As PhD or master’s students we all have some good days and some days where we lack motivation or feel like we’re maybe not being a good enough student. That’s normal and comes as part of the package deal, gratis with the fact that you can control your own timetable and are responsible for your own progress. An extra half an hour lie in? Sure, I probably need it. Put the extra load of laundry on instead of writing that abstract? Sure, why not – the laundry has to be done at some point, anyway. Yet, on other days you couldn’t be more ‘studenty’ if you tried and you totally boss it.
So now, as I’m coming to the end of my postgrad adventure at SAS (3 years and 94,000 words later), I think it is a fitting time to reflect on those most productive days. These are the clearest in my mind, and really gave me the buzz of being a postgraduate student. Actually, on these days I was rather proud of myself and, considering the fact that the majority of us find ourselves, at some point or other, anxiously gathered underneath this infamous cloud that is ‘imposter syndrome’, this sense of accomplishment is quite a feat!
Let me paint the picture.
8:00: You wake up, put the kettle on, check emails, and have a read through a few articles you downloaded from JSTOR late last night.
9:45: You’re showered and fuelled for the morning thanks to some peanut butter on toast (with a bit of banana to ease the conscience). You grab your laptop, books, earphones, snacks (fruit and a cheeky choccy bar), and you head out the door.
Walking to the tube, you’re filled with purpose. You are on a mission: you have references you need to find and a piece of evidence you’re searching for that will glue your chapter together. Some may call you a student, but on these days you like to call yourself an investigator or chief detective as you head to the city which holds millions of books, looking for traces of an idea with nothing but a theory and a few potential leads. Then a slight nervousness hits – will you even find what you’re looking for? You tell yourself it’s all a part of the big PhD game. You vs. the books and online library catalogues.
10:00: You jump on the tube and take your pick from the row of empty seats. You feel pretty smug that you’re avoiding the worst of rush hour – ah, one of the many joys of student life!
10:20: The tube screeches into Kings Cross (which still reminds you of Harry Potter after all these years). You’re in the heart of the city now. You follow the big (almost boastful) signs to the British Library and reluctantly walk quickly past Lola’s Cupcakes stand. You free yourself from the lively stream of fast-paced, suitcase-pulling, walking-whilst-newspaper-reading Londoners and tourists and step into the peace and tranquillity of the British Library.
You are surrounded by people who have a love of books and a thirst for knowledge. Each person here, though working on their own project, shares a joint endeavour. Quite frankly, it’s rather inspiring. You wave your membership card to the security staff as though it’s a passport and feel pretty clever when reciting your seat number to the people behind the desk when you collect your pile of books.
12:30: A few hours later, you’ve made pretty good progress. That calls for coffee, a sandwich, and a change of scenery! You pick up a cheeky latte from Pret (other coffee shop chains available) from the corner outside the BL.
You take a left with your little mug of warm motivation in your hand as you make your way down a quieter street. You re-focus your mind and make a mental list of what you are still searching for. At the top: that little evasive gem hidden in the vast caves of scholarship that, after being mined and refined, will really hold your argument together and make it sparkle…
Before you know it, you’re pulled away from your thoughts and questionable metaphors to find yourself surrounded by the familiar Bloomsbury buzz. You find it hard to not take inspiration from all of those Bloomsbury intellectuals, philosophers, and artists, and imagine that you’re walking in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf or E. M Forster. You know you’re in the right place.
You take a little detour as your coffee is still hot and you know that even an attempt to sneak coffee into the library is not worth doing (although wouldn’t it be nice?!). You head through the green spaces surrounding Senate House: Tavistock Square, Gordon Square, and Woburn Square – who knew London was so green?
13:00: With Russell Square on your left and the amazingly useful and conveniently located Wiener Library on your right, you arrive at Senate House. Steeped in history, it remains a pretty striking building to walk into with its imposing white facade. Yet, it pretty much feels like home now that you know your way around.
You head straight up to the fourth floor and, after quickly checking out the library’s latest exhibition on ‘Staging Magic’, you find your favourite spot, marking your territory by building a protective wall of books around you and by popping in your earphones.
17:45: Hours pass and you emerge victorious! You’ve finally found what you needed, finished off your chapter, and even sent it to your supervisors, just in time to head to one of the evening seminars organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research.
You feel extra pleased with yourself that you brought along last night’s dinner in Tupperware that you quickly heat up in the kitchen on the second floor. It’s a good day: you feel like a pretty successful student and have this ‘responsible and organised adult thing’ down to a tee.
19:00: After an inspiring seminar – you’ve made several pages of notes to weave into your own thesis (with references, of course!) – you quickly grab your bag and leave. You’re a student and you’re in London, which means the night is still young. You embrace the hubbub of the Holborn streets and stretch your legs for 20 minutes as you head to your Dutch class at Kings College on the Strand. The best thing about it – apart from learning a new language and broadening your skill set – is that it’s free thanks to the UoL connection between SAS and Kings! Dankjewel!
22:00 You’re finally home, pretty exhausted but also quite proud of yourself. You fall into bed in a sort of new-knowledge coma – the same feeling of exhaustion and satisfaction you have after a big, hearty meal.
On days such as these I realise how many opportunities, experiences, and resources are open to me as a postgrad student in London. There is a sense of cohesiveness and belonging as I migrate from library to library with my little red laptop and bag of books. The hustle and bustle of the city and seclusion and peace of the libraries seem to offer the best of both worlds; they offer a chance to escape – and appreciate – the other for a little while.
Not only can I now reflect upon how cool it is to be studying in this vibrant city, but also how fortunate I am that SAS offers a postgraduate experience like no other; its research facilities, range of seminars and events, and dedication to research in the humanities are second to none.
Written by Steph Homer