There’s a disco song you probably know, called ‘Finally’. The chorus is along the lines of ‘Finally, it’s happened to me, tra la la, tra la la, etc’. I only really ever figured out that one phrase, but it’s a very catchy tune. This became the soundtrack of my academic life a couple of weeks ago. Not the whole song, just the single phrase, and all the ‘la la la’ bits. Unfortunately in my personal version, it wasn’t about falling in love. Rather, it was about the Sudden Crisis of Confidence that I’ve seen a few of my fellow postgrad students experience over the past 18 months.
I knew it would happen eventually. I’d had a sense of living a golden life, cruising along with my basic research question essentially unchanged, building on my understanding of methodologies but in a value-adding sense, not a gasp-I-have-to-rethink-this-whole-thing sense. I wasn’t smug about this, just a bit bemused that things seemed to be so on track still.
And then it happened.
I could almost pinpoint the moment it hit (which is why in my personal soundtrack Ce Ce is singing ‘suddenly it happened to me’). I had been thinking through a poster that I am to present at an international conference in June. I had the colour scheme chosen, a photo and some diagrams prettily arranged to give the graphic designer an idea of the look I’m hoping to achieve (a master work of poster paper, sticky tape and blu-tack), and then I had to start drafting up the actual text.
That was when it hit me: this is all so obvious! I actually have nothing new to say. Nothing! If no-one has put these ideas together before it’s because it doesn’t really matter. Who (apart from myself) actually cares? I am going to stand in front of this poster at the conference and people are going to say ‘so what’s your point, exactly?’ (or, more terrifyingly, just ‘so what?’) and I will look at them blankly and say ‘that’s a very good question.’ Aaagghh! I am wasting everyone’s time, not to mention quite a lot of money! To paraphrase an author whose name I can’t quite remember at the moment, there’s nothing like converting your ideas to graphic format to identify the gaps and muddled thinking.
Luckily I’m not really given to histrionics, so this phase didn’t last too long. However, it settled into a bleak feeling that’s hard to put into words: a physical feeling, something like disappointment mixed with embarrassment, sitting in a hollow space mid-belly. I remember when I was a very young piano student, proudly showed my teacher a melody that I had created and written neatly into my manuscript book. ‘Oh, aren’t you clever?’ she purred. ‘You’ve copied out the tune to (something that was already there) into your lesson book all by yourself.’ That was the end of my career in music composition. Could this be the postgraduate reprise?
It all ended happily. I had an appointment with my supervisor, and while I waited I chatted with a fellow student, sharing my woes. Turned out she had had an almost identical conversation with her supervisor a couple of years ago (she is in the final stages of her PhD now), and her supervisor had reassured her that it might seem old and obvious to her, but it was new to everyone else. I started to feel better. Even if my topic wasn’t new to everyone else, at least someone understood how I was feeling.
Then I met with my supervisor, who said pretty much the same thing. She shared some of her own doubts and wobbles when writing, even at this stage in her established career. Most importantly, she managed to convince me that what I am doing is, in fact, new, and that my way of rearranging existing information into a new way of looking at things and then exploring that idea further, is worthwhile. She made a few suggestions about my draft poster (which I had laid out in all its glory on her office floor) and we talked about conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing.
I came out of that supervision meeting with new energy and confidence, and even more: pride that what I am doing is actually worth the effort (not only mine but hers too).
The icing on the Confidence Cake came from my research group, the group of PhD students that meets fortnightly for mutual support and sharing of ideas. With the faculty’s Research Students Forum coming up, we are taking turns to practice our presentations on the smaller group, and last week was my turn. Apart from speaking for way longer than I will be able to when I do the real thing, the practice run reassured me that people other than myself were interested in what I was doing. They made some excellent suggestions and seemed (unless I am just really skilled at self-delusion) to be genuinely interested. Yay! Even if the poster flops at the conference, it has been a turning point in my understanding of what I am really doing, and why.
The draft has now gone off to the graphic designer to be sleeked and smoothed and turned into something sophisticated enough to present to a wider audience. And I have a much firmer grasp on what my project is all about. Tra la la, indeed!