Research for Research or Research for me?

Research for Research or Research for me?

Contribute to science they said,

it will be fun.

They said, significant.


Tables got turned in a day,

from naïve little student

now a part of the reign.


Yet it still feels the same,

is it now that I play my own game?


Wore a white shirt and grew a beard,

attempting to dissolve, be part of the lab and not show my fear.


Assigned was a desk with my name on it,

I ran with excitement and put up my feet,

logged on the computer to practice my wit.


But why be so self-conscious all the time?

doubting my every step, hitting a wall,

overactive metacognition doesn’t let me small talk.


Zooming in more and more

no one’s with me in this hole

is this how I will die all alone?


Reading on body perception while my feet are asleep,

reviews on visual awareness while my eyes cannot see,

reading on time perception but my time’s obsolete.


So I read and I read and I read,

about consciousness and constructs alike,

yet my mind is wandering.


Is that it?

‘’the authors interpret this finding as illustrating that subjects were aware of their thought content without being aware of the fact that they were mind wandering.’’


Is this research for research or research for me?

I draw from myself and think,

my experiences are worthy of print.


Yet there must be a meaning to this,

I’ve been lucky enough to be given some clay,

I am molding all day and it’s frightening

but perhaps I have something to say.


In my backpack today

I decided,

it’s time –

to put away my inquisitive mind.


Just for a day,

it’s time to play,

and find what it is,

I have to say.


Written by Naya Polychroni

Goldsmiths, University of London

Imposter syndrome and Institutional Contradictions

Imposter syndrome and Institutional Contradictions

In the process of being and becoming an academic, many people are employed on temporary, insecure, part time, ‘zero hours’, and under-paid contracts by universities in the UK. This blog is about one aspect of feeling like an imposter while I was doing academic work on these kinds of contracts, and is part of a bigger project about re-thinking imposter syndrome in higher education as a public feeling (Cvetkovich 2007, 2012).

Imposter syndrome refers to feelings of not belonging, of out-of-place-ness, and the conviction that one’s competence and success are fraudulent, that it is only a matter of time before being found out. Feeling like an imposter involves the suspicion that signifiers of professional success have somehow been awarded by mistake or achieved through a convincing performance. The sensation of having somehow ‘tricked’ students, colleagues, employers, interview panels, peer reviewers… combines with the fear of being unmasked, not only as incompetent, but as a fraud as well. So imposter syndrome implies underlying feelings of inadequacy and deficiency, but also conveys a particular felt-as inauthentic or fraudulent relationship to indicators of belonging and achievement in institutions of higher education.

In popular discourse imposter syndrome is often framed as an individual problem, to be overcome. I want to move away from understanding ‘imposter syndrome’ as a personal problem of faulty self-esteem inviting individualized coping solutions, and see what happens when we re-think imposter syndrome as a public feeling. Following Cvetkovich this involves: 1) situating feelings of imposterism in socio-political context and in relation to intersections of class, race, and gender, 2) asking what these feelings can tell us about the structure and governance of academic labour, and 3) thinking of feeling like an imposter as a potential source of action and site of agency.

Here I am focusing on the second aspect of imposter syndrome as a public feeling, and doing so in relation to being on temporary, insecure, contracts in UK Universities. I’m interested in how these contracts, and other aspects of the neoliberal and entrepreneurial structure and governance of higher education, can prevent academic workers from doing the work that universities ask for.

I lived in my friend’s box room for twelve months. The university teaching and research jobs that I was doing didn’t pay enough to cover rent in the city I lived and worked in. I was working as a ‘guaranteed hours’ tutor (guaranteed ten hours of work over the semester), and as a research associate on a casual (six months, ten hours a week) contract, and due to a series of bureaucratic complications my wage was delayed for the first four months. And I felt lucky to have this work. Like it was more than I deserved somehow. Like I wouldn’t have it if only my colleagues and employers knew how shoddy my work really was.

The contracts I was on at the time did not enable me to access the resources I needed to do the work. I couldn’t access university computers or printers. I could go and work in the library, but I couldn’t borrow books or use the internet there, and I didn’t have access to the institutional subscription to academic journals. For much of this time I did not have a university email address.

I did have an institutional affiliation, and I was doing work that led to publication. I wrote a book. In time this was followed by more – and more secure – academic work. Enabled by endlessly supportive colleagues and by my whiteness and middle-class status, my belonging and Russell Group background. I had a book launch, and the book won a prize. I got a new job, it was temporary (six months again) and part time (0.7 this time) but I was a Lecturer now, with an email address and a staff card that let me swipe into the building, I had library and journal access, I could use The Printer. I had more access to the resources I needed to do my job, and I had what felt like more institutional legitimacy – I had a desk!

During this time I felt most like a fraudulent, inadequate imposter during those spectacular, celebratory, visible scenes of something like my ‘arrival’ in academia, that in some ways enacted belonging and entitlement. I felt closest to belonging when the mundane materiality of the institution supported my presence; when I could print, email, swipe my staff card, and get paid at the end of each month. I put pot plants on my desk and I went to staff meetings.

Staff meetings regularly included announcements from senior management, including the need for our department specifically to be more active in income generation, the need for everyone to apply for more research grants, to make more funding bids. When I gathered together documents and research proposals and tried to apply for research grants, reading websites and eligibility criteria for different funding councils and different trusts I came up against a wall (Ahmed 2017). Many eligibility criteria stipulated that applicants must be employed on a contract that will last the duration of their proposed research project. Two months into a six-month contract I was not eligible.

This (frustrating, de-motivating) experience, of being told to do something by the university and being unable to do so because of my contractual working conditions at the university made me think. I think that the form of university governance that locates academic workers as ‘income generators’ can be the same form of governance that prevents academics from doing such work, from doing related work. Ahmed (2017) has shown how diversity workers in higher education are appointed by universities and blocked by universities from doing the work that they are appointed to do. When the university asks that you do something the terms of your employment can also prevent you from doing that something.

Feeling like an imposter (not belonging, inadequate, fraudulent, out of place, not really an academic) doesn’t appear surprising under these circumstances. One way that we might understand imposter feelings in academic work as public feelings might look like this: Not having access to the resources necessary to do the work the university asks you to do = feeling like an imposter.

Maddie Breeze

Early Career Researcher



Ahmed S (2017) Living a Feminist Life Durham, Duke University Press

Cvetkovich A (2007) ‘Public Feelings’ SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly 106(3)459-68.

Cvetkovich A (2012) Depression: A Public Feeling London: Duke University Press.

About the author:

Maddie is interested in gender, feminist research, queer theory, emotional labour in academic work, and the institutionalization of ‘diversity’ in educational contexts. Maddie has published on imposter syndrome as a public feeling in feminist academic work in a forthcoming edited collection Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University: Feminist Flights, Fights, and Failures forthcoming with Palgrave. She is a Lecturer in Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University, and will be Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of Education, University of Strathclyde from September 2017. Her PhD (2014, Sociology, University of Edinburgh) ethnography on roller derby is published with Palgrave and was awarded the 2016 BSA Philip Abrams Memorial Prize. @maddie_breeze


A letter to my first-year self.

A letter to my first-year self.

For everyone who joined us for our symposium on the 24th of May, thank you for making it such a memorable and thought-provoking experience. Rather than trying to summarise any of the fantastic presentations and discussions to take place, I thought I would try to capture some of the feelings the day evoked in the form of a letter, written to my First Year PhD self from my Third – and no, don’t ask if that’s my ‘final’ year – self:

Dear Younger Me,

Hello you! Yep, you, the nervy looking one sat staring at her phone and eating her twelfth chocolate digestive at the First Year PhD Student Induction Day. Put the biccie down, put the cellphone down and go and have a chat to the person standing awkwardly by the Gingernuts on the other side of the room.  Chances are, in that very room are a whole lot of people who will, over the next three to seven (only kidding) years, be the ones who will best understand the particular rhythms and rituals of your days. They’ll know that just because you’re still in your jimjams at 4pm doesn’t mean you haven’t been working really really hard. They’ll know the significance of seemingly insignificant statements like ‘I printed my first draft’ or ‘the abstract was accepted.’

Start the conversation with each other now. And not just to complain, don’t fill your talk with grumbles of ‘my supervisor never does track changes on my document too’ and anxious inquiries of ‘How many chapters have you written?’ Talk about the things that matter to you, why you came to this project in the first place. Look for common threads, conceptual or otherwise, or risk believing that the only research that is relevant is that which can in most obvious ways enable you to ‘get on with the job.’ Remember how often Theresa May is quoted for saying she just wants to ‘get on with the job.’ Remember that the job is bigger than just you and your own work (and Theresa May). If you see what you write as a means to an end you will form part of the ever expanding academia which produces unloved and unread books. Appreciate that there is meaning to be found in the most unassuming of places and that can often be through the work of your peers. Why did you come here to begin with? Has your reason changed? Change is okay, in fact, it is generally what you should be aspiring towards.

Remember what brought you to your research project, retain your sense of love for what you do BUT do not allow the rhetoric of passion and craft to allow you to be exploited. Resist being part of an academic world that naturalises inequalities in the name of passion.  Recognise that you are not just doing this work because there was something in it you ‘loved’. Appreciate that there might be more subconscious and subversive reasons you are here. We are all, invariably, attached to particular identities. Did/do you want to be the kid with the cardigan quoting Foucault? Try to understand how your idea of what makes someone academically ‘worthy’ might be serving to perpetuate the myth of what comprises academic legitimacy. Remember that everyone has their own story of how they got from there to here. Remember that your supervisor once had a supervisor.

Somewhere along the line you will read a whole lotta books that will make you radically reconsider everything you’d believed you were doing in the first place. Remember that rejecting objectivity does not make your research less valid – it makes it more so. Don’t stay up all night labouring over texts that make you feel small and stupid. There will be other writing, which makes more sense, be patient with yourself and with the library. Appreciate that theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin (Ahmed, 2017). Let your theory work for you. Sometimes that means it will feel incredibly painful, but so too, can it bring light and insight and hope.

Look around you. Witness how there are minds, like yours, that may not feel they belong. Bodies that do not feel they belong. Ask yourself whether you want to be part of an academia that is so exclusive? Resist this form of academia, but recognise that resistance is never going to happen if you don’t get a conversation going. So return, again, to talk to someone by the coffee machine. Set up reading groups, set up writing groups, make time for collaboration. Do not be stingy with your time. Do not buy into a capitalist conception of time. Appreciate that real academic success needs to move beyond the level of the individual. Allow yourself the space to dismantle the ‘promise of happiness’ (Ahmed, 2010) that an academic journey may have once held for you. Embrace the unforeseen joys, even when if they may not be revered within the academy itself (we NEED more academics who value and embrace teaching). And when the PhD starts coming towards its end, do not fetishize the boundaries of being inside or being outside of academia – being outside isn’t failure, being inside isn’t necessarily success.

You may feel you are too old to be treated like a student rather than a researcher, too young to have the authority to speak about anything at all. You might not feel you have the right accent, the right skin colour, the right qualifications to voice your ideas. You may not have that room of your own and your office might take the form of a heavy rucksack that’s morphing you into Quasimodo by the day. You are undoubtedly many things at once (a mother? a partner? a child? an activist? a worker on another project that makes it difficult to focus on your own? The list goes on). And all of this may be overwhelming, it may make you feel like you are never fully one thing or in one place. But therein lie all the possibilities of what your academic work can achieve, when you infuse it with the clashing colours of your life.

I wish you many conversations, which create the space for some form of change, and many chocolate digestives to fuel this journey.


The Older You.

P.S. In the second year of your PhD you will be tempted to do something very drastic to your hair. Don’t do it. Trust me, I’m you in the future and I’m telling you it will be a horrible mistake.

Social sciences and humanities: how to make them matter today?

Social sciences and humanities: how to make them matter today?

I read the announcement for the symposium on “Be/com/ing academic” on a cold day in early February 2017. It clicked with me.

I started my master’s-doctoral programme at the University of Sussex in 2012, and am pressured to complete on time this September. Since 2015, I have seen my colleagues and friends graduating from their doctoral programmes in the social sciences and humanities. Half started their careers outside of academia. Those who obtained temporary academic positions in the UK are on short-term contracts for teaching or postgraduate research, and unsure about their future in academia. In conversations with those who chose to leave, one question seems to appear often: how come our curiosity to understand the world and human conditions has been transformed into completing a task to answer a manageable question to primarily convince the examiners that “you got it to be a Ph.D.” Then no one is there to answer our next question: after getting a doctorate, can one bring back one’s out-of-the-box or blue-sky thinking and passion to make the world a better place in today’s academia? Those who chose to leave doubt the chance a fresh graduate has today, and academic jobs seem no more special to them than jobs in corporations, the governments or the third sector.

Here I want to bring to light those conversations and hopefully to stir a discussion at the symposium. Because underneath those small talks resides a bigger question about the future of the social sciences and humanities and how we could collectively respond.

Being yet-to-be academics, we are often told that a thesis is not enough, so just get it done, pass and get a degree. More urgently, we must think and act for the next real thing – publication, grant, monograph, professional networking – all to make ourselves competitive in the shrinking academic job market. Then, where is there room in those documents for my wish to respond to the questions rising from the ground and to do something about them? “These are not your problem. Leave them for others or till later. Focus on your Ph.D,” some wise friends from here and back home have told me. Across time and space, a clear message is converged and sent to me: get your Ph.D. But I still wonder: then what? And what is a Ph.D for today?

Some may suggest that it is “academic capitalism” which shapes our experiences today. Indeed, decades ago, Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhodes (2004) systematically studied “academic capitalism” and its varied polices and practices in the UK, the US, Australia and Canada. The decrease in social sciences and humanities funding and fierce competition in academic job hunting would not make the news today. Nor will anyone be surprised about the intensification of audit culture and the normalisation of the corporate management approach in higher education institutions.

In 2009, Liz Coleman questioned the liberal arts education offered in the US and urged her TED audience to (re)ask questions such as “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” Despite the urgency for us to complete our Ph.D.s (on time), Coleman’s questions, in my view, still matter. The Global Risks Report 2017 listed five risks identified at this year’s World Economic Forum: growth and reform (inequality), rebuilding communities, managing technological disruption, strengthening global co-operation, and accelerating action on climate change. Each area has room for social sciences inquiry and, more importantly, for our collective action, including working with those outside our ivory tower.

To work under the pressure of academic capitalism and strive to answer the world’s challenges, we may need to think hard and slow about how we can utilise what we have learned from our research to equip our minds, hands, bodies and collectives to imagine alternative future(s) for academia, societies and humanity. Some initiates have been taken. For instance, the International Panel on Social Progress was convened to answer the question “Can we hope for a better society?”

To conclude, this phenomenon of social sciences and humanities graduates leaving academia deserves proper investigation and the question about “what academia is for today” matters. This is not only for the futures of those living a doctoral researcher’s life but also to safeguard a space for seeing the bigger picture and asking good questions. I hope we all daydream once at this symposium and think collectively: how can we make a better academia for all?

– Yeyang Su.


Slaughter, S., & Rhodes, G. 2004. Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state, and higher education. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Writing in whose voice?

Writing in whose voice?

I want to think more about the importance of the voice(s) of our supervisor(s). A post from the children’s charity Barnardo’s, shared on social media, warned ‘careful how you speak to your children, it becomes their inner voice.’  I think that this is also true of the voice of our school teachers; and, as doctoral students, our supervisor. Like our parents and teachers in childhood, in our coming-of-age as academics, our supervisor has the first all-powerful authority to preside over what may and may not be written (and therefore what may be spoken, what may exist), and how she responds to our eager offerings of writing with praise or criticism.  We in turn relish and seek her approval, and fear and seek to avoid her criticism. In doing so, we increasingly reflect her preferences, dislikes, voice in our own writing.  Over time, this becomes absorbed as an integral component of our own inner voice as an appraiser of content, style, and overall worth of our writing (and often through this, of us).  Ideas bravely, tentatively shared with and rejected by the supervisor may never see the light of day again, and as such become lost forever, buried beneath the internalised hybrid voice of the supervisor-student.

My own supervisor had a particular liking for particular words and turns of phrase. ‘Chimes with’ was a favourite, where many others would choose an alternative such as ‘resonates.’ ‘Women’s experiences of working in higher education chime with wider research into gender inequalities at work.’ In time, my own academic writing became littered with ideas of theorists, empirical examples, and aspects of the social world, cheerfully chiming with one another in happy unison.

In our writing into meaning group last term, we reflected on how the voice of our supervisor lives on inside us, not only for the duration of our PhD, but beyond, as we continue on our own academic journey carrying along with us a little (or bigger) portion of the thinking of our supervisor. And their supervision. And their supervisor before them. In an unbreaking chain carrying forward the values, preoccupations and assumptions of the great canon of academic knowledge in our discipline and/or paradigm. And so, alongside our original contribution to knowledge, we reproduce our own new version of what has been before. In my knapsack of supervisory baggage I carry the cultural capital theory of Bourdieu, a sprinkling of feminist-informed researcher reflexivity, and so on…

– Dr Tamsin Hinton-Smith, Co-facilitator of ‘Writing into Meaning’ workshop
(University of Sussex)

The labour of working towards legitimacy

The labour of working towards legitimacy

None of my neighbours or family understand what exactly I’m doing. I don’t mean conceptually or theoretically (why would they?) but what exactly ‘doing a PhD’ means. I’m not sure I do either … although (apparently) I am doing one and it’s going ok. When asked, I say that, for me, doing a PhD involves a little bit of writing, some reading and a lot of thinking but effectively you have to write a book. I usually offer this explanation in such a way that allows it to be couched in self-deprecation, as if to reassure my audience – I’m not trying to be anything I’m not!

In many ways, how I interpret my intellectual labour epitomises my sense of alienation from a sense of academic legitimacy. I got my first paid job in 1985 at 12 years old, working for £1 an hour washing up in a café. From that time on, throughout school, I always worked weekends and holidays in shops, care homes, kitchens and laundries. I worked so that I could buy the shoes and clothes I wanted so as not to look like the ‘poor kid’. I worked so I could give the impression that I had enough symbolic capital to participate on an equal footing in the complex network of adolescent relations.  I worked to protect myself from feeling shame.

‘Working’ for me meant physical labour. Sore hands, an aching back and heavy legs. Tiredness. The ability to pursue a line of thought creatively and dynamically requires the time and a lack of responsibility that must surely be indicative of luxury, leisure or respite. This logic still haunts me. Despite the fact that ‘thinking’ is a vital necessity in the context of research, I taunt myself that hours spent in the cycle of sitting, thinking, munching, thinking and repeat is evidence of my laziness and, moreover, my academic illegitimacy. I need to be actively doing, in a way that can be witnessed by others, to gain legitimacy for my efforts and then maybe I’ll recognise its value myself.

Despite the fact that I have wanted to do a PhD for many years (mainly to prove to myself that I am good enough!) it would not have been possible to pursue this had I not got funding via a fixed term Teaching Assistant post. And so, of course, because my presence and activity can be witnessed and to some extent measured in this job, it is into the teaching that a disproportionate amount of my efforts are poured. The creative and thinking space required for the PhD struggles to gain legitimacy in a head which constantly tells me I’m not good enough to be here and that my purpose is the teaching job. To ‘work’.

The only way my intellectual musings can get some legitimacy is by making themselves visible as coherent words on a page – in becoming a product – which they rarely do, never reading as intelligently as I think they should. With no familial or social history of being in the academy to learn from or fall back on, the transformation of what I can allow myself to consider as valuable or legitimate is a continuous work in progress. A job that I don’t think will ever be completed despite some very notable progression. If working is only legitimate if it’s experienced as a whole-body achiness and tiredness, then this emotional labour is most definitely ‘working’.

– Second-year PhD student.

Image: “Washing up” by Martin Howard.

“Let’s hear it for the Neuro-diverse academics….”

“Let’s hear it for the Neuro-diverse academics….”

I have had first-hand experience of some of the difficulties I am researching, which adds a very personal dimension to my research.  As a PhD student with learning difficulties, it is becoming clear that the PhD process is rigid and does not easily accommodate ‘reasonable adjustments’ for its students. This realisation has led to feelings of self-doubt and makes me question whether my neuro-diverse mind will enable me to make it through the ‘rites of passage’ required by a doctorate and on to become a working academic.

Having said that, I am now carving out my own way, and I try to not let the emotion consume me. I take the emotional energy and use it to create my own map of processes and procedures that work for me, and which I hope will see me through my doctorate and beyond. However, I can’t help but feel that I am complicit in the ‘exclusivity’ discourse that surrounds and is embedded in the processes and expectations of doctoral level work. In order to make my thoughts and ideas accessible to other academics, I have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to how I present my research, even though at times I struggle to present my ideas in a linear and easily or commonly-understood way. Yet, it is expected that I do so. In short, you have to ‘dance the PhD dance’. The bar is set and you have to jump up and reach it.

In the social sciences, we explore matters of equality, normative expectations, marginalised identity, and other forms and manifestations of discrimination with the intention of raising awareness, of challenging dominant discourses and technologies of power. It is ironic, at best, that we do all of this from within an academic straitjacket. If I had a pound for every time I received criticism to the effect of: “No, you must present it this way”; or “This is the expected PhD level”; or “The ethics board/the research committee [etc.] expect this standard”, I would not only be able to fund my PhD but probably also my first piece of post-doctoral research. All of us – research students, early career researchers, and established researchers – have to operate within the expectations of a predefined academic standard.

Of course, there has to be a standard but, in the same way that very talented and gifted pupils who are neuro-diverse might be marginalised or disadvantaged in schools, the same could perhaps be said for the neuro-diverse research students, early career researchers and established researchers within the academic social sciences.  Perhaps it is time for academia to practice what it researches.

– Annemarie O’Dwyer
3rd year, part-time PhD student.

Image courtesy of Aegyo Kawaii’s Neurodiversity blog:

(Re) Building Research

(Re) Building Research

In January 2017, my supervisor passed away. The loss of this figure prompted me to respond to the Becoming Academic symposium. Having worked with my supervisor for two years at PhD level and two years at MA level, this loss was understandably devastating. My journey towards a PhD was utterly wrapped up in this figure who, from the start, seemed to have much more confidence in me then I ever had.

While grieving this loss, I reflected upon our initial conversation about the possibility of pursuing a PhD project. During the meeting, my intention was to simply see if they thought I was even capable of such a feat. I was expecting a soft rebuttal but hoping, at least, for kindly advice, but my inquiry was met with a positive invitation to pursue research under their supervision. There was no formal interview; no grilling; it simply seemed to just happen. Although this may sound exceptionally positive, the situation fed my feelings of being out of step, that I had slipped through the cracks and ended up somewhere I did not truly belong.

Along with writing, reading and the usual disintegration of ideas that occurs in those first few years, confidence was also an aspect of the PhD that we worked on together. Although, as a lecturer myself, I had no problem talking about others’ work and ideas, when it came to my own I would remain largely silent. I would listen to other students and simply think to myself, ‘You are really out of your depth, you are going to drown!’ I would rush past the department administrator’s office, in fear that if I was spotted I would be called in to be told that there had been an error, that my fears would be confirmed and I really did not belong there.

When I lost my supervisor I felt as if the fragile world of research that I had built, where one of the very few guests with an invitation was my supervisor, was collapsing. I wasn’t sure how I would find the confidence to share my thoughts with another. However, my feelings of loss have led me to reach out and discuss my work, often with a shaky voice or while enduring a cold sweat. I was adamant that I would not let go of the work that we had achieved, or the confidence in myself that this person had worked with me to develop. So, I have begun to speak and share and to hold onto to the confidence. I don’t believe I will ever be able to let go of the doubts I have about myself or the project but I accept them as part of the experience and work alongside them rather than not working at all.

– Rachael Finney, Second-Year PhD Student.

Image: a still from I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing (1987, dir. Patricia Rozema).

The Nature of Reality

The Nature of Reality

I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. For as long as I can remember.

Growing up my only experience of academia was through science and nature documentaries on the television. The idea that someone could spend his or her life exploring and documenting the world around us was amazing to me. The appeal was instant. By 14, I knew Physics was my future – my destination, the nature of reality.

As an undergrad studying Physics, I had surprisingly little interaction with any academics; almost all contact hours were one-sided lectures, until my third year, when I started my dissertation project. Weekly meetings with an arch-stereotype in the form of a pleasant, but absent-minded professor. These consisted of them not recognising me when I arrived, asking what my topic was again, and never quite explaining what it was they wanted me to do. (During one session they actually spent an hour searching for a paper they’d published either online or in print. It turned out they’d never actually written it.) Eventually I was given a rough field of interest and large computer programme, written by my supervisor, to play around with. Any semblance of direction ended there. At the time I felt I had no way to mark my own progress. Was the task I was working on even useful? What milestones did I need to be meeting?

My adviser for my master’s degree was, luckily, much more present and useful. Very little hands on guidance was needed as our first few sessions securely lay the groundwork for a direction to work towards. Within a few weeks of starting I knew completely where I was heading and how to get there, and felt confident enough to work independently through to the end of my project.

This time around as a PhD in Physics, I’m finding myself in uncertain territory. Often things feel vaguely familiar, which is dangerously misleading – there is a distinctly different underlying tone. The structure of my degree seems to be dramatically different from other fields. So far, half of my time has been spent dedicated to modules (a requirement of all Physics PhDs). Struggles involved in coursework and the like are familiar enough to me; any problems that come up are ones I’m quick to recognise and solve. They can be quantified and dealt with. One bad assignment, one tight deadline or one night’s sleep lost. Once the hand-in is done it’s in the past, and I can feel relief and move on.

A vast amount of my remaining time I spend in meetings, either in person or over Skype; some of them for little apparent reason. Time-consuming admin and bureaucracy is to be expected in any work place, however what really makes these meetings the low point of my week is that the content of progress reports and results is a unique cocktail of mind-numbingly boring and seemingly indecipherably complex. More than once someone next to me at a conference or with me in a Skype call has reassured me that it’ll all make sense soon enough, and that soon my work will be knee deep in new and confusing technicalities for people to scratch their heads over. As much as I feel they’re well meaning, often I don’t think they’re right.

Over the course of this year I’ve definitely struggled to mark my own progress within most aspects of my work. These meetings are a frequent reminder of how others seem to find this process coming much more naturally. Many of these people have come from the best universities in the world, educated and experienced to a level far beyond my own. Many of them have also had less conventional backgrounds, which seems to me all the more impressive; a testament to their hard work and natural fluency in the field. And then, there’s me. I’m not saying it’s 100% accurate that my interviewers made a mistake when they picked me for this position, but I often feel like I’m trailing. I was discussing with someone very recently how employers (usually) have the necessary experience to gauge whether someone is fit for a difficult job or studentship. Even whilst arguing the point, a small part of me is uncertain whether I believe it to be true for my own case.

Once more I feel a lack of basic groundwork (not just on my part) has left me feeling directionless and a little overwhelmed. My supervisors, colleagues, peers and friends are all helpful and supportive, however sometimes that’s no real substitute for clarity and the right kind of guidance. I don’t really have true deadlines. So my deadlines are just what I happen to have completed and then I feel as though I won’t ever be able to get that moment’s peace you feel after handing in a piece of completed work. Frequent progress reports, maybe designed to help this, often leave me feeling deflated and unproductive.

Much like being stuck on a row boat in the middle of the ocean – it doesn’t always matter how hard you work, if you don’t know the right direction to head in. Sometimes, though, you just have to keep rowing. Unfortunately, that is the nature of reality.

– First-year PhD Student.

(Un)Becoming Academic

(Un)Becoming Academic

6 months into my first academic post after completing my PhD, I find myself signing up for a workshop on ‘Challenging Impostor Feelings and Building your Resilience’. I did it on a particularly bad day fuelled by a lack of sleep with a teething baby and the revisiting of a rejected journal paper with a particularly wince-inducing set of comments. I thought the workshop would tell me the magic answer to why I often felt out of place and out of sync with where I was and who I should be as a newer researcher in higher education.

Inspired and relieved by this virtual offer of a future helping hand, I then read Ana Kedves’ blog about academic impostor syndrome and the ways academic life is experienced as playing a role, for which some, (particularly marginalised bodies) feel more at ease at this dramatic art than others. Yes. YES! I thought. I agree. That’s me. It’s not JUST me.

A good night’s sleep and a glass of wine later, I had to ask myself why it is that a grown woman who has completed 3 degrees, run marathons, climbed mountains, and birthed a baby felt she didn’t belong in a job she had A) been recruited for and B) gets paid well to do. These feelings of anxiety about doing a good enough job are not unique to academia. But there is something about the way academic life and its expectations are so loosely set out and how closely the ‘work’ becomes about ‘me’ that produce a particular anxious, unclear, overworked academic subject. Ros Gill writes beautifully about how feelings of stress, overload, fraudulence and shame regularly circulate in corridors and staff rooms but are secret and silenced in the public spaces of the academy. Oh it’s awful isn’t it. I’m so STRESSED. That’s neo-liberalism darling, I hear circulating always (and most often among my strong, capable female colleagues who are doing a fantastic job)! This then creates particular private and internalised models and vocabularies of doing academic life where we must be overworked and we must be unsure enough of ourselves to the extent that we keep working to ‘prove’ our worth. More than that though, it almost seems as if not been stressed or unsure (and being quite happy actually) becomes a sign that you aren’t performing your academic self well enough. The problem then lies where the ‘anxious impostor’ starts to become an identity I must perform as a new, female academic on an insecure contract. Thus the discourse of being in ‘crisis’ seems to reproduce and accentuate the pressures we face such that doing crisis and doing academia become symptomatic of each other. It’s unhelpful.  It’s individualising. And frankly I’m a bit tired of it.

While I am not denying the realities of workload, nor the affects of ‘impostor syndrome’ and recognise my own privilege in being able to speak back to it, I refuse to recognise myself only using the unhelpful, individualising notions of the insecure impostor who needs to be fixed. So I cancelled my place. Fuck it. I am going to spend these two hours I would have spent probably being told to ‘keep my chin up’ to consider forms of doing ‘academic’ differently. Indeed, the theme of ‘becoming academic’ proposed in this conference and blog enables us to re-think and expand possibility such that academic life becomes less about ‘how long can I go on?’ and more about ‘in what ways do we continue to go on more ethically, productively and collectively.’ For example, uncertainty is a powerful methodological tool rather than only an academic personality flaw – allowing us to pay close attention to our data. And writing collectively is not a lack of individual rising academic star-ness but a recognition that ideas are almost always better when emerging together and in conversation. So let’s unlearn the role of impostor as a form of resistance!

– Early Career Researcher.

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