My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Seminar at the V&A

Some time back my supervisor had forwarded on to me (and the rest of the research group) an e-mail about a seminar to be held at the V&A where Emma would be presenting part of her PhD work. I knew her through the National Archives (she had worked there for a while, but has now left for a post abroad), while Linda (a research assistant in the centre) knew her through conferences etc., and in Emma’s new job they will be project partners in different institutions. So yesterday we both decided to get ourselves to the V&A (none of us had ever been before ;)) to hear more about her work (and also maybe in a way support her?…she has her viva next week…if I was her I would probably be quite stressed to say the least ;)).

Emma’s PhD was concerned with ‘Investigating the Characterisation and Stability of Polyamide 6,6 in Heritage Artefacts’ (Polyamide-6,6 is better known as Nylon for those non-chemists out there). She went through the statistical/chemometric analysis she went through for using a non-destructive technique (NIR) to get a classification method for these materials in textiles. Then she went on to discuss methods for characterising aged and un-aged nylons and the results she obtained.

The work was of course great…but I had heard her speak at a workshop in Ljubljana I attended in November, and of course had spoken to her when I visited the TNA for my work (she was a great supporter there…I will miss her help :)), so it wasn’t new to me. However, the main thing that impressed me was her language. I’m so envious! One of the problems I am encountering with presentations is that often you are presenting to an audience with such a variable background that you cannot assume anything. This means that targeting your audience is a balancing act on a very tight rope between going over your audience’s head, or not telling your audience anything new. Both these approaches could easily alienate them, making your presentation quite ineffective. However, with Emma, the situation was quite different. She manages to explain the most complex things in the most simple of words which while everyone understands are still explaining the idea/theory/method correctly such that a person in the field would not consider that any corners are being cut.

I still have not found this balance…I tend to try to make sure that everything I am saying is technically correct, but this often means that my audience finds it hard to understand (or at least parts do). On the other hand when I see that people are not understanding I tend to dumb it down too much, at the same time compromising the correctness of what I am saying. I must say I was enthralled by the definitions and language she was using, and on the way back I was surprised that also Linda commented on this. Hope I manage to get somewhere close soon…I wish I could find the words to explain to people what I am doing simply but correctly, without getting the blank stares I normally get!

In a way however sometimes I also get the feeling that the people I am talking do not even try to understand…they think that this being a PhD should make the subject matter beyond them and that they will never understand, or if they understand for some reason they are undermining the importance of my research…that often infuriates me inside. I DO want people to know what I am doing…and to discuss what I am doing with other…you don’t have to be an expert in the field to be able to discuss things. Sometimes all I need is the ideas from someone who is looking in from outside, and can see the complete picture. Cannot wait till I acquire the skills to pitch my language at the right level!

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August 2009
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