When is an assessment a good thing?..

…by Catherine / from the United Kingdom / PhD Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society / 1st Year

One of the challenges of a PhD is the open-ended-ness of it. My first 6 months are basically going to be spent reading, which sounds wonderfully leisurely and conjures up images of being on a deserted island with nothing but a cocktail in one hand and a paperback in the other. However, to my mind, the reality is that the reading phase is one of the most trying times! I love reading but to do so for months with the broad goal of deepening understanding and honing your approach to something is difficult. It is made more so by the fact that sociology is not my background so I have to Google every. Other. Word. Ouch. For me, the process of reading raises all sorts of questions: What should you read? How much should you read in a day? How should you record what you’ve read? How do you know when you’ve read enough? There are no clear milestones in place, just a lot of slogging.

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This made my 10-week report almost welcome. Almost. I was pleased to have a milestone and a checkpoint to make sure I was on the right lines, but was also concerned about being assessed. I began by reading over some examples of 10-week reports, which were all very varied. This variation made it clear there wasn’t just one way of doing it. I began mine with a summary of the background information I had pulled together, giving an overview of the state of play of health technology assessment, patient groups and interests. This was satisfying as it let me weave together my knowledge from reading papers, giving me a concrete output from my weeks of reading.

In the next section of the report I listed the research questions I had agreed with my supervisors before giving an outline of my methodology. Describing how I planned on spending my next three years made everything feel that much more real! It was also satisfying to see the progress I had made with regards my research questions, which had taken a journey from being very general, introductory questions to specific, carefully crafted enquiries. I look back on meeting people and explaining my research to them when I first arrived and cringe – it was so vague! There were a lot of kind smiles and nods. I say that with full awareness that the good intentions of my 10-week report may well change too. I’ve spoken to various PhD students whose research questions have changed substantially since their 10-week report. I still have many months of reading before I start my empirical research and can easily imagine finding something that leads me astray.

Ultimately the process of synthesising the report and the subsequent rounds of iteration with feedback from my supervisors has shaped the questions I plan on addressing. It’s been a useful process that has given me a tangible outcome from my last 10-weeks work. So sometimes an assessment can be a good thing, not just a hurdle or a stress. That’s me done with assessments until the first-year review, which, despite my experience of this assessment, I’m definitely not looking forward to!


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