One of the first things I was told when beginning my PhD was that I had to make sure I would focus on my subject for the upcoming years. Yet, one of the main difficulties I encountered during my years of studying history, was that I couldn’t gather all my attention on one single aspect or one single time slot. As I’m now under pressure to finish the writing of my thesis, I look back at these years of research in the archives, travels to conferences, book reviews and other side-projects I undertook.
I probably did too much, because I don’t easily say no to an interesting venture. However, too much is up to the person who decides to undertake the work. Had I only focused on Huguenot correspondences for 4 years, I’m not sure I would still love reading them and talking about them. Instead, I kept on working various side jobs to pay my rent and this still makes me appreciate the time I can devote to actual research and academic matters. Each time though, I had this pang of guilt about not being tied down to my desk to dutifully write my chapters. This feeling of guilt you also get whenever opening a non-academic book or worse, daring to go out for something not PhD-related.
All things considered, all these side activities helped me to stay grounded. When into a PhD program, one often doesn’t see the rest of the world anymore. But there is more to life than research, however exciting this part of life is, and as idiotic as it may sound, it is often hard to understand that when one is immersed into the archives.
One of the crucial things I learned during the PhD was that networking was also a way to develop my research skills. Indeed, my attending conferences led me to meet researchers who helped me a great deal to get acquainted with other topics and to broaden my understanding of my own area of specialization. From seeing others presenting their research, I learned how to organize my work better, and about the crucial methodology that is so often not taught at university. Meeting other researchers also helped me to understand better why I wanted to be one (while some of them even helped me to see who I didn’t want to become, but no name-dropping here).
The journey of a PhD student is a long and winding one, but despite all the uncertainties and frustration, it is also a journey towards a maturation of the mind. We are given three or more years to achieve this. Some of us are better equipped to successfully manage that in that span of time. Others need more time to acquire the right analytical reflexes, because others elements go in the way, be they financial struggles, life events and most of all that self-doubt which often accompanies one’s solitary reflection. I’m still tiptoeing and doubting about every step I make when it relates to my research. It comes with its shares of frustrations, disappointments and discouragement. What I found to be the best answer to tackle these moments of doubts was to reach out to others in the same situation, to seek advise from more advances researchers, and to keep in touch with other parts of your life that make you feel content.