The APG: or, First Year Assessments

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I've seen lots of first year students arrive and enjoy revelling in the first few months of their PhD. It's a honeymoon period, really, and it can't last forever, because the first major blip in this particularly 'complicated' relationship comes towards the end of that first year. We called them APGs: Advanced Postgraduate Assessments. Essentially, until you have sat and passed this assessment, you are on probation: this is the event which officially validates your position as a PhD candidate.

These assessments vary in name and in precise nature – even within my old university, they varied massively from department to department. I have a feeling that my colleagues and I got off lightly with a 3000 word report and a grilling – and it was a grilling – by two or three of the department's staff members. Other departments asked for a first thesis chapter, a presentation, a large quantity of analysed data. Because of this variation, I can't really legitimately talk about what to do and how to prepare, aside from to say: read your departmental handbook and the instructions for your APG you were given. And if you weren't given them, ask for them.

Other than that, the only thing I can do is understand. I have been in that position myself, and I have seen many many students go through it. I've seen previously sensible people turn into gibbering balls of terror. The levels of stress I've seen exhibited at the prospect of sitting an APG have astonished even me: the prototypical anxiety junkie.

Thing is, if you've worked hard and you've produced the beginnings of a viable project, you should be fine. It might sound like a glib thing to say, but universities don't really want their students to fail – particularly not their postgraduate researchers. Essentially, all you have to do is present your project to them with sense, reason and confidence, in whatever medium they ask you to do so.

The main issue, probably, with an APG is not that it is itself frightening or impossible to pass – it isn't. It is that your own personal level of confidence and belief in your project has to be tested and pushed so early on in your research, and the fact that this is probably, up until this point, something unknown.

There is a difference, though, between the unknown and the unknowable. As I've said in previous articles, to face criticism and questioning is hard – but these difficult situations are the life-blood of intellectual enquiry. Explorers have to face the unknown before they find new worlds, they have to face opposition and argument in order to prove the value of their ideas. Fundamental to a PhD is an idea which can be believed in, even if time and debate are the only way to make that so. The APG tests both that idea, and the student's ability to stand up for it. Criticism is not the end of the world – it is the beginning.

The construction of a world, the transformation of nature through productive activity, only succeeds because of a daring challenge in the course of which everything easy is discounted. However, the goal of a protected, a satisfied, and secure life also finds expression in this audacity.’ Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature


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