Thursday, 29 November 2012

My New Life ‘As a PhD Student:’ Negotiating the Transition

Posted by Yitka Graham

My life is different now.

I’m not sure what has changed, but there has been a definite, almost intangible evolvement, prefixed by the term ‘as a PhD student’ over the last seven months. Superficially, the day-to-day aspects appear to be the same. But they’re not. I have noticed very subtle differences to the way I appear to be perceived by others. ‘As a PhD student’ I am picking up a range of messages from virtually unconditional support to outright negativity. The positive messages are affirming, inspiring, motivating and most importantly, much appreciated. The negative messages are very subtle and difficult to negotiate and unpick. After much discussion with other PhD students, post-docs, my supervisor and (of course), like any good researcher, looking for written evidence, i.e. PhD handbooks, I have discovered this appears to be a common phenomenon.

One handbook suggested the general population does not really understand the PhD process or the motivation for undertaking one. This in itself implies an air of ignorance and arrogance, which I don’t like. However, it is well known people may react negatively to something they don’t know much about. Do PhD students, myself included, come across as arrogant? Are we perceived by others as being arrogant? Are we assumed to be arrogant?

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend about to submit her thesis. She is in education, not public health, and I raised my observations with her to gain insight from a different discipline. She understood straight away and had also experienced similar reactions. Little things, such as sarcastic comments and insinuations, but related to the status ‘as a PhD student’. We discussed this at great length and she encouraged me to blog, to see if others had similar experiences and how they negotiated the negative reactions from others.

Tightrope Walking
Walking the tightrope between confidence and vulnerability: Tightrope Walking by jackol

I asked her thoughts on ‘confident vulnerability’, my current theory on life 'as a PhD student’. Description below...

‘As a PhD student’, one must be confident. Confident in one’s self as a person to undertake post-doctoral study; in one’s academic ability to develop and expand a variety of skills, academic and otherwise, and to present and indeed defend one’s research.

However, in order to successfully negotiate the ritual of the PhD, one is vulnerable on many levels, requiring submission to a constant process of questioning, negotiation, scrutiny and justification. A place where academia becomes intensely personal with you and your research becoming inextricably intertwined in the journey to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy. It will likely be the most challenging, personal, positive and fulfilling journey one experiences and in order to do it properly and gain the most from the experience, one needs to have the chutzpah to assume a vulnerable position. This again requires confidence. 

Does ‘confident vulnerability’ come across as arrogance to others outside the comforting world of academia and research, resulting in negative reactions?


  1. Ah yes!

    Needing to be confident whilst being relatively vulnerable strikes a chord - and I would like to add 'self-belief' and 'determination' to the mix. Which to me, lie beneath the important confidence banner you have highlighted.

    What a 'PhD' process is and means to you, your friends and family, and the rest of the world (together with the sea of expectations, assumptions and behaviours it generates) is rather interesting.

    Being a life-changing / transformational process places all that undertake one in a rather interesting dynamic social and learning space/context.

    I can see from what you have said that, for you, your place in the social 'fabric of life' may feel like it is changing rapidly and uncomfortable at times.

    But, does it really matter what some others think? Or, does it really matter what we think about ourselves and just a matter of obtaining the support we require?

    If someone you know is ignorant of the benefits of your work, it may be worth educating them.
    If someone has assumptions about how you will change into something they dislike that they have 'seen in the media' or experienced, then it may be worth reminding them of who you are and why you care.
    And (above all) being true to yourself, your values, and your beliefs is something that everyone should respect.

    In my eyes, remembering why we are doing what we are doing and acting on it can place us all in new and sometimes uncertain/risky situations but this is just one of life's risks anyway!

    - Mark

  2. Mark, thank you so much for this awesome reply. It means so much that my blog has struck a chord with you. Yes, life has changed and it does take me out of my comfort zone from time to time. As a person, I thrive on challenges, PhD life is full of them and negotiating the journey is half the fun.
    I think most people who know me would describe me as open and down to earth, so I am rather bemused that some people perceive me as arrogant. Maybe this is increased confidence and less vulnerability? But as you so rightly say, one must be true to one's self, ignore the negativity and as Susan Jeffers said 'Feel the fear and do it anyway'!

  3. Very interesting blog. I doubt whether the 'negative' responses which you describe have much, if anything, to do with your own demeanour. It's incredibly difficult to separate education from its class associations and the limitations on access (structural, societal, self-imposed, etc.) which these have brought. Having a conversation which casts education (at any level) as a source of benefit to society and its citizens, rather than a personal investment or even indulgence, is quite difficult. I suspect that your own commitment to increasing the sum of human knowledge and providing tangible benefits for the human race is coming up against other people's own experiences of education and access, and associated resentment and prejudice.

    Or, in other words, ignore it or analyse it but don't worry about it (other than as an interesting social trend).

    I've always been surprised at the immense investment which people - often relative strangers - place in people's not changing their roles, status, outlooks, etc. Teaching for the OU, and before that working with mature-age students, was a real eye-opener on this! One of my students was terribly upset when she mentioned that she was writing an assignment and was told off *by her butcher* for 'getting above herself' and 'thinking she was better than other people'. Of course, she was doing nothing of the sort (and anyway, what do those phrases *mean* apart from 'get back in your box and stay there because you're making ME uncomfortable'?). But her butcher? Really? If he'd criticised her hairstyle, or her method of cooking mince, wouldn't she have shrugged it off? If he'd criticised how she was raising her children or handling her relationship with her husband, wouldn't she have told him to mind his own business? And yet, she felt that she had to make an immense apology for engaging in education, and explain that not doing so was just as good as getting an education, if not actually better... and so on, which was really very sad as it wasted her time and ate up confidence and mental energy which would have been far better spent on her course.

    Incidentally I do think this is worse for women than for men, in many contexts...

    1. Thank you for your comments, you have raised points that I hadn't thought about, particularly the class associations with education and the gender bias.

      I shall take your advice and view this as 'an interesting social trend' and take my cup of tea and return to immersing myself in my research!