I found this to be a funny dream in many ways, partly because, whilst waking, I don't think I'm an especially fretful or anxious PhD student. (Indeed, a good friend has commented, with a hint of wonder, at my relatively laid-back mien of late. Apparently all other PhD students that she has known have been rather less calm most of the time). But this dream would suggest that, at some level, my mind is happily indulging in all of the classic stresses and concerns involved in researching and writing an 80,000 word thesis. The geographer, of course, represented the fairly common fear that one will dedicate years to a given research project, only to discover that someone else has just pipped them to the post, somehow coming to the exact same conclusions they have, using the exact same sources and with a very similar structure. I think it's fairly natural to fear that one's research will somehow be made defunct by the speedier or superior efforts of others. There's so much emphasis in the humanities on work being 'original', after all. But, more rationally, I think that the mountain ranges of history are more than big enough for multiple people to work on them from multiple angles.
I suppose that my slight hesitation in handing over my draft text to the geographer, and her angry reaction when I wouldn't, represents the fear not of having your research beaten to the punch, but of having it stolen. On one level it surprised me that this concern popped up in my dream, because on a conscious level I think it's very important to share work. Indeed, I feel very conflicted about the 'academic good conduct' clause held by my current university, which states that undergraduates who show their work to a classmate who then copies it are equally liable to be punished. When I first read this I thought this was a problematic clause because it promotes a sense of suspicion and discourages the sharing of ideas and mutual assistance among students, some of whom may be research students and academics in training. Fear of plagiarism should never be a reason not to share or distribute your work, because, really, what's the point of three years' worth of research if at the end of the day the only people who read the product of it are your supervisor, examiners, and parents?
However, in the dream, I think my reluctance to hand over my text had less to do with a fear of plagiarism and more to do with a desire to maintain an excuse to spend some time with a like-minded scholar. Consciously, I certainly don't feel especially lonely, emotionally speaking - I have made some excellent friends at St Andrews, and I have the minor reality of a husband to prevent any solo moping at home or in front of my desk - but I think there is a certain inherent intellectual loneliness in doing any piece of long-term research. The thing about trying to produce 'original' research is that, in theory, no-one else's work - even on related material - is going to be exactly the same. The unique combination of sources and secondary texts, and the ways in which they interact, is yours and yours alone. That's exciting, and wonderful, but until they invent a real-life equivalent of the Vulcan mind-meld, you're never going to be able to just sit and chat with someone with the exact same sources and texts in their mind. That isn't to say that you can't have deeply rewarding conversations with your supervisor and your PhD colleagues, but, at the end of the day, no one is ever going to be as enthusiastic about or invested in your chosen topic as you yourself are. But I do think it's quite natural to wish every now and then that you could sit down and chat with someone about your topic in the same sort of way two Trek fans might dissect the latest JJ Abrams film - with equal fascination, understanding, concern, and sheer breathless enjoyment on both sides.
At the end of the day, I think the dream came down to one thing. I find the topic of early modern interactions with and attitudes towards the landscape, specifically mountains, absolutely awesome. To me, it seems completely reasonable that there should be hundreds of other people who feel the same way, and who are out there beavering away on the same subject, potentially stealing my thunder. I like to think that a lot of PhD students feel that way - after all, it takes a lot to maintain the mental energy required to work on the same topic day in, day out, for three years. But, of course, we're really all working in our own little niches, and the hundreds of other researchers nipping at our heels are really just phantoms. But it is a shame that the fellow early-modern-mountain-history-fan equally does not exist.
Has anyone else ever had any thesis nightmares, or did most people grow out of such subconscious academic adventures at the turning-up-for-an-exam-unprepared stage? Do you sometimes wish for a fellow fan of your PhD topic to squeal with you at the latest instalment in your historical research?
* Photographer: Oliver Spalt, www.artweise.de Published under cc-by-2.0 and GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.