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

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:


The epiphany…

Oddly enough one of the most difficult things I have struggled with is almost an existential one. Often people say that a PhD starts with research questions, but I say it starts with a person. The researcher. Whilst I’ve managed to pass my first year, my research outputs or study focus is not where it should be due to time lost. Whilst some commentators say this is due to too many other things going on, I attribute it to a basic loss of engagement and motivation due to a) strange relations with my supervisors and my own pre-occupation with my unhappiness about the process and b) having to negotiate this pending ‘new identity’  that Phillips & Pugh (2005) speak of.

I sat in front of a computer, staring at a blank screen unable to write for months before finally being signed off work with depression. It was through therapy (together with a two week arts intervention experience ‘The Fortnight Project’ which ran in Bristol as part of the ‘Mayfest’ theatre festival in May) I began to explore my real motivations for doing a PhD – beyond that which was written on the application form or CV. Having got to know more and more students I discovered that behind each of them was a story. All of us were genuinely interested in our subjects and believed in what we were doing, but there was always something else. The expectations of a parent, or the rivalry of a sibling, the chance to escape domestic drudgery in a different country, avoidance of the ‘real’ world, the passions of a working class girl who saw the lawns of Cambridge one day and wanted a different life.  There were many stories amongst the research proposals that were not always openly acknowledged. So what was mine?

I realised that education had mostly, done a lot for me on behalf of my parents, and I realise now that it’s how I learnt to grow up. So perhaps this is my final push to do that. I never really totally learnt how to negotiate problems, differences or defend myself well or speak my mind in all circumstances, or believe in myself enough to go for what I want. Perhaps I’m here doing this so I can finally learn.  I’m also acutely aware of how, leaving school with just my few GCSES, that for seven years I was often treated as I were stupid, less of a person or (literally at times!) patted on the head and told a ‘girl like me’ wouldn’t need to go to university as I could just find a rich man.

The situation is also a bit of a double edged sword. The new PhD identity will obviously eclipse the old one.. but what will that mean in terms or how I relate to my family? With every course I take I am increasingly viewed as a strange and foreign entity and the title ‘doctor’ will be the final allienatory straw breaking the donkeys back. Whilst my family (complicated) are happy for me, they just don’t get it, or really believe in or value it. So which identify do I use when I’m a Doctoral graduate? The old one so I can relate to them, or the new one, when I can sneer alongside the best of high status professors?  Fundamentally, I believe that people should be recognised for their achievements but I don’t really recognise the social hierarchy. Who am I to say that I am higher status due to those words ‘Dr’ before my name? In some way I almost felt guilty. If I go back to the Wimpy now, after however many years it is – am I really so different? and psssst….   most importantly – Am I going to end up being completely boring, wearing elbow patches with no idea how to be silly or fun or believe in anything without reams of ‘evidence’ to substantiate it? (oh okay that’s an exaggeration, no one really wears elbow patches anymore, and okay some academics are fun (my supervisor is that’s half our problem)

The future

So. It seems I have passed my first year, although it’s not been without incident or a few pilot weeks on prescription drugs (I had a bad reaction to them and gave them up for art and theatre instead) I guess there is nothing else I can do but re-address my expectations of the PhD process, plan my next six months thoroughly, catch up to where I feel I should rightly be and try and hope things with my team improve (Although anecdotally it’s supposed to get really hard at this point). Having spoken to numerous PhD students and graduates it is fair to say none of them have really raved about the process and most seem, by the end of their projects to be bloody glad to be rid of their thesis. Academia is indeed a strange creature, and this odd, Oz like journey appears to be just as concerned with endurance and determination and negotiating relationships as it is with actual research. I decided that what I need to survive, (along with a sense of play and embracing creativity and art outside of work) is a mantra, thus quoted by Magnus above:

I’ve started… so I’ll finish.

(repeat twice a day, every day, until thesis completion)

However I feel, (good or bad) today, next week or this time next year, it won’t last forever – the time has flown and I received my bursary payment schedule recently and looking at those 24 payment dates …. well two years does not seem that long at all.

I’d better get on with it then.

Categories: Higher Education

Tags: , , , ,

1 reply »

  1. I found this oddly comforting and I like the mantra. I do however worry about the talk of fun, not because I am against it, but because those stuffy professors that sneer and go on and on about evidence often are having fun. I don’t think it’s a front or the consequence of cynicism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *