It may not be the finest song to have been released in the 1980s, but “Final Countdown” fits both my 1986 birthday and the theme that I’d like to address in this blog post today. This past week, I had a monumentally important meeting with my supervisor at which I convinced him to allow me to begin the writing-up period for my PhD. It may not be “The Final Countdown”, but together we are starting the clock on the final year of my PhD. It’s a bit of a shock to only have one year left on my PhD, although this has been my stated goal since I began my studies in the UK. I’m amazed how quickly time has passed. In line with my goals for the ‘Making History’ series of podcasts, I have decided that I am going to blog my final year, and talk about the challenges, solutions and compromises I make as I head towards submission and defence early next year.
One of the most important things to come out of that meeting was the intellectual realization that things really must change for the next year. I’m no longer sifting through information, trying to piece together an analysis; with one or two exceptions, my structure and argument is set and my goal is to now present my argument in as clear and concise a manner, and with as much archival primary source backing as possible. The way that I work, and my goals as I work must change. The way I do archival research will be more focused as I zero in on specific episodes, even specific documents. I have also decided to somewhat cut back on my interaction with the academic community; I won’t be applying to any more conferences until I submit, nor will be accepting any more book reviews (beyond the three that I currently owe to various editors).
The most important change will be the relationship with my supervisor. I have always been very lucky in terms of my supervisors; when I did my Masters I worked with Dr Roger Sarty, who asked serious questions about the type of analysis and type of history that I was interested in, and forced me to look beyond the age of sail at a critical point. Afterwards, I did not have the easiest time finding a potential supervisor for my doctoral work. In Canada, I was hamstrung by the difficulties that there simply wasn’t anybody who was interested in Restoration-era England who was also a naval historian and comfortable with the interdisciplinary direction my work was heading. Of course, the fact that I was studying the Royal Navy and would be doing most of my research in the UK meant that no Canadian university would award me a place, but that was something I didn’t appreciate until later. Almost by chance, I decided to email Professor Andrew Lambert, who subsequently became my second supervisor when I was accepted to King’s College London. I was assigned Dr Alan James as my primary supervisor, and I was very fortunate.
Until now, Alan and I have had a certain working relationship, mostly dictated by our personalities. We’re both Canadian, but we are very different. On the one hand, Alan is quiet. I really can’t think of a better way to describe him other than to say that his being quiet hides an inner solid core of steel that might surprise some. I guess one could say that he asserts himself when it is needed, but otherwise prefers to be somewhat reserved. I, on the other hand, am not quiet. I have this problem where when I think of something that I think is funny, interesting, or intellectually important, my mouth opens and sound comes out whether it should or not. I am brash, often overly confident and have picked up at least one unflattering if not overly imaginative nickname as a result. For the past two years, my academic meetings with Alan have largely been of my monologues on my work being interspersed with Alan’s penetrating comments and questions. For quite a while, Alan and I would meet and we’d repeatedly go over the core of my project, my arguments, analyses, and importantly the reasons why I was doing what am doing.
From now on, this will be changing. In our last meeting, Alan really asserted himself and laid down the law. From now on, we would be going bit by bit through my arguments, through my work. When future Alan asked questions, made suggestions, requested changes, I would have to listen and then comply. To this point, I have been relatively stubborn about such things. I’m not afraid of criticism, in fact I’ve said often in the past that I like criticism and questions because they force me to fix problems in my work and in my structure. At times, I have been more resistant to suggestions than I should have been, and as a result its taken longer to make the changes, and to discover the resulting improvements than it should have. Next week, Alan and I are going to have our first such meeting under the new dynamic, and it’s going to be a note-for-note review and analysis of one of my chapters (although I’m not sure which one yet, it’ll be interesting to see which one he picks). Previously we’ve only really talked about large details, and this will the first time we start shaping a chapter for the final version. The fact is, we’re getting to the whole reason that PhD students have a primary supervisor, to help shape the work to make sure that it can be evaluated by a committee. I have this all in my head, and I have most of it on paper (I’m up to about 64,000 words at the moment of a maximum 100k). Alan’s somewhat skeptical, largely because I am having some difficulties making this so precise that my exact meaning and the subtleties and differences that I explore do not get lost in the reading. I’m the first person to admit that sometimes I can have difficulties reining in the more, say, energetic aspects of my personality but that exact thing is going to be at the centre of changes I need to make to ensure that I get as much out of my PhD as I should and provide a good thesis for my future examiners.
These blog entries will be closely tied to the academic practice side of the next year, and so posts will largely correspond to meetings, deadlines and other events as they occur. The next post will come next weekend, and talk about my first meeting under the new regime.