One month ago I attended my first international conference that was directly linked to my PhD area of study. This was a chance not to be missed, as working in Medieval French literature means I am in somewhat of a niche market when it comes to speaking at conferences where I can talk about thesis without having to give a five-minute introduction on the context of the romance I’m working on, and of the field in which my study is situated. The International Courtly Literature Society meets internationally every three years, and I was accepted to present a paper at this year’s five-day congress in Lisbon alongside five plenary lectures and 110 other papers. Among these papers, and more specifically in my panel, was a paper given by a leading French academic who has worked on and recently translated the romance upon which my thesis is focused, Guillaume de Palerne, so I arrived in Lisbon feeling both excited and rather nervous at the prospect of discussing my work with real experts in the field.
Despite the initial nerves and apprehension of presenting my work and myself to delegates from 14 different countries, my experience of the congress was a very positive one. There were of course obvious divides between the different nationalities during coffee and lunch breaks, and the well established cliques of professors were easy to spot. However, the atmosphere was entirely welcoming and friendly, and much less intimidating that at other large conferences that I’ve attended and spoken at. I got the chance to meet young academics with whom I could have non work-related discussions, and lecturers and professors also made a concerted effort to engage with the ‘younger’ members of the society, offering supportive and insightful questions and advice about the work of this ‘next generation’ of medievalists.
I’m not one for self-conscious networking, and dread the thought of forcing myself upon someone simply because they could be ‘useful to know’ at some stage in my career. Luckily, there was no such need to forge forced friendships at this congress, and I left feeling a lot happier about entering academia. More importantly, the positive feedback I received on my paper gave me a real confidence boost – if the current leading expert agrees with my ideas then I must be doing something right.
So now I have returned to Sheffield, and to the thesis, the question is how to convert this positive experience into a constructive part of the PhD experience – how to use it to help me write my thesis. After being on an academic high for a few weeks, I’ve come to the realisation that although my ideas are good, they must be committed to paper, well explained, and bound up in my thesis in order for me to take the next step forward. The timing of this congress between the end of my second and start of my third year (I’m still desperately clinging on to the ‘second year’ label), is opportune for me to reflect on where I am with my PhD, and what I still have to do. I have come a long way in my research over the past two years, and feel proud of my paper in Lisbon. Yet the path before me is still long, arduous, and seems almost never ending. However, just as I had to face my fears and present my paper in Lisbon, the only real way forward is just to get on with it…