This month the Doctoral School spoke to Amira from the School of Global Studies about her PhD, how she organises herself, and what she enjoys doing in her free time.
This is the first instalment of a project designed to highlight the opinions and advice of doctoral researchers at Sussex, what they do, how they work, and who they are beyond their PhDs.
What do you enjoy most about the PhD and why?
I enjoy having the chance to teach. I think that’s the thing that a lot of us enjoy the most. Not because we don’t like researching, but because teaching gives you a different kind of drive and the chance to bounce ideas off students who don’t necessarily have the same training as you. I enjoy learning from my students through getting to know them. There’s always something to learn about unfamiliar contexts, and it’s interesting to see how they perceive themselves at a certain age versus how I used to perceive myself at the same age.
What has been the most difficult element so far?
Because of what’s going on with the higher education system generally, there is a lot of added pressure on us to be more competitive rather than supportive, to always look for opportunities and think ahead, when we really need to concentrate on doing the PhD. I dislike that students are always being made into commodities or consumers or products by the industry. My department is very supportive, but I feel that they are always trying to compensate for the pressure that is added on us by the changes that are happening at the University.
What do you think you do well?
I think as a doctoral researcher, I bring a unique voice to the debate because I am a strong believer in academic activism. Being an activist as well as an academic, it can often seem as though there is a separation between the two; as though there is always some sort of science or theory that’s being created within academia, and outside is different. Because of my political involvement in my country and because my research is on that country, I think I bring that edge and bridge that gap.
What piece of advice would you give to others doing a PhD?
It’s really normal to feel lost, but just because you feel lost don’t allow yourself to get lost, and actually do things. In my discipline it is very important for me to read as much as possible and, of course, to try to be organised. In the first year you have less pressure, so try and capitalise on this and be organised with your resources and your plans. Remember that plans change all the time, but it’s good to plan rather than just leaving things.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I often teach during term time and I try hard to say to myself that I will spend two hours writing, two hours to do admin, an hour to read and then go to a lecture or talk. There are a lot of seminars, lectures, and workshops happening on all kinds of topics within my department/School and also outside, so it can be difficult to schedule everything.
Something really sacred for me is lunch hour and in my department and PhD cohort we are very successful bringing people together to regularly have lunch. Meeting with everyone is great as we socialise, it provides structure, and also prevents people from being completely isolated working from home. A lot of people wouldn’t come in if we didn’t have lunch together and that would make everything much more difficult.
How do you organise work, time, and yourself?
I have found that it’s very important to know exactly when the best times are for your own productivity, and to make it feasible for you to consistently work at those times. For example, I realised that I work much better from 6 to 8 in the morning, so I make sure that I wake up early and start working right away.
I also make sure to schedule in writing time. If I don’t schedule in writing, I might not get round to it. Writing is essentially my career, so it’s important to make time for it. I always make sure that I have a block of an hour and say to myself, “This is always my writing time and if anything comes up, I am unavailable.”
What do you do when you’re stressed?
I re-read positive feedback I’ve received and also anything that I feel I’ve written well to help me feel reassured.
Beyond the PhD
What additional non-academic things help you?
I think sports and exercise are very important and some of the things that I rely on the most are the gym and boxing. They help channel any kind of negative energy that I have, and bring in a lot of positive energy too. I also try to watch films of substance and I have recently started baking! I think it’s important to do activities which allow you to not think much, think about nothing.
What do you like doing on a day off?
Generally really slow activities that don’t require much thinking. I like going for a run or a hike (although the weather here doesn’t always allow for it!) and also activities that involve doing things by hand, like doodling. I feel like I have lost my ability to read leisurely, but that’s OK for now! I don’t really like reading outside of my PhD any more, but when I do, I read Arabic novels and poetry.
What makes you happy?
Music. I love just putting in my headphones and not thinking. I know it is a little cliché, but it’s the best thing! I also like going on hikes alone.
What piece of advice would you give to someone about life?
Don’t take it too seriously. And go to the gym.