This time last year I had agonised over a 1000 word project proposal and been accepted for a January entry onto a PhD programme at the University of Brighton. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and had no evidence that I genuinely had the wherewithal – by which I mean the cleverness – to work at PhD level. I was guided by gut instinct, a fairly solid intuition that this was the right thing for me, and the encouragement of senior experienced academics at the University; one of whom put himself forward to be my supervisor.
This supervisor, who has guided a good many students through to thesis and viva, set me early tests of the old fashioned variety: “Write me 3000 words on Biennials of Art for two weeks time”, for example, and “put in writing the arguments why you want to use these three Biennials as case studies”.
We met formally to discuss my first piece of submitted writing and I said, rather timidly, that I had worked on it till it was the best I could do, but I didn’t think it was that good. Was it, I asked, PhD standard? Encouragingly, the answer immediately came back that yes, it was. Phew!
From this beginning, my learning and confidence has grown exponentially. By March, I thought nothing of writing 6000 words on ‘culture-led regeneration’; a term I quickly realised was misleading and inaccurate, not to mention regularly misused and misunderstood by public sector bodies engaged in it. A compulsory module on Research Methods, formally assessed via a presentation and essay on my research proposal, gained a grade of 72%. That was a turning point for me – no, my supervisors weren’t simply being kind and encouraging – here was external double marked evidence that I was at the least working at very high MA level. Formal Research Plan Approval followed shortly afterwards and was another milestone. Since then, I’ve been on a field trip to research the Istanbul Biennial, begun interviewing Directors of Biennials (and how charming they have been, thank you, Andrea Schlieker, Lewis Biggs and Bige Orer), and started interviewing Biennial artists. Much more fieldwork is planned for 2012 and I can hardly wait. A write up of my Istanbul field trip earned the accolade of being “probably the most outstanding piece of work I have been given by a PhD student” from my supervisor (and I still think that surely I must have misheard? And what a clever use of the word “probably”!).
And so here I am, 11 part-time months into the Fud, and still in honeymoon mode. It’s a wonderfully enriching experience. Without a doubt, this is the best professional development programme I have ever undertaken. It’s been a year of profound learning that is giving me much greater depth of understanding about my field. It’s making me into a far sharper and more effective arts professional. Whereas previously I might argue for specific courses of action based on experience, ideas of most effective process married to pragmatic realities, and some form of liberal ethical bias, I can now also support the argument by citing examples, theories and research. That feels pretty good.
Thesis and viva are still unimaginably distant, and anything could happen between now and then. But very importantly, I’m enjoying the process tremendously. So far at least, I appear to have avoided the common pitfalls. It is MY research project, designed and initiated by me, aligned with my professional experience and under my own control. I’m privileged to have two excellent supervisors with whom I have a supportive team dynamic. The fees are, thankfully, still affordable and even good value, given what is provided in return (most notably quality supervision, access to journals and workspace). The university is a mere 3 miles from where I live. I can still work and earn a living without falling behind (and a huge THANK YOU to all the wonderful people who have employed me this year).
In short, at this point and quite unusually in life, all is working exactly as I might want. That gut instinct from 12 months ago seems to have been a good ‘un!