Contributed by Tomás Irish
Do you consider your PhD to be a job or a vocation?
It’s a vocation which I try to treat like a job.
In 20 words or less, tell us why you decided to do a PhD:
I’ll try to do so in one hyphenated word: self-indulgence.
A PhD is a bit like a chugger; it’s always there, and it is occasionally very annoying. There is no escape. You can put in your eight or nine hours a day and still find it tugging at your sleeve when you go to bed. There are – amazingly – times when I do not want to think about history or anything even tangentially linked to it. Unlike in many jobs (I suspect), there is no real ‘off’ switch when it comes to academic work; not in the evenings, not at the weekends. This was – for me – probably the single most difficult thing to get to grips with. If you spend all of your day thinking about a very specific period and aspect of history, it tends to get stuck in your brain. This can be an irritant when all you want to do is watch Masterchef.
Describing the average week in doing my PhD is a tricky business. Having completed two years, I can say with a degree of certainty that I have something of an all-or-nothing approach to work. Some weeks are spent searching endlessly for something to read or reading something mindlessly which is not really of any great relevance, but which you try to convince yourself is just so you feel you have accomplished something by six o’clock on Friday. Others are flat out: like when there is a deadline to be made; or when one useful reference snowballs into another and another; or when you reach the Promised Land known as The Archives.
Archival research is, of course, central to most historical research. A complicating factor in my own work is that all of my archives are located abroad (in Britain, in France and the USA). I have undertaken research trips of varying lengths over the course of the two years, but of course having to undertake trips at all adds to the stop-start nature of my research. The upside to this is, obviously, that I get to spend time away from Dublin in beautiful foreign cities full of interesting things to see and do. The downside is that the bulk of this time in said cities is spent locked away in a dusty archive and that you never get to do many interesting things aside from pick apart the foibles of the archivist.
I do not mean to suggest that doing a PhD is a chore. For me, doing a PhD is a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself completely in a subject which you are (or were) interested in. Personally, having the freedom to explore different aspects of a subject on your own terms is a great intellectual challenge and at the best of times is hugely enjoyable. The going is not always so easy, of course, but the peaks tend to outweight the troughs. I may, however, revise this assessment in a year when I am trying to write up the damn thing.