Thursday, 16 June 2011

Picking up the pieces and moving on.

Well I am officially post-Viva now and what better day to start blogging again than Bloomsday! This day is not only important to literature because of its Joyce connection but Bloomsday 1956 was the day that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes married! And what a contribution to literature that match made!

It was also on Bloomsday last year that I found out I had received funding for the three years of my PhD, so this day has a special place in my heart personally, too. On that note.. I really want this blog to be a reflection not only of my study of Plath but the trials and tribulations of doing a PhD. So I want to be honest, even though it's sometimes difficult! I wish I could be an unflawed being, and an unfailing student but life does not always work out that way. So here goes...

My Viva did not go in any way as well as I had expected. One could liken my experience to being thrown into a small pool filled with pirhana fish, and the more I struggled, the more vicious the attacks became. In fact, I am quite sure that one of the panel members is still fervently gnawing on my leg! Jokes aside, the Viva was very tough. I feel the main problem was that I had given the panel an incorrect type of submission. I wrote a long chapter detailing what I was going to do with my study, rather than actually doing it. For this reason, they asked me to take until August and write them a chapter where I employ my theories, rather than talk about them.

To be honest, I was devestated. But, as I want this blog to document both the highs and lows of graduate student life, I feel I need to write this. I'll spare you all the gory details of my weeping publicly while shoving as many Galaxy Bubble chocolate bars as possible into my mouth on the train home from the Viva and try and explain where I went wrong and what I learned and the advice I would offer to fellow grad students or those thinking of entering this profession. I've highlighted the main weaknesses I displayed in my viva and thought of ways to combat these situations in the future.

I believe my main problem was a misunderstanding of what was required of me at this milestone. Prior to my viva, my supervisor and I met and he thought everything I had written was fine. From now on, the important thing for both of us to do is to ensure we communicate with the Graduate School, to specifically realise what is required. This translates generally into: it is the responsibility of the graduate student (i.e. me) to keep tabs on the supervisor and ensure that they make the relevant calls and understand that University bureaucracy, while annoying, must be adhered to. After my viva experience, I have taken away the sure knowledge that I need to motivate my supervisor to make sure we are both aware of all boxes that need to be ticked.

The second important point I've learned as a result of this process is - try and keep cool under examination. When it began to dawn on me that the work I had slaved over for weeks wasn't what the panel were looking for, my brain froze. I found it difficult to answer questions I knew the answers to correctly and don't feel I came across as well as I should have. For graduate students, academic peer-review is part and parcel of the process. It's something we all need to get used to. To combat ever freezing again in a viva scenario, I am going to practive calming breathing techniques and set up a mock viva/review with a supervisor or fellow PhD student in order to be prepared for a barrage of questions.

Finally (and this is the part I'm struggling with at the moment), a positive mental attitude is vital. No-one likes to hear they've caught the wrong end of the stick and no-one really appreciates criticism (constructive though it may be)!! In the three days since my viva I have worried about my job prospects should I not be good enough for the course, worried about my finances, worried that I didn't deserve to be going to the USA on the research trip - that I'm a waste of resources. Because of the solitary nature of PhDs, there's no-one to tell you that criticism happens to everyone and re-writes are a minor blip and part of a process that will have highs and lows throughout. I have never been one to have the utmost confidence in myself (except for when I have a glass of whiskey in my hand!) but right now, I'm trying to pull all my inner strength together and tell myself I can do this. That I will complete this. That I have the intelligence and drive to get over this bump and use it to my advantage. Time spent wallowing is time wasted.

Sometimes it is comforting to know that Sylvia Plath felt that a PhD was not a route she would like to go down academically. Life as a graduate student can be isolating, frightening, confusing and downright depressing. But it can also be intensely rewarding, liberating and interesting. We all have our peaks and troughs. I wanted to be honest with this blog to prove that not everyone sails through academia easily. I work hard, I have a real interest and passion for Sylvia Plath and the work she produced. But sometimes even with the best will in the world, and weeks spent pouring over books and endless late nights, you don't hit the correct target. So while I now go back to the drawing board, it's not a completely blank page. I know my question, I know now what the Graduate School require by way of a chapter and now I'm going to try and take my own advice and the advice of the panel members and try to do myself and Sylvia justice, and fingers crossed, I'll be a better researcher for it.

Over and out! :)


Rita Jacob said...

An insightful,honest post. Although your cross-examination was tough,you are reseaching an author who you are clearly besotted with, and who, from my own experience,is a joy to work with. I'm sure you'll be back on track v.soon.

The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Rita! I'm hoping to be very much back on track asap - everyone has been so supportive :)

I'm really liking your blog by the way! Your writings are really different and interesting!

Rita Jacob said...

Thank you. I wrote an MA thesis on Plath last year, looking at Hughes's editing of Ariel.I enjoyed it but I found the amount of dated criticism over-whelming, and stuck to close readings of Plath's original text and Hughes's amended version. Do you have a working title, or what is your research focused on?
There is certainly a need for current Plath research,if only to facilitate teaching her poetry at undergraduate level.

The Plath Diaries said...

I think your MA thesis sounds very interesting! The fact that Ariel: the Restored Edition was even published suprised me a great deal, though I thought Frieda's introduction to it was a little problematic!

My research question is - (tentatively) Emerging Voices: Responses to Silence in the poetry and fiction of Sylvia Plath. So I'll be looking at the presence of silence in her work and ascertaining her responses to the impact of public/private silences that impacted on her as well.

I have a chapter planned to look at posthumous silencing at the hands of the Hughes Estate so perhaps will be touching on a lot of the same points you no doubt discussed in your thesis! We'll have to keep in touch :)

Rita Jacob said...

That's an interesting angle, fresh and engaging.
Silence is imperative to the posthumous dialogue Hughes continues in Birthday Letters.
My thesis was part of a taught Masters at UCD,so I doubt it's available. In any case, the title is; They bring each other to perfection: Hughes's Fragmentation of the Ariel voice.

Anonymous said...

Hi Maeve,

Sorry to hear your work hit a brick wall. I can empathise, since my interview was tough too (see my most recent post). I really hope you don't find it hollow empathy, though.

I think it is important to be honest about the harder stuff since that is what they don't tell you about academic research. We're all told it is going to be hard, but never why, where and how.

It sounds more like a case of crossed wires on faculty communication than any intrinsic issue with your research questions. While there is leg work to do, at least it is a topic you like. Hopefully it will send a message to your supervisor to get back on the ball too!


The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Alex. It means a lot to know that everyone has their ups and downs in academic research! I think I'm back on the horse again now though, and very much committed to succeeding:)

Congratulations on passing your viva as well by the way!

Zoƫ said...

This is really insightful Maeve and very brave of you to post, it will undoubtedly be of use to others who find themselves in a similar position.

I completely hear you on the solitary nature of phds/or academic work in general. Before embarking on my MA I thought this would be a possible route for me to take, but having been close to breakdown at a number of points throughout the year I know its not an option and telling myself this has been curiously comforting.

My fingers and toes are crossed for you!