Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, Higher Education, PhD, research

Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 2 (research): Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD

The topic of mental health in higher education is usually debated in relation to the rising number of mental health incidents among students, or the growing stress levels experienced by staff.

The Guardian, for example, recently revealed how “British universities are experiencing a surge in student anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression”. The topic gained media attention after a series of suicides affected one university in particular, between 2016 and 2018, although it appears to be a more widespread phenomenon.

Similarly, workloads have become unmanageable for many academics, having to juggle their time between teaching, marking, course development, board meetings, examining theses, producing 4* publications, grant income, and so on. In fact, staff increasingly falls back on counselling and occupational health in universities, as a recent HEPI report by Dr Liz Morrish, entitled Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, has shown.

Who tends to be overseen in this context is the PhD student. Embarking on a PhD project is exciting: you’re at the start of a – hopefully great – career, maybe you’ve won a PhD studentship, or your university is highly ranked. BUT, it can also be really daunting: you need to produce something good now, become an expert in your field, and you have to do it all by yourself.

In sum, doing a PhD can be empowering, but it can also shred your self-confidence. Competing fellow students. Insensitive dinosaur-professors slashing you off at conferences. Pressure being put on you to finish your thesis on time. Feeling cut out when you can’t join your peers because you’re having to work on the side.

Sure, you have a supervisor, but they won’t be holding your hands, or chasing you up. You have to learn how to manage your time, develop research skills, and write academically.

Now it’s OK to make mistakes. Like I replied to one of my proofreading clients, when she apologised for her “crappy” writing: it’s a PhD student’s prerogative to write in a crappy way. For the record, she got the highest score in quality of written English, and she didn’t only have my proofreading skills to thank for it.

Nevertheless, a PhD puts a lot of pressure on people. It can be daunting.

Doing research – be it in a public archive or at home – and writing a thesis is generally a solitary routine, which can be thoroughly demotivating, especially if you don’t have an office to go to.

I used to migrate between home, library, and computer rooms (regularly leaving behind my pen drive), and I remember how it made me feel lost. I was the only new PhD student in my year, and those who had started their PhDs in previous years were all teaching, or doing it part time. I hardly ever saw them, and we never organised anything as a group.

This is another issue: PhD isolation also prevents you from confronting your research with other people, and as a result, it’s harder to grow as a scholar. Talking about your project, what it’s about and why it’s so interesting, can help you clarify your ideas, maybe even open your eyes to things taken for granted, or that skipped your attention.

So if you risk being isolated during your PhD, here’s five practical tips on how to break out of that cocoon:

  1. Groups. See if there’s a postgraduate community in your department or school, and if there isn’t, why not start one? It can be as simple as having lunch together or a coffee break in the common room. And if you’re a “PhD orphan”, have a look outside your department as well.
  2. Seminars. Your department or school is bound to be running postgraduate seminars, which are nice and informal. Also try to attend some postgraduate conferences in your discipline (some of which award travel grants for unfunded students). Avoid major conferences, though, at least in the first two years of your PhD, unless you have a smashing conference paper that you know will make you a superstar overnight.
  3. Training. Most universities offer a postgraduate training programme, which are free to attend, and usually come with coffee and biscuits. Great way to meet new people and also take a break from your research/writing routine.
  4. Study areas. Another good way to break out of your cocoon is to do your research in a space where you’re bound to meet your peers. This is particularly relevant if you work from home, where it’s easy to get demotivated or distracted. Instead, identify a public space where you work well but can also talk to people. It gives your day structure, and it will get you out of your pyjama!
  5. Social media, I didn’t start using Twitter until fairly recently, but I see a lot of PhD students and ECRs talking to each other there, sharing feelings of anxiety and frustration, but also supporting each other (for example at #PhDchat). I guess it’s not as nice as chatting with people over tea and biscuits, but it’s a fair alternative. And it’s always good to get a rant out of your system.

Now all this might not be your thing. Maybe you’re perfectly happy working from home, and your weekly yoga class is all you need to satisfy your socialising needs. Maybe your PhD community includes someone like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, and you rather have a quiet lunch on a bench outside, taking advantage of a beautiful autumn day.

That’s fine. As long as you develop a routine that you’re comfortable with.

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Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about doing academic research:

It’s that time of REF again!

academia, Higher Education, job market, research

It’s that time of REF again! (episode 2 of the Fabulous Four)

Second in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The first post, on the correct placement of notes in a text, is available here.

Episode 2 (research)

It’s that time of REF again!

REF.

Research Excellence Framework.

If you study or work in a UK higher education context then you are bound to have heard of it. And if you don’t, you will.

In short, the Research Excellence Framework is a national assessment of the quality of UK higher education research. Last undertaken in 2014, the next REF will take place in 2021. Expert panels will assess three elements for each submission: research outputs, impact and environment. These elements will form the overall quality profile of an institution. Each eligible member of staff has to submit 1 to 5 research outputs, which will mostly be publications.

I contributed to the REF of 2014, when I had only just been awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in a Scottish university. My first monograph was being prepared for publication, whereas a number of journal articles and a special issue had been accepted or recently published. I remember the Head of Department – who was collecting data for the REF submission ­– sounding awfully pleased as I sent him details of all these publications. Too bad my “impressive” contribution to the School’s pool of outputs didn’t leave any further marks on him, given his forgetting to mention me in a list of recently departed staff members, in a School Newsletter published three years later. I guess that’s the REF for you.

The REF is, indeed, quite an opportunistic business, as was its predecessor: the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). Back in 2007 I approached a British university for a doctoral project – I had recently finished an MA and was temporarily selling clothes at the weekly market of Bologna (Italy), where I had participated in an Erasmus exchange programme. Failing to win a fellowship competition in my home university, in the Netherlands, and without much hope to get into the Italian academic world, I decided to seek my fortune in the UK. Unfortunately, it was too late to apply for any funding schemes, but I was offered a fee waiver, provided that I started my PhD in July as opposed to September 2007. As I didn’t see myself selling clothes at the market for much longer, I accepted, even a bit flattered that they had offered me a fee waiver, thinking that my project must have sounded really interesting to them. Oh the naivety! It seems, in fact, that the offer of fee waiver/earlier start date allowed the Department to count me among its PhD cohort for the upcoming RAE, a strategy other departments had apparently also applied, so I discovered later on when talking to other PhD students.

So you see, it all comes down to numbers, assessments, rankings. Some institutions don’t even bother to cover this up: recently, a job vacancy was posted where a university explicitly wrote that it was seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to help deliver high-quality outputs for REF 2021, in particular for impact case studies. Given that the position was fixed (one year) and part-time, and that self-motivation was among the required skills, we may deduct from this that the university was looking for someone to help organise exhibitions or write up reports on behalf of overworked staff members…And to then have the courage to write that the successful applicant could “progress” to a higher rate – on a one-year contract?!

It’s not unusual. I constantly come across one-year job postings, and they all sound pretty much the same. I understand precarious researchers feel their heart leap with joy whenever such a position opens within their discipline, or maybe at the same university where they are completing a PhD or a postdoc, but it’s usually a trap. Of course there is chance that, once you get a foot in the door, you may eventually obtain a permanent position. And it does occasionally happen for real. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t.

I recall a temporary teaching post being opened in the university where I was completing my postdoc. I decided not to apply, because I knew all my time would go into teaching, marking and admin, with no time left to do any serious research or publish articles (which counts A LOT when applying for lecturer jobs). All this for not even a year’s contract, for the job would only cover the teaching and marking period (September-May). How to keep paying your rent and bills during the summer recess apparently didn’t interest the School, a clear indicator that it had no intention whatsoever to extend the job position beyond the contract itself. In the end, the School did actually create a permanent lecturer position, the following year, but apparently the person who got the one-year teaching job – and who obviously applied for the lecturer job – wasn’t hired for that. Instead, they offered her to cover a maternity leave: better than nothing, but hardly what she had bargained for.

In sum, as the REF 2021 deadline approaches, many HE institutions will be recruiting short-term staff members to help stack their REF submissions. My advice is to refrain, if you can afford it. Early career researchers deserve respect and support, as well as long-term perspectives: job- and research-wise. You are not numbers or boxes to tick, but qualified scholars who need some level of stability and security to do their job. As important as even a nine-month job might seem for your bank account or CV, spilling energy and academic capital to then find yourself applying for new jobs – a really time-consuming part of academic life – within less than a year, well, it’s not really worth it, is it?

That said, the REF also puts much pressure on those in a permanent job, and there is a steadily rising wave of UK academics leaving permanent jobs (as this Twitter thread demonstrates). This is obviously not a result of the REF alone, but granted, it doesn’t help either. Maybe universities themselves aren’t even to blame entirely.

So what can we do about this? I would say: be more selective when applying for jobs, and most of all, believe in yourself and in your skills. You’re not a number but a person, with academic capital, and if universities want that, they need to give something back.