Today we’re sharing a post from the Be/com/ing Academic blog, which explores the emotional processes involved in both being and becoming academic.
Whether you’re a first year doctoral researcher or not, there’s lots to think about in this letter from a third year PhD student to their first year self…
Dear Younger Me,
Hello you! Yep, you, the nervy looking one sat staring at her phone and eating her twelfth chocolate digestive at the First Year PhD Student Induction Day. Put the biccie down, put the cellphone down and go and have a chat to the person standing awkwardly by the Gingernuts on the other side of the room. Chances are, in that very room are a whole lot of people who will, over the next three to seven (only kidding) years, be the ones who will best understand the particular rhythms and rituals of your days. They’ll know that just because you’re still in your jimjams at 4pm doesn’t mean you haven’t been working really really hard. They’ll know the significance of seemingly insignificant statements like ‘I printed my first draft’ or ‘the abstract was accepted.’
Start the conversation with each other now. And not just to complain, don’t fill your talk with grumbles of ‘my supervisor never does track changes on my document too’ and anxious inquiries of ‘How many chapters have you written?’ Talk about the things that matter to you, why you came to this project in the first place. Look for common threads, conceptual or otherwise, or risk believing that the only research that is relevant is that which can in most obvious ways enable you to ‘get on with the job.’ Remember how often Theresa May is quoted for saying she just wants to ‘get on with the job.’ Remember that the job is bigger than just you and your own work (and Theresa May). If you see what you write as a means to an end you will form part of the ever expanding academia which produces unloved and unread books. Appreciate that there is meaning to be found in the most unassuming of places and that can often be through the work of your peers. Why did you come here to begin with? Has your reason changed? Change is okay, in fact, it is generally what you should be aspiring towards.
Remember what brought you to your research project, retain your sense of love for what you do BUT do not allow the rhetoric of passion and craft to allow you to be exploited. Resist being part of an academic world that naturalises inequalities in the name of passion. Recognise that you are not just doing this work because there was something in it you ‘loved’. Appreciate that there might be more subconscious and subversive reasons you are here. We are all, invariably, attached to particular identities. Did/do you want to be the kid with the cardigan quoting Foucault? Try to understand how your idea of what makes someone academically ‘worthy’ might be serving to perpetuate the myth of what comprises academic legitimacy. Remember that everyone has their own story of how they got from there to here. Remember that your supervisor once had a supervisor.
Somewhere along the line you will read a whole lotta books that will make you radically reconsider everything you’d believed you were doing in the first place. Remember that rejecting objectivity does not make your research less valid – it makes it more so. Don’t stay up all night labouring over texts that make you feel small and stupid. There will be other writing, which makes more sense, be patient with yourself and with the library. Appreciate that theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin (Ahmed, 2017). Let your theory work for you. Sometimes that means it will feel incredibly painful, but so too, can it bring light and insight and hope.
Look around you. Witness how there are minds, like yours, that may not feel they belong. Bodies that do not feel they belong. Ask yourself whether you want to be part of an academia that is so exclusive? Resist this form of academia, but recognise that resistance is never going to happen if you don’t get a conversation going. So return, again, to talk to someone by the coffee machine. Set up reading groups, set up writing groups, make time for collaboration. Do not be stingy with your time. Do not buy into a capitalist conception of time. Appreciate that real academic success needs to move beyond the level of the individual. Allow yourself the space to dismantle the ‘promise of happiness’ (Ahmed, 2010) that an academic journey may have once held for you. Embrace the unforeseen joys, even when if they may not be revered within the academy itself (we NEED more academics who value and embrace teaching). And when the PhD starts coming towards its end, do not fetishize the boundaries of being inside or being outside of academia – being outside isn’t failure, being inside isn’t necessarily success.
You may feel you are too old to be treated like a student rather than a researcher, too young to have the authority to speak about anything at all. You might not feel you have the right accent, the right skin colour, the right qualifications to voice your ideas. You may not have that room of your own and your office might take the form of a heavy rucksack that’s morphing you into Quasimodo by the day. You are undoubtedly many things at once (a mother? a partner? a child? an activist? a worker on another project that makes it difficult to focus on your own? The list goes on). And all of this may be overwhelming, it may make you feel like you are never fully one thing or in one place. But therein lie all the possibilities of what your academic work can achieve, when you infuse it with the clashing colours of your life.
I wish you many conversations, which create the space for some form of change, and many chocolate digestives to fuel this journey.
The Older You.
P.S. In the second year of your PhD you will be tempted to do something very drastic to your hair. Don’t do it. Trust me, I’m you in the future and I’m telling you it will be a horrible mistake.
Reposted with permission from Be/com/ing Academic