It’s nearly the end of Trinity Term now, as evidenced by the wonderfully long evenings and occasional almost-summer’s day. My obsession with punting remains, but my luck seems to have deserted me and my last few forays on the river have been accompanied by decidedly less-than-magical weather. Still, I hold out hope for sunny days to come!
The main excitement of Trinity for us First Year DPhils is the Transfer of Status, the first proper milestone of our degrees. Essentially the purpose is to verify that, given six months or so of research, those research proposals which we threw together for our DPhil applications way back at the start of our master’s programme have now blossomed into something relatively coherent and feasible—and to someone other than us and our supervisors. The ‘transfer of status’ refers to our official transition, upon successful completion of the process, from Probationary Research Students (PRS) to fully-fledged DPhil Students.
The faculties all have slightly different timelines for this, but in the History Faculty, a revised research proposal and a 5,000-word writing sample (either an expanded project proposal or some related piece of research) are due at the end of Hilary Term. (The deadline is somewhat flexible, and I had no trouble getting an extra fortnight to polish things up over the Easter Vacation.) As part the requirements, we also all assembled in All Souls’ during 9th week to spend the day giving each other 20-minute presentations on our research.
Over the Easter Vacation, we were then sent invitations to attend our ‘transfer interview’, mostly during 1st week of Trinity. For these, one faculty member acts as interviewer for every student in that year, while a second interviewer is added for each interview based on the closeness of their research speciality.
Nearly all of us, it should be said, passed in and out of quick, 25-minute interviews with flying colours, with nothing more serious added than a ‘Have you considered X?’ or ‘It might be interesting to look into Y’.
Unfortunately, I was one of the exceptions.
I’d had a feeling that the breadth of my research proposal might cause issues, and my fears were pretty much confirmed when my knock at the door was followed by silence, then ‘Please wait a minute!’, succeeded by rapid whispers. When I was admitted and directed into an armchair, and the obligatory remarks about the weather were out of the way, one of the interviewers assumed a solemn face and assured me in a kind voice that it wasn’t my actual intellectual capabilities they had concerns about, but they did feel obliged to discuss …
Well, the long and short of it (after over an hour of discussion which I’m afraid I only partly remember) was that they were recommending ‘minor changes’ to my proposal, based on what they had deemed overly-ambitious breadth and lack of precision on certain points. (In transfer terms, ‘minor changes’ are those which can be completed within a few weeks and just require a re-submission of the revised documents, as opposed to the more serious ‘referral’, which would mean having to repeat the whole transfer process again next term.)
Actually, although I naturally would have preferred to have just passed straight through, I found the transfer interview itself to be quite a useful experience. It’s not easy to be challenged on your still-inchoate ideas by two skeptical-looking academics and then on the spot to come up with reasoned, evidenced arguments in return. There’s a real temptation to become defensive, or else, in trying not to be defensive, to become too acquiescent. Fortunately, my worst fear—that the memory of everything I’ve read these past few months would fly out of my head as soon as I entered the room—wasn’t realized, and although I obviously wasn’t able to completely convince them, I did feel that I gave a decent account of myself. There’s nothing better than being asked a question which you know you can answer with just the right bit from that perfect primary source!
The revision of my proposal (covering, most notably, a substantially shorter time period) inevitably involved a somewhat delicate negotiation between the interviewers’ comments and my supervisor’s opinions, which in the end probably left no one entirely happy. As of Wednesday, however, the revised version has been passed, so I am now officially what I have been calling myself all along, a DPhil Student in History.