As students flood back into the city and onto campus, standing in doorways and wandering forlornly from building to building, it feels incredibly busy at my institution. But this summer was a strange time. Having worked in universities for a few years before starting my PhD, I knew that the end of the academic year meant a few slow months before students returned in September- but what I failed to realise is how that makes you feel when you’re continuing to study through that period.
Working towards my upgrade, plodding through interview data and attempting to write a coherent literature review in an office which was steadily emptying of people felt increasingly difficult. My supervisors were (understandably) away and/or busy with their own projects a lot of the time, and I felt guilty about contacting them. I was also distracted (but delighted) by the arrival of my first nephew.
Having had a productive and enjoyable few months, I had developed some confidence in my work and the PhD had felt manageable- but at this point I started to really doubt whether or not I was capable of doing it. A low point was bursting into tears one lunchtime in July because I didn’t see how I was ever going to understand ontology and epistemology, let alone talk about the epistemological position I would take in my research. So many things that I read seemed utterly impenetrable, and I was becoming increasingly demoralised by my lack of understanding. All in all, my motivation to work on my PhD was pretty low and my belief in my abilities was shaky at best.
Some time earlier I had registered to attend a conference for postgraduates entitled Life Beyond the PhD. It appealed both in terms of my potential career, but also because it was particularly relevant to my research area- exploring the career aspirations of doctoral students. But when it came to leaving Sheffield for the conference, I really didn’t want to go. I find conferences fairly intimidating prospects at the best of times, especially if they involve staying away for a few days and if I don’t know anyone else going- but at a time when I was doubting whether the PhD was even do-able, it seemed a bitter irony to be attending an event which involved reflecting on what to do after completing it.
The conference took place in one of the most beautiful places I have been. Colleagues of mine have been to conferences in Florida, Belfast and Paris, but Cumberland Lodge, a 17th century house in the grounds of Windsor Park (with its own library!) was a wonderful place to be, especially during a three day period of sunshine. This conference happens every year, and I’d definitely recommend it to any PhD student- it gave me a new perspective both on what my future might look like, but also on the struggles I was experiencing in my work at the time.
I was really surprised at the range of students who attended- from a variety of disciplines and institutions, but also at lots of different stages in their studies. There were people like me in their first year, but mostly people were in their final year- some had submitted their thesis, or were just about to which was great- for me it was so nice to meet people who had reached the seemingly impossible stage of finishing!
Usually there are quite a few sessions at conferences which are dull, irrelevant or just not worth bothering with. That just wasn’t the case here- the sessions had clearly been well thought-out and were targeted; in the first one we had talks from former PhD students from different subject areas who had forged careers both inside and outside academia. We were also made to work- as well as all delegates doing a poster presentation and an individual presentation of their research, lots of the sessions focused on getting us to work together- for example we were asked to develop an interdisciplinary research proposal to present to a potential ‘funding panel’.
For me, one of the highlights of the conference was the CV and applications workshop given by advisors from the Cambridge Careers Service. We had all taken a hard copy of our current CV, and within an hour of the session we were all sheepishly scribbling all over what we had brought and feverishly making notes of what we needed to be doing instead. We considered the kinds of questions we might be asked in an interview, using an example of an existing job description, and interviewed each other. It made me realise that I had given very little thought to the realities of finding a job after the PhD.
I’d be lying if I said I went home from the conference 100% rejuvenated and with my confidence built back up again- but I did go home with a plan. I met lovely people who had all had different routes to and through the PhD, which made me realise that there’s no ‘right’ way to go about doing it. I realised that there are a range of things that I could do in the future, and that I needed to consider a wide variety of career options (and update my CV!). I found out how I could get involved in public engagement activities, and considered how I might work more with others from different disciplines. For someone whose research involves individual conceptions of academic careers, I realised how much I hadn’t known.
But most of all, I learned that going somewhere beautiful for a few days, away from a desk and the noise of a city, meeting interesting and friendly people in the same position as you, and taking some time to reflect what you want your future to be, can be the best possible antidote to the summer blues.