“I’m a Dr! Well…kind of”

Originally posted 6th February 2014

Although I’m fairly new to all this interactive social media, especially for my academic life, I’ve just come across an interesting blog post from Pat Thompson [there’s a link at the bottom of this post. Clickity click]. It’s a discussion over the name doctoral ‘student’. Which got me thinking, how does our perception of ourselves and our role affect us?

In my first post, I mentioned about the Guilt and about the constant validation of what we do, to others who can’t seem to get past that ‘s’ word. Yet, especially in your first year, I think you don’t consider yourself as anything beyond a particularly advanced student. The Supreme Student maybe… but if we think of ourselves as students, does that mean we act more like one?

As a PhD-er we are project leaders. We are the workers who go around collecting all the data, but we are also the ones who design the methods (or experiments) which give us this data. We are methodical, picking through piles and piles of evidence to glean the bits we need, yet we are also creators of sophisticated expression of our findings, weaving the facts seamlessly into our arguments. We wield rhetoric really quite well.

Or at least we do by the time we’ve been awarded those lovely letters at the front of our names.

So the word ‘student’ – does it boil all that down underneath a reductive title? As students (when we were doing our undergrads, college courses, postgrads) there was an element of being led to the end, but there’s no direct, explicit guidance now. Our supervisors are there of course, but the final say is ours, and in my experience your supervisors are very reluctant to say ‘do this’, or ‘you can’t do that’. The knowledge of this alone is really quite startling.

I for one definitely support shedding the student skin. Time to put on the big girl (or boy) pants. There’s no dropping the responsibility to your lecturers or tutors, there’s no ‘winging it’ as seemed to be our mantra for the past few years (No? Just me?). If you accept that you’re a researcher, a casual lecturer and tutor, a networker – that you’re training for the early years of your professional career, I think you’re more likely to thrive under this new-found responsibility. Don’t most of us have to sign contracts anyway? Taking this on board I think, will make headway in a few of the other obstacles we’re sure to meet on the way as well. For example, the Guilt…

Well, I’m in my fourth month now, so I’m still acclimatising in a way. But I’ve learned fairly quickly to let the guilt go. I used to agonise about spending any less than my minimum required 35 hours a week researching, but you need to be able to figure out how you work, and control your productivity. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a license for laziness, but if you force out work the odds are that it will be substandard and you’ll be on more of a low than you were when you decided to grit your teeth and get on with it. What we need to do is figure out what maximises our productivity, yet allows us to enjoy ourselves as well. Another blog I read suggested that you work in 30-90 minute bursts, then give yourself a break. Feasible. Yet it also goes on to say that 2-3 hours of work a day at full productivity is enough. Not so much – at least in my opinion.

I’ll share some of my ideas with you.

A change of scenery. I love my little office. It’s quiet, comfortable, plenty of room – and for the most part completely mine. My fellow firsty is in for half the week normally if I’m lucky. Yet staring at the same walls and everything plastered on them, hearing the same sounds – all that familiarity can get a bit dull. And with that, your mind and your productivity spirals. So some days I head out for a cup of tea and acquisition a comfy chair in a cafe or coffee-shop for an hour or so. Other days, I head home after half a day. The walk to the train station and the 35 minute train journey helps clear my head. Then at home I can free-write or read for two hours at least.

One of the tips my supervisors had for me is to structure my day. I didn’t see the value of this at first but I do now. If you say to yourself, ‘today, I’m going to peer-review’, or write or whatever – give it 3 hours max and that’s gone down the swanny. However, if you say ‘from 9-11 I’ll do this. From 11.30-12.15 I’ll do that, then I’ll take a break, then I’ll do that other thing I’ve been putting off for five weeks for a couple of hours…’ so much more gets done. Admittedly you need things to fill your day with if this is going to work. I’ve met this approach with mixed success, as all I’ve got to do at this stage is purely research and writing. No lesson planning or teaching, no classes of my own. The busier you are the better this works. I’m getting other things on my plate at the end of this month though, so hopefully…

I realise I’ve went off on a bit of a tangent here. There’s not much structure to these blogs you’ll find. But I think my point is clear. Once you’ve accepted that ‘student’ just doesn’t quite cover who we are and what we do, and you recognise and work with your new responsibilities, I think everything gets a whole lot easier.

It has for me at least.

Pat Thompson’s blog post:  http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/whats-with-the-name-doctoral-student

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