I never actually had time to process that I was actually doing a PhD. I applied whilst studying an Italian language and culture course on the beautiful Lake Garda, spending my days sweating in a lecture theatre until 1pm to then eat a huge lunch and fry on the beach for the rest of the afternoon. I returned completely relaxed and extremely tanned, considering I’m English. Once home, I found out the Italian air-con had dried out my lungs and given me whooping cough and I stayed in bed for 2 weeks.
Without confirmation of my successful PhD application, I returned to Greenwich, moved into halls and worked as a coordinator for the Undergraduate Freshers’ Fortnight. By the October, with an unofficial feeling email and handshake from the Professor, I was already weeks into my PhD.
Then, I got cocky. In the November, I was upset that I didn’t have an office. My dream of a PhD was swanning about the department, being known by everyone, with little trinkets on my office desk. In reality, I was sitting with Undergraduates in the University library, grumpily shuffling the pile of books and papers to fit around the computer if someone decided to sit next to me. Thinking that my position was so bloody special, I went straight to the Postgraduate Research Office and gave them a piece of my mind… well… that was a mistake. I had only been in the position a month and I was assuming, like any student, the higher I go, the more something will be done about it. I was shooting myself in the foot anyway because I didn’t want to be a ‘student’ (I have another blog explaining why). In a nutshell I received a bollocking and started to understand that I had to treat this like a job.
18 months in and I’m actually glad I don’t have an office. I love to chat, and the meetings I have with my supervisor can go on for hours. Despite this, if I’m interrupted when I’m in the zone, it’s like waking a dragon. The library or my desk at home keeps me focused and let’s me work at my own pace, without regular interruptions.
However, it’s a lonely job. I go days without having an adult conversation. I read and write and research. I walk to University, teach, come home – read, write, research. I chat to my Guinea Pig about the day and by the time my partner gets home I’m too tired to string a sentence together.
Yes, it does make you feel quite isolated. And yes, you’re part of the department but you’re not ‘part of the department’. You’re only there when you go there for a meeting, but, again, I’ve learnt that the more I go there, the more people recognise me and therefore stop to chat. As a consequence, I have to plan a good few hours out of the day for a one-hour meeting after I’ve stopped on the stairwell, at a few offices and finally had my meeting. Every time I see my supervisor she’s had a day of work planned and been constantly interrupted by students and colleagues. As a warm and welcoming individual, I’m not surprised and I was guilty of the same as an undergraduate, but this has also reminded me of the perks of that incredibly silent ‘silent study room’ in the library.
The realities are that in fact, it is just like a job. At the beginning, you step out of line because you’re unsure of the system. You have to make-do with an ex-colleagues’ locker, that you’re sure something is living in the back of, and smile awkwardly at the receptionist that you’re sure should recognise you by now. It feels crap. You might hit a wall and think your research means nothing, you might not have spoken to anyone in the same boat as you but as it goes on and you get into the swing of your own work and your own research and your own thing, the necessity of these things start to fade. It’s unexpected but a huge learning curve. You’re suddenly able to get over that wall and coherently fill out reels of ethics proposal forms and write abstracts for conference proposals. You meet the same person at a few faculty events and end up going for coffee and realising you are exactly the same point in your research. I can now see when a paper has a flaw and when data doesn’t quite sit right, without having to run it by someone else. I understand that some days, I’m just going to have to read and some days I get to play with fascinating equipment. I get to do each of these when I want to and with the breaks I want.
The realities are that a PhD is isolating but a completely individual entity that can be molded exactly to suit you. Don’t forget the importance of your supervisor, your department, your colleagues and those conferences, that feel like a life time, but at lunch you get to chat with people who feel just as you do and are desperate for a coffee next week.