettling. Just when you feel you’re getting somewhere, a whole new set of challenges opens up. Just when you think you’re starting to understand some of the concepts or techniques, it’s made clear where your shortcomings are. But I guess that’s the nature of the PhD. That’s what your supervisors are there to do. Not intentionally unsettle you of course, but to reveal the points you missed, or were unable to spot through lack of knowledge and experience. You’re back in the uncomfortable position of a novice learner, perhaps for the first time since you were in school, experiencing the uncomfortable power imbalance between you and a (much more!) knowledgeable other. It’s crucial however to keep at the forefront of your mind that the intention is to help draw out the best from you and help you develop the capability to vault the hurdles as they arrive.

The more I thought about it, the more the photo above is rather idealised. The actuality is perhaps more like this:

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