The First Board: Not A Survival Guide

I say it’s not a survival guide because there really wasn’t much to survive.  At least now I don’t have to worry about future boards because I know that unless I just completely stop working or produce a horrendous paper, it’s going to be OK.  Let this be a reassurance to future PhDs, or those who haven’t had their boards yet.  This post is a mixture of reflection and advice.

Bear in mind I’m a history student, so this advice might not apply to students of other disciplines.  I had to do an 8,000-10,000 (it ended up a few hundred words longer than that, oops!) piece of writing, which was basically the first draft of the introduction to my thesis; literature review and sources.  The only preparation I really had to do apart from that was re-read what I’d written the night before.  That’s all you can really do - the board is about your research, which you already intimately know.

When I went in, I’d prepared myself to accentuate the positive.  To this end, I wrote down good things the board said about my work and put a ring around them so that they would stand out on the page later.  I was particularly pleased to hear that I write well - I always like to be complimented on my writing as being a good writer is something I’ve always aspired to.  I was also happy to hear that I’ve crossed disciplinary boundaries well.  This related particularly to my reading of contemporary psychology works that have something to say about the only child.  I was worried I wasn’t equipped enough to deal with what is basically an alien set of terms and ideas, but so far, I don’t seem to be doing too shabbily.  And I love the idea of interdisciplinary work in general.  Not only is it really interesting, but it breathes new life into old topics, so I’m pleased to be contributing to that culture.

The board members suggested lots of things for me to read.  When I was having MA supervisory meetings, I used to be overwhelmed by the number of books and articles my supervisor suggested on the basis of what I’d written.  Now I’m used to it, though, it doesn’t seem so bad.  Often it’s only a chapter or two, or even just a small section of a work that’s relevant, and not only is it helpful, but it’s quite nice to be able to read books and have a good idea of exactly what it is you’re looking for in them.  After a celebratory cup of hot chocolate, I went straight to the library and looked up all the works that had been suggested to me.  While my reading pile is now huge, I’m still not worried.  Because it’s PhD, that bit of work can lie fallow for a bit as nobody’s going to want to see it for a while, and there’s no rush to read all those books and add to it,  So I guess my advice here would be: don’t be overwhelmed by the suggested reading!  Also, write down the names of historians yourself - the board memberd may have written them down on your work for you, but it’s not only medical doctors who have horrendous handwriting.

I know this sounds like a cliché (I heard it so many times in the run-up to the board, but I never quite let myself believe it) but the board really is there to support you.  I got loads of suggestions about how to continue my work, it was brilliant!  One of my favourites were having a section about the only child and social mobility, particularly as the parents of only children were more likely to be able to afford to send them to grammar school or let them stay on at school, and in the old days at least (I won’t go into my experiences of grammar school…), that was a springboard to a better job, and a higher social position.  My other favourite was the idea of doing case studies.  I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to get hold of a huge number of autobiographies of only children, so to be able to just use a few really interesting ones appeals to me.  I also might get so much from the** oral histories** that I won’t need to use as many as I thought.  We shall see!

Finally, be prepared for the conversation to wander all over the place, especially if your subject is particularly ‘human interest’.  After all, your board are colleagues, so they like a good chat.  I ended up hearing a few anecdotes about the board members’ own experiences of only children, and ‘virtual onlies’ (a phrase I’ve literally just coined there) who grew up alone due to family circumstances such as large age gaps or going to live with other relatives.  According to my supervisors two previous PhD students, this is not an unusual occurrence - the board members had anecdotes about household accidents **and **prostitution.  It’s quite nice - it shows your topic is alive and of interest to people.

So, what next?  I’m getting back to work on the sources that will make up my next board paper.  I hope it receives as good a reception as this paper did, and that my experiences and advice, such as they are, are of use to somebody out there!


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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK