One is told from the very beginning of a PhD that it is incredibly unlikely that the plan which you apply to institutions with will end up being your final piece. There are always different facets which you haven’t included in your proposal – particularly with regards to anything which sits within the Arts and Humanities school – which will end up being incredibly important within your project, and which could perhaps even form the focus of the whole.
There is a limited frame in which to impress with your proposal; many Universities will ask for a specific number of words, or will want you to present it in such a way that you answer the questions which they have set prospective students. Of course you will be passionate about your original subject, whether it is related to Modernist female authors like mine, the Romantic poets, or early Middle Age manuscripts. You will have chosen a period and topic which reflects your greatest interests, and which you feel happy about working on for a period of three to four years.
It can be rather galling, then, when your supervisors throw curveballs. One of my supervisors was happy to work with my original plan, simply adding elements from the Medical Humanities at points, and suggesting that I align the ‘madness’ which I discuss with treatments for shellshocked and the like in the First World War. I loved this idea, particularly as it marries together the two subjects which I studied for my undergraduate degree (English and History), and was more than happy to incorporate that element. I felt comfortable that I would be able to work on what I was interested in, without having to stray too far from my comfort zone. All of the reading which I had completed up to that point was useful for such a project, and I knew a lot of the theory which I would be tackling from past lectures and history books.
When I first met with my second supervisor, things changed dramatically. She was full of ideas as to how I could link different elements together, and whilst I certainly appreciate the assistance and suggestions, it can be rather difficult to narrow them down to one workable idea without completely eliminating something of interest and importance to the whole project.
In my first meeting with both supervisors, the amount of recapped ideas which were being thrown around was a touch overwhelming; I was unable to pick something concrete to focus upon, as there was so much to consider. I consciously thought that as both of my supervisors are experts in their fields, I should listen to both, and try and incorporate as many ideas as I could. Despite this, I feel that a 100,000 word piece would be far too short to encompass all of the suggestions thrown at me in just the first two hour-long meetings, and the whole could potentially become muddled as a result, something which I am loath to let happen.
The uncertainty was evidently etched on my face, for I was told by both supervisors that whatever they suggested, this was still my piece of work, and I could approach it in whichever way I saw fit. They reassured me that I was able to write and research in my own way, and that both would be available for any questions which I might have; they were essentially there for my benefit. This made me feel miles better about my project, and rather than wondering how to extract a workable idea which best suited what I wanted to look at, I felt positive that I could play around with different approaches before narrowing down which I was most interested in.
To conclude, throwing curveballs within projects is something which is perhaps inevitable at this level, but at no time should you feel overwhelmed by it. The thesis, or Master’s dissertation, is your own; regardless of any guidance which you are given, you are mature and intellectual enough to choose what you want to write about, and which books and theories you want to include. You, after all, are the one who has applied and who has been accepted to your University of choice based on your original proposal; you are more than likely paying for the privilege of studying and living where you do. You need to feel content in your project, and contentedness is sure to make your finished essay something which you are ultimately very proud of. So, fellow academics, throw that curveball right back.