Flying awkwardly: a year in the life of a first year PhD student, by Amy Louise Webber (I)

Amy Louise Webber is a Phd student in Ageing, Transport & Society at the University of the West of England. She alsodescribes herself as ethnographer, artist, philanthropist, and aspiring Social Entrepreneur. You can read her blog about life in (and beyond) PhD study here:

‘Successful post graduates emerge with a new identity as competent professionals, able to argue their viewpoint with anyone regardless of status, confident in their own knowledge but also aware of its boundaries…to arrive at this point, is what being a postgraduate research student is really all about…’ Phillips & Pugh, 2005.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish….  Magnus Magnusson.

‘Academia: It’s like negotiating the land of OZ ……minus the good shoes’ Webber, 2011.

One year on…

I’ve had some time off from my blog due to work commitments recently and writing this next entry has proved to be a bit of a challenge to produce. Coming to the end of the academic year, and having recently passed my first year progression exam the time is right to reflect on my experiences and attempt to evaluate as reflexively as I can, what’s worked well and also not so well in order to improve and or maintain my performance and experience for the coming year. One thing I am often told is that a PhD is a journey, so as such, this account resembles a snapshot of that journey, taken at a particular point in time. Perhaps my perspectives and opinions will change as I progress. Perhaps they will become more engrained. Who can tell? Overall, I have mixed feelings at the end of year one, and if this was an ofsted report, I would probably grade this year as ‘satisfactory’. Here’s why:

Great expectations..

So, over 365 days have passed since my application for voluntary redundancy was accepted and I left my consultancy job for a life in academia.  After two refused funding applications and many years of wanting to undertake a PhD I arrived at my desk in the Autumn of 2010, full of enthusiasm and high expectations for what was to come and a clear idea of what life as a PhD student would be like. I had envisioned something which was not in retrospect, exactly that realistic.
I had imagined academia as a world of dynamic modern creatives, striving together to battle the ills of society by attempting to solve or draw attention to its shortcomings. Motivated by a passionate and relentless shared altruistic desire for the pursuit of knowledge and together working in a close team in an environment of trust, my supervisory team (perhaps in the manner of the A-team, or the outlaws of Sherwood forest or similar) together with my supervisor (who could impart a wealth of knowledge about my study and was perhaps a combination of Mr/s Majeika and say, Yoda) would form a band of scholarly rebels an together we would embark on investigation of my research topic, in the manner of an apprenticeship perhaps not dissimilar to those taken by Jedi Knights or Starfleet cadets, which eventually after three joyful years, enabled academic enlightenment which would then be passed to me. Of course all this would be supported by numerous mindbending, stimulating philosophical and theoretical conversations with my peers around life, death, love and the universe carried out in the bar until the early hours of the morning. I might even be able to impart my existing knowledge and experience on a group of bright eyed and bushy tailed students.

 Okay, so I’m exaggerating slightly in the account above, but it’s true to say the reality of academia has not stood up to my initial ideals, which has led me to a lack of motivation in terms of my research, however it’s also fair to say the year has not been without its notable achievements.

The good

So what positive things can I take from this year? Just being here I guess is one. The landscape of higher education is undergoing radical change and having a scholarship to undertake PhD training is likely to become even rarer in the times to come. Like most people I certainly would never have been able to afford it otherwise. Undertaking a PhD will enable me to benefit society, develop new skills, gain a qualification and change my career direction.

On a practical level having the flexibility to manage your own time is a major perk, as is the chance to be completely selfish in terms of your own training. The opportunities for real development at my previous organisations were reasonably limited. This year I have undergone a great deal of training which I just wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I’ve completed 90 credits (three) masters level research modules and undergone valuable additional skills training via seven short courses or workshops which support my development as a social researcher. I’ve attended nine professional/academic conferences and presented my previous MSc research at three of these, which are all at an international level.

I’ve made some amazing friends, been a representative on the postgraduate research (PGR)  students committee and volunteered to represent the PGR students at faculty research degree board committee meetings. I assisted in organising the annual PGR student conference and was awarded a first prize for my presentation. Having had a ten year break from any kind of performing, I joined the UWE Centre for Performing Arts (CPA) and auditioned (successfully) for a UWE music scholarship. I then undertook formal singing lessons and I am preparing for my grade 8 musical theatre exam in November. I was genuinely surprised to be cast as a principle role in the university musical (also a journey in itself) which enjoyed a sell-out run at the Redgrave Theatre, Bristol and over the year, in my role as a CPA scholar, I have supported the CPA by singing or giving readings at (approximately) ten public concerts.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself. That sounds dramatic but it’s true, in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. My skills are improving, although this has been a slow process. Whilst it is a continuing source of worry and bone of contention surviving on a budget has made me richer in other ways. It’s surprising how your identity can develop through creating, observing and appreciating things when you get off of the conveyer belt of consumption that blinds you to them so easily. It’s easy to think when you have been used to earning a certain income that when your circumstances change and you stop work that the world may end. It doesn’t. You have to find a way to adapt, reassess, negotiate but somehow life has gone on. I’m still here. Slightly shabbier looking, a bit fatter but mostly smiling and often covered in paint or glue rather than the trendy (ish) labels.

The bad

So. Where did the struggles occur? For me, concerns began to arise from the outset, as I had not been consulted regarding the appointment of my supervisory team, all of whom seemed excellent academics but I had not been assigned anyone that had in-depth knowledge of the theory I wished to draw upon, or any experience or knowledge in the methodology I wished to use. This has been an ongoing concern and I am told will not be resolved due to resourcing issues.

As I mentioned before expectations were pretty high when I arrived and certain things disappointed me, aspects of the process sometimes seemed ridiculously old fashioned and not the best way to get the best out of students. Some senior academics seemed incredibly blinkered, demonstrating clear bias toward method, philosophy or approach and disparaged the work of their well respected colleagues. All of which is apparently common in academia but not something I had expected or respected. I sort of found it unprofessional and again, old fashioned. Interdisciplinary postgraduate training had previously taught me to have an open mind to various approaches and it came as a complete shock to find that generally this didn’t seem the case in reality. Don’t get me wrong, academics are incredibly exceptional people but I was wondering that if arguing a particular thesis so repeatedly throughout your career actually makes you more blinkered? I lost motivation and the academic pedestal begun to waver as I questioned ‘was I ready to become that narrow minded? The only thing my years of education had taught me was that none of us really ‘know’ anything at all, but it was like nobody actually wanted to admit that. Instead, flags waved from methodological and philosophical islands, and the reality was far different from that I had hoped for. Beneath that I felt was fear and insecurity of difference and the unknown.
Suddenly, the emperor was before me, and I could see his dangly bits.

My poor supervisor didn’t live up to my expectations either. I am his first PhD student and it often felt like a case of the blind leading the blind particularly in the early months. He is just a few years older than me, and is very nice and kind and we drank a lot of coffee, tweeted and text and ate cake and everything was fine. Fine for months. He was very reassuring, there was no nagging and he often wrote/re-wrote chunks of my text for me. As every PhD student-supervisory relationship is different I didn’t question it, until eventually I began to wonder if that’s how everybody else’s meetings went. Turns out they didn’t, and I don’t think things are ever supposed to be ‘fine’ until that last draft has finally been submitted.  So we have to renegotiate the way things are done. No doubt I’ve done nothing but complain and kick and harass various members of staff this year over various things and they are probably all enjoying the break from the crazy Webber girl.

I found the monthly meeting process in general difficult – (this I have been told is in part due to my lack/volume of written output which is a fair criticism). The initial meetings seemed rather odd almost like a kind of role play at times.. (cue schizophrenic breakdown as I began to question the reality of the situation – am I in a play within a play?) I was told I was not playing the ‘game’ several times. Which was somewhat confusing for me as I felt I was there for a meeting about my project, and it’s a bit rubbish if I don’t know what the rules are and no one tells me. As Phillips & Pugh (2005) state above, a large part of the PhD process is learning how to negotiate and present your argument with those of high status. So, part of this meeting process involves the big-wigs belittling you as best they can so you can get used to responding in a professional way. I think I’m okay with criticism if the point made can be fully justified, but I have struggled with the way it has been delivered. Currently the sneeryness  has me yo-yo-ing between wanting to give two types of responses a) melting into a tearful heap on the floor screaming ‘high status suity man, your words, how they burn’ or b) jumping around throwing tables out of windows shouting ‘come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough’. Again this type of questioning encouraged a lack of motivation not just because it wasn’t particularly pleasant but also it seemed poorly justified and old fashioned. What exactly is so special about academics/academia which qualifies them to behave in a way which would ultimately be seen as unprofessional in commercial or other types of public practice?

(To Be Continued in tomorrow’s SI)

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