I recently completed my first year of doctoral school at SOAS in International Development Studies. It was an interesting year to say the least. It was filled with feelings of uncertainty, isolation, and adventure.
Apparently it is the norm for first year students to feel like they have no idea what they are doing. And trust me – that is how I felt most of the year. I felt seriously lost and confused. At first this made me angry and nervous. However, I came to realise that the uncertainty of it all was the point. The first stage of any independent study is to read, read, and read some more (all with a critical and reflect eye of course). If you are reading correctly you should feel confused, that is part of the process of strengthening your understanding of the topic. So despite my many break downs and WTF moments, I was accomplishing something, I was learning and developing my research project. To all those about to start a PhD – embrace the uncertainty…and don’t freak out (too much).
Now, isolation on the other hand is hard to embrace. Coming from the Canadian education system, I started my studies in the UK with expectations of frequently having stimulating discussions with peers over drinks in the pub, and feeling a part of a richly diverse student community. Sadly, my expectations were not met and I found myself quite lonely and craving opportunities for peer review. I have come to realise that my expectations of PhD life were guided by a different culture of academia.
In Canada, it takes most students between 5 – 7 years to complete a PhD. Students embark their studies having to do at least a year of core course work, which includes 3 graduate courses a term. Essentially, the Canadian system assumes you do not have the needed theoretical foundation to complete your doctorate. Thus, they ensure you acquire it. In contrast, the UK system assumes you have the theoretical foundation to be successful in your degree, and thus, does not mandate course work (although you are encouraged to audit classes). In the Canadian system, doctoral students must also be teaching assistants (TAs) throughout the entire course of their studies, while in the UK, such positions are limited and highly competitive; some students will never TA.
These differences in the culture of academia make for stark contradictions in the schools role in student’s social life. In Canada, I would have been on campus most days, had my own office on site, and forced to engage with all sorts of students. I would have literally been embedded in the student body. In the UK, many doctoral students work off campus and have little engagement with the school or their peers. It’s isolating man. I was lonely a lot of the time.
There is some good news though – if you are starting a PhD and are a social butterfly who values peer review like me – you can embark on many adventures to engage your peers. To be honest, I didn’t try my darndest during my first year. I could have gone to more seminars, been in the Research Student Association (RSA) office asking what the heck was up, or worked on campus daily. I did however initiate a student led seminar series in my program. It was initially like pulling teeth to get people to participate, but in the end, it showed value and people took part. A colleague and I are going to kick it off with enthusiasm this year. I am also getting involved with setting up a PubhD in London (remember Phd chats in the pub are my jam so this should be a good fit). Lastly, the RSA at SOAS has just created some critical new posts for boosting student social activities. “Events Officer” – here I come (well I shall apply and see what happens). Being willing and able to engage in a diversity of opportunities for amping up student peer review is exciting!
All in all it was good year. Despite struggling with feelings of uncertainty and isolation it was an adventure. I came to appreciate and understand the uncertainty, and made strides towards alleviating my feelings of isolation. Going into my second year I feel better prepared to create the student experience I am craving. I charge all my fellow doctoral students to do the same – the beauty of doing a PhD in the UK is it’s flexibility. Create yours!
August 11, 2016