politics of the hap

Fieldnotes from elsewhere: Loneliness, emotional entanglements and the PhD.
December 17, 2014, 11:02 pm
Filed under: PhD chat | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m finally reaching the end of a challenging year. This second year of the PhD I have spent planning and carrying out fieldwork. I have travelled miles around the country, I have met a host of different faces who shared with me their stories. Stories about how it feels to lose the person you love, stories of how to recover and how to fail, stories about how to help and support flourishing. I’ve encountered great generosity, I have encountered disinterest and rejection, I’ve been blessed with luck and chance and been challenged by obstacles and blockages.

If I could do it all over again I would do it differently. I procrastinated away months due to fear: fear I wasn’t ready, fears over my ability, fear I wouldn’t find the data I needed. I faced many ethics committees and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I learnt research was a lot about unanswered emails and phonecalls and fruitless journeys into forms and admin. I learnt a lot of people really don’t care about your little project or they just don’t get it.

If I could do it over again I would do it differently. But I’ve realised I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. And I’ve got so angry at it all. Angry at the process you have to go through. Angry at the loneliness – angry at the loneliness most of all. I accept now that the isolation and loneliness is an inextricable part of the PhD process, but its not an easy acceptance. Because its preposterous really. And many people will not understand what I’m trying to say. And there lies the seed of the loneliness: no-one can understand what it feels like to be me in this research.

I have written in the past about researching your own life and the crises and freedoms it can bring. It was a hideously painful article to write, but more painful was the research experience from which the article was borne. The PhD experience has been different after clearing those cobwebs, but still the research encounter has left me feeling heavy and burdensome. I left interviews feeling much heavier than I began. I would go home and curl up in my bed with a fuzzy mind. I started to feel tired before the interview would begin as though in anticipation of the burden I would be carrying home later. It was such a long journey to access and find participants by the time it came to meet and speak to them, I was already exhausted.

The burden though was not something given to me by the participants – sometimes it was – but it was me too taking something from them. I was over-identifying, putting myself in their shoes. What if that happened to me? What if I lost the person I love most? How would I live? Being able to feel is what allows me to enter the world of my participants. This is essential to capture their story. And yet in the process of entering, becoming immersed, it is easy to lose oneself and boundaries as a researcher. I couldn’t tell where my stuff ended and where their stuff began. I was reliving my past through them and I was imagining a future that hasn’t happened through their telling of their past.

But when it became too much about me I was no longer listening to their story. Empathy is a delicate balance of which there are no clear guidelines. It was an ongoing negotiation that only became easier when I became more confident in my capacity as a researcher. Even if that confidence was a performance, the maintenance of composure provided a boundary through which I could control what I let in and what I didn’t. It was a filter of sorts, a necessary one because it protected me from taking it too personally, and it protected my participants from me distorting their stories.

People always want to know why you are doing the research you are, what are your motives, what is your reasoning. I am still searching for the right answer to that question. I haven’t quite measured my distance from my research object, I don’t know how I stand in relation to it. Sure its personal. But its also pragmatic. Its contradictory and conflicting. There’s no easy way to describe that relation.

Undertaking the fieldwork for this research has put me in a vulnerable position professionally, mentally and emotionally. Professionally it pushed me into situations I wasn’t at all comfortable and so I avoided and avoided and nearly gave up. It pushed me to very unpleasant places that I can’t look back and simply say I am glad about because it helped me grow. I think there may have been nicer routes to learn the same things. At times I have wondered why I was inflicting such a situation on myself for so little return. I can’t blame it all on any one thing. It was everything all together, and having no control over emotions that would make me come undone again and again. I made no sense to those around me a lot of the time.

I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. It had to be messy and heartbreaking. I had to feel isolated from the person I love the most because it was a journey I had to take alone. And it feels sad, but in that sadness is a purpose. Just as in the stories people so generously allowed me to listen to, the sadness has a purpose. The purpose is in writing a story that hasn’t been told. And its a story that can’t be told from outside. So whether it pains me or not, its a story that has to be told from the vantage point of the liminal space of the researcher. And that’s okay because in the space of liminality all types of things can happen. There’s possibility and alternatives in the liminal space even if there’s no certainty and stability. That’s how things happen: just close your eyes and take a leap. But if you can, I ask, keep holding my hand as I venture down the rabbit hole.


Why being a PhD student is actually kind of amazing.
June 19, 2013, 9:07 pm
Filed under: Academe, PhD chat | Tags:


Sometimes it would seem that doing a PhD is possibly the most terrible life decision you can make. And it is often from my fellow PhD students especially those coming to the end of their thesis, in the begrudged ‘writing up’ stage, that this sentiment emerges. As the newbie in my faculty (only 6 months in) my beaming smile at the outset of my studies was soon replaced for the cynical grouchiness of my colleagues. It seems it is in the nature of the PhD student to be persistently fed up with all that is offered to them. As a small mandatory requirement all students in my faculty are requested to be on campus for one day a week. Instead of realizing this to be the minimal demand it is – er we get to work from home in our pyjamas the other 6 days of the week?? – we moan as though it is the biggest affliction on our lives.

As someone who has worked in retail for many years struggling to get a funded studentship (applied 4 times, did one year self-funded whilst working and dropped out), when I finally got a fully-funded PhD place, I relished everyday I didn’t have to stand in a shop and smile at people and feel undervalued, and I also cherished having got to the age of 28 and yet again successfully avoiding the 9-5 office life which to me has always felt like a fate worse than retail. So to counteract the dreary cynicism we PhD students have I want to list and celebrate the many amazing aspects of being a PhD student. But first let’s face up to those con’s of doing a PhD:

1) It’s actually fucking hard. It’s hard to get a funded PhD place and it’s hard to sustain it and it’s hard to finish in three years.

2) You feel pointless 90% of the time. As a PhD student you are in some bizarre limbo, neither fully fledged academic but neither totally unworthy of attention. You are always fighting to get your voice heard.

3) Other people, namely non-academics, make you feel even more pointless. “So what do you actually do?” and “That’s sounds pretty easy” and “Is that all you’ve done?” and “So, what?” are all comments spoken by the sort of un-informed cretin who thinks that work means travelling to a place and travelling back everyday wearing formal wear and talking about figures and spreadsheets. Sometimes, in the work-life of a PhD student it takes three weeks to write two questions. It just does.

4) You are very poor all the time and subsequently continually hungry all the time.

5) Social life evaporates rapidly due to aforementioned poverty when everyone gets sick of your sponging. Not to mention the gulf that emerges because no-one understands nor cares why you cannot just hang out whenever they want: “But you don’t have a job?!”

6) Small matters of high probability of significant mental disturbance, poor dietary habits, hygiene becomes slack.

7) Admin BS. The life of a PhD student involves a considerable quota of admin BS. ‘Skills profile’, probationary assessments, quarterly reviews, meeting notes and so on and blah, the research councils and REF and their professionalization of academic work means even PhDers are not immune from the paperwork circus.

Ok so now on with the good stuff!

1. FREEDOM FROM THE BOSSES. You are your own boss. Aside from the aforementioned admin BS, a few hoops to jump through, but for the most part (95%) you structure your own agenda. After all it’s your research the university is funding and supporting, the other 5% is a small price to pay.

2. You don’t have to see people every day if you don’t want to. NO SMALL TALK EVER AGAIN.

3. You can work 9am-5pm, or 5pm-9am, or 9am-12pm and then again 6pm-8pm, you make time your own.

4. Never have to commute again. Or get squashed with all the suits on the tube. Aside from meeting supervisors every couple weeks and the odd faculty meeting and events (normally with free lunch 😉 ), you don’t have to go outside. Except for food which you can’t really afford anyway, a weekly trip for bread, vegetables and peanut butter and you’re sorted.

5. No I don’t feel like showering today, and that’s okay.

6. I was going to get dressed today, but nah.

7. Friend calls: whoops pressed ignore.

8. Friends calls again: ‘So I’m near your place, I can come over in 20 minutes?’ ‘Umm’ (a bowl of pasta is on my lap and I haven’t yet got round to putting on underwear, its 3pm), ‘Sure’.

9. Yeah I’m gonna take a break. WHENEVER I WANT.

10. It’s sunny outside, better take those books to the park. Working and sunbathing, loving life.

11. Just gonna have a cloud-staring break for half an hour.

12. I can listen to whatever music I want. At whatever volume. And sing along. And dance. Oh yeah.

13. Aside from those few that like to make you feel small and pointless, people think you’re really clever. “So what do you do?”, “Oh I’m just studying for a PhD”, “Oh wow I couldn’t do that!” (blushes) “Ahem well yeah I am kind of a genius…”

13. The limbo of being a PhD student is not just sometimes unnerving, it is also it’s beauty. You don’t have to be categorized. You’re creating something. You’re outside of that world of work with its set hours and scheduled lunch breaks and enforced uniforms. Initially this is unsettling. To go from working full-time in a retail setting: no time for anything, to be around people all the time, becoming brain dead, just a smiley robot – to days with only books for company, days where I had to organize my own time, days I would spend totally alone with little or no contact with friends or the outside world, was terrifying. I literally had anxiety attacks. But slowly new patterns form. Spending a lot of time alone is inevitable when undertaking a PhD. But this isn’t isolation. I realise I don’t feel lonely because I have the minds and thoughts of the writers and philosophers I am reading with me (spoken like a true book nerd). Also you sort of melt into the quiet. Living in bustling East London I am never too far from noise and people. But the quiet of an empty library or your desk becomes a special place – scary sometimes yes – but that is why we chose this path. Or at least it should be. If you do a PhD just for the status or career options (in the current academic climate a PhD won’t get you far anyway – especially not in terms of money – you should know this!) then you will come stuck pretty quick. I chose a PhD not for the prestige being a Dr might one day bring me, but because it gave me space and freedom, even if this was sometimes coupled with relative poverty and hunger. The space and freedom to unravel a question I had been pondering for many years. A question that was both personal and collective, part of me and yet so much bigger. The quiet is not scary then, its just life with all the trivialities emptied out. It’s space pure and simple, and it’s yours.

14) This time will never come again. What other opportunity will grant you this space and independence? I have heard many a senior academic reminisce on their PhD days, as if they would do anything to reclaim that intellectual and professional freedom again. But now they have too much to lose. The PhD is in many ways a bizarre relic, one of many academia loves to retain as part of its tradition. And though many revisions are added to the process, at heart I like to see it as a creative endeavour, an art form all of it’s own. Who know’s what will happen after? Everyone loves to ask “So what are you going to do with it?” because as we know degrees are just things we collect in the race to get up the ladder to career and wealth. But education is an end in itself. Perhaps I should have visions of ‘changing practice’ or saving lives or becoming some esteemed thinker. But I don’t. I’m just in this journey right now. And it’s actually kind of amazing.