Academic hyperbole & new student inductions

This is the second of three posts, copied from my tumblr, where I have been blogging intermittently about my return to academia. This was written in March 2015.

A picture of bear in water, looking like he's thinking
Always thinking… even in the bath

I’ll never forget my first week at university when my Director of Studies told us that to be successful in our degree, we would need to live and breathe our subject. “You should be conjugating verbs in the bath,” he said.

Well, as the holder of a first class undergraduate degree, I can tell you I never conjugated a verb during any ablution process.

Sitting in my induction lectures today for new PhD students, I noticed a lot of the academic staff treading that familiar path.

“Your PhD will take over your life.”
“You’ll never stop thinking about it.”

Some speakers made vague references to mental health and one even mentioned balancing home life with your research. But – like my undergraduate tutor – they all seemed to buy into this idea that academic work, specifically academic degrees, are all-consuming monsters, to which you need to dedicate yourself heart, body and soul.

At this point, at the very beginning of my PhD, I’m not qualified to say whether that will be the case. But I find it interesting that it is predominantly the academic staff who are propagating this view of study. The students I have spoken to tend to have a more balanced (dare I say realistic) view of it. And I really don’t think it’s healthy to be maintaining this narrative of the PhD (or even BA) as an all-consuming beast that will chew you up and spit you out as soon as look at you.

Realistically, most of us have lives outside our studies. Some of us have children, families, caring responsibilities. Some of us have part-time or full-time jobs. Some of us have health issues or disabilities that will affect the energy and time we have to dedicate to our research. Why not recognise that and talk to us realistically about how we make it work? Instead of setting up unrealistic expectations about spending every waking minute thinking about French verbs or ethnography, talk to us about how we remain happy, healthy human beings who can manage our other responsibilities and still succeed academically. That’s the real challenge.

photo credit: Scratching bear via photopin (license)

Re-entering the ivory tower

I’m going to start this blog with a couple of posts from my tumblr, which is where I started blogging about my new life in academia, or rather my reconnection with academia. This post was written in February 2015.

A picture of books in a library
Honey I’m home!

Nearly twelve years stand between now – the start of my PhD years – and the happy day I filed my MSc dissertation in a drawer and hoped never to have to look at it again.

Much has changed for me personally. I’ve had a decade-long career in charity communications, leading up to specialising in online communities and social media. I can now look at my Master’s dissertation without wanting to vomit. I’ve had two children and moved to the other side of the world (London-Sydney). Family has brought complicated jugglings of responsibilities (seminars that run from 4-6pm, you officially suck), total exhaustion and of course deep joy.

One of the reasons I didn’t pursue a PhD straight after my Master’s was down to my fear of isolation and the potential impact on my mental health. Too many days sitting alone in the British Library had strained my inner resources and my relationship. Nowadays the idea of a few hours to myself, surrounded by books, papers and other scholars, feels like a cool drink on a hot day. I know it’s still going to be important to actually speak to people and make new contacts and maybe even friends, but right now solitude is a novelty and one I can emerge from into the chaos of family life whenever I want.

Returning to familiar conceptual ground and observing how the field has developed in my absence has been interesting too. The other day my supervisor chucked around the word “hybridity” almost as a joke and I was immediately transported back to the early 2000s and the air conditioned chill of the library. It’s been a good reminder that theories are always contested and will ebb and flow in popularity and relevance – an important lesson for students and early career researchers.

So I’ve changed, the field has changed, and of course academia itself has changed. The plethora of material available online! (Students today may never know the ‘joy’ of squinting at microfiche in a darkened room). Widely available referencing software! The increased circulation of ideas and serendipitous connections brought about by the advent of social media! Not to mention the development of whole new fields like digital sociology and digital humanities.

I’m not sure early careers in academia have ever been a picnic. I remember my dad, a careers advisor, having endless discussions with newly minted PhD-holders, unemployed and disillusioned. It’s another reason it took me a while to come back to academia. But I do think the precariousness of early academic careers has increased and can stretch out for many years. I sense the fear in the students and the despondency of the newly graduated, especially the women wondering how they’re ever going to fit in starting and raising a family without any steady employment prospects.

I don’t want to end on a down note, though, so I’ll just add that I am genuinely excited to be back amongst the books and the scholars. Where it’s going to take me, I don’t know yet, but I’m glad to be here.