Monday, 28 November 2016

PhDs at 'Sea': Sailing and Staying Afloat

Dr Scott Midson is a postdoctoral researcher based at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester. When he's not paddling with nautical metaphors, he explores the relationship between humans and technologies in the interdisciplinary field of posthumanism, connecting these insights to theology using topics such as theological anthropology, and themes such as love. This blog draws on his own experiences when he was a PhD student, and partially on research conducted for an AHRC/North West Consortium DTP- commissioned report, 'Realising Relational Researchers: A Review of PGR Skills, Partnerships, and Employability in the Arts & Humanities', which is being used as a basis for ongoing research into the place of Arts and Humanities in HE and in the wider context of economics, politics, and society. Follow Scott on Twitter at: @scadhu

I like metaphors – they’re great tools to think with, and they offer a useful way of swerving our attention from what’s directly in front of us to help us make innovative and interesting connections or critiques (this is academia, after all, and where would we be without critiques?!) that we otherwise might not have made. And so I offer a not particularly original metaphor for my reflections on the PhD, namely, a nautical one. There are many great metaphors that can be used and that you might be encouraged to explore in various doctoral training sessions – I recall having to design a mountain pictorial metaphor at the dreaded second-year midpoint of my PhD that, although it looked like it had been drawn by a child let loose to doodle with some felt tips and unnecessarily huge flipchart paper, I was oddly proud of – but I’ll stick with the nautical one for this post. (Bear with me: this is being written by the same person that put smiley faces on cloud symbols…)

What most PhD metaphors will highlight is the journey and the turbulence of it. There will be many ups-and-downs throughout the PhD: there will be days where you have intellectual breakthroughs and you’re ready to shake up your field – nay, the whole of academia, nay, the whole world – with your research; but all the same, there will be days where you feel so stressed and overwhelmed with your work that a duvet cocoon and Netflix and coco pops binge are the only options. (Spoiler alert: these vacillations aren’t exclusive to the PhD, either, and it turns out they pop up in postdoc research, too.) There will be times when (here comes the metaphor) you feel like you’re steering the ship adeptly; there will also be times when you’re on turbulent waters and just about ready to abandon ship. Without meaning to downplay either of these feelings, one of the things to be clear about is that you’re not alone.

For me, going through the PhD, that advice wasn’t always the most encouraging. I looked around at the other captains steering their research boats. (Is this also an exercise in the limits of metaphors and the dangers of overstretching them?) While my boat was seemingly tearing away from my control, everyone else seemed confident, capable, and cruising along at a satisfying pace. I couldn’t help but compare myself to other people, and nearly always found myself lacking. But the important thing to note here is that you are never alone in your triumphs or struggles. And you’re not a bad researcher for losing control of your boat/project at times – indeed, this is part of the journey: you don’t necessarily know the destination. If you knew the destination, there would be little point in undertaking PhD research that is supposed to be pioneering and innovative. To do that, you need to embrace what a colleague of mine based in anthropology, Dr Hannah Wadle, has referred to as ‘positive liminality’ in academia and research: it’s about preparing yourself for the choppy seas and accepting that you won’t always have full control of your ship/research. (Here I think back to clinging to my PhD proposal for weeks into the programme like Linus of Schulz’ Peanuts comics with his comfort blanket, only for my final thesis to have evolved into something that addresses somewhat different questions to those I’d originally intended. It took a while to embrace letting go of that proposal…)

So, as PhD students, you bob along in the vast and uncertain waters of the research field. Practically, what would be ideal to have is some kind of a map – but this can’t of course be a conventional map, as your research most likely will end up taking unexpected swerves and turns (much like metaphors themselves). Instead, what I offer – following reflections on my own experience as well as research into the broader context of PhDs in Higher Education, politics, and society – is a conceptual map (I can’t help it – as an Arts & Humanities student, I love a good slightly intangible concept) for navigating the other vessels bobbing along in the ocean with you. This ‘map’, or ‘network schematic’ as I referred to it in my report that I took it from, is designed to provide a way for researchers to reflect on their wider networks in order to make the most of them. There are various stakeholders involved in PhDs, and these will have a key role in matters relating to researcher development, careers and employability, and general researcher wellbeing (which is at least as important as the other sections yet is perhaps the easiest to forget). The networks that these groups – including governmental departments, funding bodies, institutions, industries and organisations – comprise are deeply significant for the PhD and are key to making the most out of it.

Without going into too much detail on the report (as it’s 95 pages long and so would probably be overkill for a blogpost), the point most relevant here is that the PhD, though it may feel isolating, is actually about providing an opportunity to make connections and to capitalise on them. It’s a good idea to look at the bigger picture beyond your research occasionally: where can your thesis take you? What career(s) are you interested in? What other opportunities might enrich your employability and your thesis?

Going back to sea, then, what’s important to note – and this is the value of the metaphor that I’ve admittedly overstretched – is that you may be at the helm of your project, in your thesis-boat, but you are not a lone ranger (I’m not even sure if there’s a nautical equivalent here…). Those around you are not resources to taunt your frustrated thesis-brain by comparing yourself against them (everyone’s research-boats are so different anyway that such comparisons are nearly always fruitless), but are resources for support and assistance. Similarly, and on a related point, it’s not counter-productive to take a couple of moments to take your hands off the wheel, and to map out the networks and connections around you that you can make the most of, not only for your thesis, but also for your wellbeing and your career. Ultimately, they are indeed choppy waters that you’re in, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make a few helpful swerves here and there, both accidental (or ‘serendipitous’) and purposive, and ultimately enjoy the ride. (End of metaphor.)

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The PhD, 2 months in – what I've discovered so far

Jaye Little is an AHRC funded PhD student in Religious Studies at Lancaster University. In her guest post today, she offers insight into some of the things she has learnt and experienced during the beginning stages of her PhD so far. Follow Jaye on Twitter at: @JamieLouiseL

I have been 'on my PhD journey,' as grandiose as that may sound, for around 8 weeks now, and although the process feels like it started a long, long time ago, what with applications and funding, the course itself only started 2 months ago. I want to preface all of this by saying that these experiences and observations are mine and mine alone, and there is no guarantee that your PhD experience will begin like this. I went straight from an undergraduate degree through to a Masters and then to a PhD, with no time off, and so that will also undoubtedly colour my experiences. Things which seem surprising to me might be totally commonplace and expected for you, and that's great.

The move from an undergraduate degree to a taught Masters degree wasn't all that hard, to be honest, as I still took modules and still had a number of set deadlines to produce smaller pieces of work by. There was still an amount of guaranteed contact time with different lecturers, although those hours were reduced, and writing assignments on a number of different topics was familiar to me. However, having started my PhD, there have been 3 main things that have really stood out to me, things that I didn't expect, or otherwise didn't realise would become so important. I want to stress that these are not negative things, but rather simply things that I didn't necessarily see coming.

1. Isolation (and Autonomy)
The number one thing that I have noticed so far is the isolation. While the word itself has a lot of negative connotations, I have not really found myself feeling lonely or sad, but I'll admit that I do miss having a community of other students who were studying the exact same thing as me. I liked being able to moan about certain theories and discuss the set texts with others, and I'm definitely feeling the absence of that network. In turn, I didn't quite expect the sheer amount of freedom that I have been given. As terribly uncool as it sounds, I'm the type of person who likes rules and guidelines, and there is very little of that at PhD level. If it weren't for my supervisor kindly giving me small, manageable tasks to complete every fortnight, I'd have no idea how to get started. Even the tasks that I'm getting on with now are very individual and isolated – a whole lot of reading, and the much more nebulous task of 'thinking about things.'

2. The 'In between' Space
The second most striking thing for me is the way that I seem to be part of a strange, liminal space in between 'student' and 'academic.' I feel like I did already have a sense that this was going to be a prominent part of my PhD study, but I don't think I realised the effect it would have on me. As mentioned above, isolation seems to be inherent to PhD study, and so not quite feeling like you 'connect' with either students or lecturers can be a little tough. I felt this a little bit during my Masters study too, and actually found myself reminiscing about exam revision and taught modules, and wishing that I had more structure to my course. I understand that this is an important part of moving from the student position to the academic position, learning self-directed study skills and developing confidence in my own ability to research, but I do sometimes wish I could break out the index cards and highlighters and study X, Y, and Z topics, write an exam on those topics for a few hours and then be done with it, rather than facing 3+ years of the same topic.

3. Living in the Future
I think the most surprising thing that I have encountered so far is the way in which I feel that I have to live in the future. It's only been 8 or so weeks, and yet the looming spectre of 'what comes after' seems to be ever present, in employability courses, in CV writing workshops, and, most prominently, in the constant warnings from lecturers that the chance of getting an academic job after your PhD is seriously slim. The most stressful thing about all of this is that I seem to be getting conflicting advice from different sources, some say publish early and often, but don't bother with conferences, whereas some say that publishing isn't all that important, as it's more important to get your face known by giving papers, and others say that the only thing you should focus on is writing the PhD itself! I understand that a lot of this is probably me panicking and over analysing, but I never thought I'd be fixated on developing my transferable skills and managing my 'reputation' so early on in my PhD journey.

Don't get me wrong, despite the surprises and the workload, these first few weeks of my PhD have been so rewarding, and so exciting. While being out there on your own can be daunting, it's also so freeing coming off the back of 4 years of structure, controlled assignments, and frequent deadlines. For me, it's been an opportunity to develop my skills and, more importantly, to have faith in my abilities. In the same way, having to think long term and be so focused on the future excites me, as it really drives home the fact that I'm moving away from being a student and moving towards being an academic. I never used to think of myself as a 'grown-up,' and I think that going straight from an undergraduate degree through to a Masters and then a PhD allowed me to stay in the 'student' mindset for a little longer than I should have done. However, these past few weeks have really opened my eyes and allowed me to have more confidence in myself. I feel more comfortable in my skin when talking to lecturers, I'm more assured in my arguments, and my passion for my subject hasn't waned one bit.

I expect that, over the course of the next few months, and indeed, the next few years, I'll be challenged in ways that I couldn't have predicted. I am in no way under the impression that it will be easy. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to every bit of it. Even though the department, the university, and the academic system as a whole can often be a frustrating, elitist, isolating place, there is nothing else that I am quite as passionate about. The flaws inherent in higher education are clear, and that may well be another post for another day, but at its core, academia is the most rewarding and enjoyable environment that I have encountered.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Learning to enjoy the PhD


Friday, 11 November 2016

Simple tips on how to get PhD funding


Thursday, 3 November 2016

How to make an academic break work in your favour


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Isolation at Postgraduate Level

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