Studying for a Masters degree under lockdown

Sweary seminars, grief and #Escapril: studying(?) for a degree under lockdown

by Chloe Erin, Masters student of Literature at Cardiff University.

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Around a fortnight or so before the UK went into lockdown, blissfully unaware of what was to come, I returned to Manchester to visit my grandmother for what would be the last time. I knew this to be the case beforehand, whether that makes me lucky or not I couldn’t tell you; I rarely get the opportunity to go home and her condition was deteriorating by the day, so my mum told me I should make certain I had a chance to say goodbye. I was in the park enjoying my newly instigated daily walk under the new regulations when I received word she had passed on. Strangely, I had been talking to a friend not long before and offhandedly remarked that I was just waiting for my dad to ring me, about which they later suggested may well have been my sensing of her departure from the world, which was oddly comforting, like a kiss goodbye.

A hotly anticipated announcement that lecturers would begin transitioning to online teaching had come a week previously, so my cohort were somewhat prepared for an unprecedented impact on learning and understandably quite worried, having already missed out on four weeks of teaching due to the very necessary UCU strikes. Personally, I was predominantly concerned about having to navigate an already uncomfortable situation through the means of video calling – I am autistic, and despite perfecting a somewhat confident persona (otherwise known as masking), I find it quite difficult to articulate myself well in a classroom environment. Factoring in echoey, crackled audio, time delays and an even greater difficulty knowing when it is my turn to speak promises only further potential for anxiety, sweating, profuse apologies and stumbling over every other sentence. I am currently studying part-time for my Masters in English Literature, traversing the second of a two-and-a-half-year course with one module per semester, the rest of my time set aside for part-time jobs and occasional tomfoolery. However, I am now actively tackling the prospect of my daunting fifteen-thousand-word dissertation as well. Working on the initial proposal for my biggest project to date alongside the twentieth century women’s poetry module I get the pleasure of this term is my current preoccupation as I while away the hours ‘til tomorrow… or it would be, if I could only engage with it for more than a brief period of time after four pm on randomly selected days.

Not to add to the growing list of reasons you should feel sympathy towards me (you shouldn’t) but I’m also chronically depressed, so staying inside by myself all day is really not my cup of tea; alas, my wonderful fiancée Eve is a medical student and thus was drafted in to support the efforts of our phenomenal NHS full-time. As a result, our lovely flat and I are getting very well acquainted, and if I had a pedometer, it would probably be broken by now. I am so incredibly proud, though, that I will persevere, and keep clapping for her and every single person risking their lives for us. I primarily work for the University as a disabilities support worker, filling financial gaps as a freelance transcriptionist, so duties are thin on the ground for me in the exchanging-labour-for-money department. Luckily for you, this is not a piece about my financial insecurity! Now, reader, you might suppose that swathes of free time to occupy myself with academia would present itself as a gift, and you would be correct, but regrettably, my brain is simply not cooperating with its opportunities to thrive in education. I do not make the rules. For the seminars I have had online so far, I have managed little by way of preparation, besides trying to finish the minimum weekly reading. My class is lucky – our tutor is lovely, incredibly accommodating, and has made it her mission to help us through each class as painlessly as possible. She extended the deadline for our formative essay, even held an additional session for us to bounce ideas off of eachother over the bank holiday weekend, which she really did not have to set aside time to do. Our video chats have actually been very surprising: productive, enjoyable and of a slightly less formal note than usual, cathartic swearing generally accepted under the circumstances. My course have been issued with a proposed ‘no detriment’ outcome for all assessments, meaning our averages can increase but a lower mark would have no impact – that we have to complete them at all seems futile to me, as I don’t feel anywhere near capable of surpassing myself, but it’s better than nothing and I should count my blessings. Other students are not so lucky, forced to continue as normal under such ambiguity and uncertainty, revising for amended exams to be taken from their bedrooms or attempting to complete assignments as they were with no possible leeway. I have heard some horror stories.

Reading, though, is something I want to sink my teeth into, a task easily managed with such a wonderful selection of books shaping the dissertation I intend to write; those keeping me company include Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, and Virginia Woolf, which is quite the dinner party, isn’t it? Eve and I managed to secure an almighty stack from the uni library mere hours before it shut for the foreseeable – I usually request my copies through the online service to avoid the narrow, dusty shelves and the dreaded Dewey Decimal, but we found a smidge of pleasure competing for who could find the most before we ran out of oxygen.  Sitting on the little bench just outside our building with an iced coffee, noise-cancelling headphones, and a chapter of whatever eminent queer literature I’m trying to work through that day is the closest I can get to peaceful at the minute. Perhaps I am not making as much progress as my peers; some days, I do not even bother turning my laptop on, recognising that Animal Crossing or re-watching the entirety of The Simpsons is doomed to steal my attention away uncontested. Beating myself up for not doing enough comes easily to me, a Virgo with a deeply rooted need for accomplishment (and thus validation), and normally I would be self-flagellating every time I pause to take a breath. But I am not. Even me, the queen of neuroticism and self-deprecator of the year, can be found cutting themselves a little slack in what feels like a never-ending onslaught of unpleasant news on top of worse. I lost a family member, I postponed my wedding, I miss my friends so much that even the salve of Facetime stings because it reminds me we are apart. Everything about my usual routine has flown out of the window, so how can I expect myself to function as if it had not?

The same weekend I saw my grandma, I also created an Instagram profile to share poems. Everyone’s favourite place to pretend and I have a chequered past, having deleted my original account a few years ago because it became genuinely detrimental to my mental health. The constant influx of filtered happiness was fuelling the fire in my head that believed everyone else was fine, leaving me to stagnate alone with my severely diminished mental health. I have no idea what possessed me to start uploading poetry to the internet again that day, but I soon stumbled across Escapril, writer and Youtuber Savannah Brown’s annual challenge proffering thirty prompts for poetry to be written every day in, you guessed it, April. I had heard of it the first time around, not participating, but appreciating the wonderful work that was birthed as a result. There is no obligation to complete every prompt, nor do you have to do them in any particular order, but I have set myself the challenge of doing so, in hopes of occupying my hands and my mind every day. As I write this, we have reached day thirteen and I haven’t missed one yet; I might not have produced any particularly life-changing work, and the algorithm is determined to make it as difficult as possible to reach a desired audience, but having something both non-committal and gently encouraging to aim for each day is proving helpful. Each poem has been an adventure – some came easily to me, others needed help and one or two were clawed out screaming – purgative, beneficial and therapeutic in their individual ways. Plodding along as best as I can, without pressuring myself (as much) to meet any deadlines besides the ones imposed upon me by the University, is all I am expecting for now. The world is at standstill, now is a time to recharge and take care of yourself if you are able. To those who are not, I salute you. I hope we will see the other side, together, as soon as it is possible.

Student experiences during COVID-19: the pandemic and the end of an Erasmus dream

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by Niamh Cole, student of the BA in International Relations at Dublin City University.

The journey to higher education and Erasmus

‘The morning I found out I had been accepted into DCU’s partner university in Gothenburg, I called my mam in work, crying because it seemed like a dream come true.’ 

I have never had the best luck when it comes to education. It was always said that I did have the potential to be academic, but my teenage apathy trumped all of that throughout my secondary school years.  When my Leaving Certificate (Ireland’s final school exams) results were lacklustre, I found myself surprisingly disappointed at the prospect of not being able to experience college life. I began to search for other ways to get into university, – which is something I hadn’t even been sure I wanted until it was clear that I wouldn’t be going. I ended up doing a PLC in Liberties College, and it was there that I discovered my love for politics, and also where I first learned about the Erasmus programme. I had grown up travelling with my family, so have always had an innate desire to explore the world. When I was filling out my CAO (Ireland’s higher education application system) for the second time, not only was it much more cohesive, but my ranking of each course had also taken into consideration the Erasmus options that were afforded by each degree. International Relations in DCU was my first option, as not only did it seem like an amazing programme (and the university happened to be down the road from my house), it also came with the option of studying abroad for a year in Sweden. I buckled down harder than I ever had in my PLC in order to get into IR in DCU, and then worked day and night to ensure I would have the grades to qualify for Erasmus. The morning I found out I had been accepted into DCU’s partner university in Gothenburg, I called my mam in work, crying because it seemed like a dream come true.

Erasmus life

I moved to Gothenburg in September, 2019. Erasmus was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Many had warned me that I would find it hard at the start, and would feel homesick and lonely, but none of that happened. I settled in quickly, met friends almost immediately, and adjusted to my new life. I was enrolled to take an entire year (60 credits) worth of gender studies courses, an option that was not afforded to me anywhere else, which would enable me to pursue a masters in gender studies. At that point, two years into my degree, I always joked that while my classmates were doing a degree in International Relations, I was doing a degree in Feminism with an IR perspective. The majority of my essays at that point had been through a feminist perspective, so to actually be taught with that feminist lense, rather than having to seek it out myself, was incredible. Classes were small and interactive, which enabled an amazing amount of group discussion, with people from all over the world contributing their stories. I was excited to go to class every day, and would call my mam as soon as I got home so I could tell her what we had spoken about. It sounds cliche, but time truly did fly because I was having so much fun.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

‘This once in a lifetime opportunity, that had motivated me to take my education seriously, was over so quickly.’

However, by the end of February it became clear that something unusual was happening. COVID-19 had been mentioned in passing for a month or so at that point over drinks with friends, or at our biweekly fajita nights. We would downplay the issue, saying it was “just a flu” and reassuring each other that we would all be fine. None of us wanted to leave, and we were all adamant that we would stay until the very end, which we all doubted would come. It was easy to live in our little bubble when most news was reported in a language we could barely understand and, as would grow apparent, the government was taking a very blasé approach to the whole situation. At that point I had received two emails from DCU reassuring Erasmus students that all was well, and that should there be any updates we would be notified. As the week went on, I was also contacted by friends who were worried about my health. I am known to have a weak immune system, and have been hospitalised for regular viruses before, so many of them were concerned and urged me to be careful.

The following week is when the situation very suddenly changed. On a Saturday night, students in our building began leaving in droves, and by Sunday morning it seemed as though there would be nobody left. By Wednesday, it truly seemed as though me and my friends were the only people remaining. On the 12th of March, a Thursday morning, I was on the tram on the way to a highly anticipated seminar, when an email informed me that it had been cancelled. It was the first time I had left the apartment in a few days due to COVID-19 concerns, so I was a bit disappointed. I got on the next tram back to my apartment, which is when I got the first of what would be many successive emails from DCU over the next couple of days. By Monday night, I had come to the conclusion that it was imperative that I leave by Thursday the 19th. However, due to the fact that Ryanair was my only direct option, and they only flew to Dublin from my city twice a week, I had to decide whether I could pack up my life in twelve hours or five days. At that point I realised that I had an assignment that would be given to me on Wednesday, which would be due the next Wednesday. This was common in the Swedish education system, which did take a bit of getting used to, as I usually have my essays finished two weeks before the due date, but as we only had one module at a time it was manageable. What this system did not take into account, however, was a pandemic suddenly impacting the lives and living situations of thousands of students. Suddenly, not only was I faced with uphauling my entire life, one that I had built for seven months, and saying goodbye to friends that I likely would not see again for a long time. And I would also have to find time to complete a 5000 word essay in the middle of it! This crushing realisation caused the first of many crying fits on the phone to my mam, who at that point had been urging me to come home for about two weeks. I could tell she was relieved that I had finally decided to do so, but also that she was incredibly upset that this once in a lifetime opportunity, that had motivated me to take my education seriously, was over so quickly and without warning, and completely outside of our control. The fact that I would have to be in self-isolation at home for two weeks without seeing anybody outside my family barely crossed my mind; instead, it was thoughts of mourning for the learning environment I had grown to love so much.

Leaving Sweden and returning home

‘Knowing I had left Sweden for good, and would be landing into a situation that would be isolating and scary, was daunting.’

I sat in the empty airport alone, watching as surprisingly few people arrived at my gate. The total number of people on my flight was less than 30.  It was Saturday night, and I had written about 500 words of my essay at that point. The stress that I was feeling about this gave me something else to concentrate on, rather than the instant homesickness for Sweden, as I watched my little city disappear into the clouds. It was the next Friday morning when I finally submitted it, the first time I had submitted anything after the initial deadline in the entirety of my university education, but the lecturers for my module had afforded us an extension due to the circumstances. That Monday was supposed to be the start of a new module, but over the weekend it was revealed to us that the main lecturer was stuck in South America, with no way to get back to Sweden. She attempted to video chat with us but her connection fell several times, and eventually it was decided that we would rely on pre-taped video lectures and uploaded powerpoints until her return.

It had been hard enough returning to Ireland for the holidays when everything was normal and I had the knowledge that my little apartment was waiting for me back in Sweden, but knowing I had left it for good, and would be landing into a situation that would be isolating and scary, was daunting. The ignorance bubble that my friends and I had happily resided in for the last couple of weeks was suddenly and harshly popped. Suddenly I could understand the news again, and it was full of international struggle. A daily death toll for Ireland was announced at night, sometimes followed with a slightly morbid poem or song. In the mornings, I was also unwittingly subscribed to hearing about how many people had died in Sweden: by way of my mam peeking her head in my door to tell me, just as I had just woken up. Obviously, I was mostly aware of the situation, at least more so than those on the German Big Brother or Jared Leto’s cult following, but it was hard to not feel hopeless about how dire the situation actually was. I had always taken Twitter as a form of exaggerated news, but in this case, it felt as though Twitter had softened the blow.

COVID-19’s effect on my education

‘Where I was thriving before, I now find myself struggling.’

Quarantine has had an effect on my education in so many ways. I would consider myself a social learner, finding concepts easier to explore in essays when I can explain them verbally to others. My time in DCU is marked with late nights in the library with friends, all of us pouring over each other’s writing and dissecting it. I did miss that during my Erasmus, but seminars acted as a replacement for that kind of interactive learning. However, being stuck in quarantine removed the social element from my learning completely. Where I was thriving before, I now find myself struggling. I had always had some journal article or academic book on the go, reading it at any opportunity and discussing the points with friends. However, while stuck inside, it has been hard to find the motivation to even begin reading anything. I have managed to rope my mam in on watching my lectures with me, just so I can explain and talk about the ideas with someone, but it is a lot less gratifying than a mutual discussion. A close friend offered her ear, saying that she would always welcome a twenty minute long voice message about my interpretation of a line from one of Judith Butler’s works, but the face-to-face element was missing. The harder it got, the more anxious it made me, which created a vicious cycle. For the first time since I was a teenager, trying to pay attention to my education felt futile. I could not blame the fact that it was “boring” this time, however, because it was part of the most interesting education I have ever had. It just seemed that every time I sat down to focus on something, I could hear news alerts of how many people had died that day. It was hard to not get in my head about the whole situation, feeling that my bad luck with education had returned. Hearing my thoughts centre myself in an international crisis was maddening, so the only way I have found to help is to put my situation in perspective.

I realise that I am fortunate enough to have been able to come home with relative ease, and to have a home to come back to, which has food and warmth – which is more than many can say at this point in time. I am lucky to have a family, and that I get along with them. And I am lucky to have access to education, especially an education which gave me the opportunity of living in another country. These are things I try to tell myself when I feel my mental health struggling in this isolation, while also grieving the life I had built in Sweden. I only hope that when all of this is over, we as a society become more aware of the struggles of others to ensure that should such a situation arise again, no person is left at such a disadvantage, as so many have been during this crisis.

Windows of opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

Windows of Opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

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by Claire Turner, PhD candidate at the University of Leeds.

I started my PhD at the University of Leeds in the autumn term of 2019. As a new postgraduate researcher, I had not yet attended any conferences, nor had I presented my research to anyone outside of my institution. In April this year, I would have been presenting my first conference paper to an audience of early modern scholars at the University of York. My paper – which was a combination of my MA dissertation and PhD research – would have explored the relationships between the plague, smell, sound, and unstable boundaries in seventeenth-century London. Unfortunately, my presentation has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, an event I was due to co-organise with fellow postgraduate researchers has also been pushed back for the foreseeable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unintentionally brought my research to the fore. My thesis focuses on how people experienced and perceived the plague through their senses in seventeenth-century England. I aim to discover how the five core senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch) interacted with each other to forge and alter perceptions and experiences of epidemic disease. Recent research into the symptoms of COVID-19 has revealed that the virus can potentially reduce our ability to taste and smell. This novel research resonates with my PhD project, which will encourage historians to pay more attention to the absence of sensory experiences during times of crisis.

The paper I was due to give in York next month is also particularly similar to the situation we now find ourselves in. My paper, entitled ‘Sensing the Plague: Hearing and Smelling Disease in Seventeenth-Century London’, argues that foul smells and sounds created during plague outbreaks caused spatial boundaries to be perceived as unstable. A striking amount of the material I cover in my paper refers to the significance of doorways and windows as unstable boundaries through which people communicated diseases as well as conversations. In 2020, we once again find ourselves resorting to windows and doorways to hold conversations with our families, neighbours, and postal services. On Thursday 26th March, thousands of people clapped out of their windows to show their appreciation for the tireless efforts made by NHS staff during the crisis. This representation of the window as a place of gratitude, hope, and recovery has also been explored in recent research on the symbolic role of windows in hospitals. Victoria Bates, in her research on hospitals and the senses, argued that the modern-day hospital window represents recovery through its natural light and vibrant colours.

As a history student, I am required to visit several archives and libraries across the country. These research trips act as a valuable way of networking by inviting archivists, librarians, and other PhD researchers to explore various archive repositories and to discuss ideas and findings together. Due to government advice to isolate at home, followed by subsequent library closures, I am unable to visit archives to conduct my research or network with others.

While working from home, I have found myself spending more time exploring the possibilities of using social media to publicise historical research. In doing so, I have observed that more and more of my academic connections are promoting their research in the form of Twitter ‘threads’ or virtual Twitter conferences. Other accounts are also setting up Twitter group chats and Discord chats for specific research areas — medical historians, humanities scholars, and many other science-based disciplines. My research, which encompasses early modern, medical, sensory, and social history, does not fit within one circle of expertise. I wanted to use my self-isolation to find a way to network with people from across various circles and share my research as widely as possible.

In mid-March, I decided to utilise my Twitter account in an attempt to network via social media. The tweet (which can be found here) briefly explained my lack of experience with networking alongside a short profile of my research. I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that many new PhD students will be unable to network or share their research in person for the entire first year of their degree. 

The response to my tweet was overwhelming. So far, the tweet has been seen by just under 700,000 people and has almost 40,000 engagements (i.e. people clicking on my Twitter profile, sharing the tweet, or replying to the tweet). These statistics alone demonstrate the power of social media as a platform for sharing information. I was particularly interested to note that a high proportion of people sharing my tweet were from outside my discipline. Alongside academics working in the more familiar fields of history and English literature, my tweet was shared by researchers from disciplines including philosophy, psychology, medicine, and neuroscience. From looking at the disciplines and departments from which people shared my tweet, I have learned about the possibility of forging connections with academics in fields particularly different from my own.

As well as sharing the tweet, a lot of people used the tweet to introduce their own research. A high number of these people were PhD students or Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Over time, the number of people sharing the replies to my initial tweet also grew. It is particularly rewarding to know that my tweet has allowed other people in a similar situation to my own to network and share their research with an online audience.

Networking online has opened my eyes to the many avenues available for not only historians, but other professionals to use Twitter for networking, disseminating research, and communicating with a broad audience during the COVID-19 crisis. Before I posted my tweet, I was only vaguely aware of the usefulness of video communication software such as Zoom and Skype. I had assumed such software was only used for the likes of seminars, lectures, and one-on-one meetings. However, networking on Twitter has introduced me to numerous other avenues for communicating on these and other websites — online reading groups, work-in-progress sessions, virtual conferences, learning workshops, and general support networks.

On a more selfish level, tweeting about my lack of networking experience has helped me appreciate the value, significance, and relevance of my research within the current global climate. I received an impressive number of responses to my tweet querying if I knew that my research would become so relevant and important. Inspired by what I have learned from my experience networking online, I decided to create an informal online support network to provide a window of hope and reassurance to postgraduate students during the current pandemic. The Discord chat is open to any postgraduate student (MA, MSc, MRes, PHD, etc.) wanting to join an open discussion about academia, research, mental health, and life outside university. I hope that my experience of networking online will encourage others to share their own work, forge lasting connections with researchers from a variety of fields, and explore the potential for their research to reach far and wide.

‘Coronaviva’: Preparing for my PhD viva in self-isolation

‘PREPARING FOR MY PHD VIVA IN SELF-ISOLATION’

work from home

By  Marianne Doherty, PhD candidate, Durham University. Twitter:@mdoherty_1

Wherever you are in the world, coronavirus is going to feature heavily in your life over the coming months. In an attempt to lift the spirits of those in the same position as me during these dark times, I thought I’d share some of the steps I’ve taken to prepare for my PhD viva which will likely be conducted over Skype while I self-isolate; I’ve dubbed it my ‘coronaviva’.

Isolation is a rite of passage for PhDs, we’ve done it before, we can (and definitely should) do it again

In the weeks before submitting, the only communication I had was with whatever God would listen and the co-op self-service machine where I mass-bought packets of Lavazza. This is far from unusual behaviour for a PhD researcher. It only takes a cursory scroll through the #PhDChat #PhDlife twitter highlights to see that thousands of PhD candidates feel isolated, lonely and fearful of what is to come, regardless of coronavirus.

I am a PhD candidate at Durham University. While I regularly travelled to and from Durham, I’ve lived in Belfast for the majority of the last four years and so, I’m well-versed in remote supervision. My research area is prison-education and my thesis, ‘Supporting desistance through prison education: an exploration of the contribution of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program™ in three U.K. prison-university partnerships’, will likely be examined in the coming weeks.  Like many of my cohort, the journey has been far from straight-forward. There have been times where I’ve pulled consecutive all-nighters to meet my often unrealistic self-imposed deadlines and times where I’ve celebrated the smallest of victories with people I would never have met but for the experience. Appreciating the complexity of the PhD process and the achievement of turning a simple concept into eight chapters and 100,000 words is the first step in preparation. It provides some much needed perspective on the prospect of conducting a viva remotely: it will be challenging, but it is achievable.

How do I conquer the fear and prepare for one of the most significant events in my life during one of the most significant events in my life?

I’m used to communicating with my university via Skype but examinations following the same format constitute unchartered territory and with this, comes stress and the inevitable fear of the unknown. A clear front-runner for stress reduction is yoga, I have a yoga mat, I look at it every day – I’m sure it would love to be used. Even better than yoga, though, is using self-isolation as the prime opportunity that it is, to consider the position of the examiners. I have attempted to do this by writing and recording a lecture on my research. While it initially made for cringe-worthy relistening, it has helped hone my oratory skills and this has been invaluable. I am now a lot more confident in succinctly articulating the objectives and outcomes of my research and would recommend it to anyone preparing for their PhD viva.

Publish or perish… literally

A further benefit of writing and recording lectures is that it serves to refresh your memory and help you to identify potential titles for publication. I’ve found this to be particularly helpful. Not only has planning for the future filled the void that followed when I submitted, it has given me back a sense of purpose and momentum.

My research was a qualitative study examining interview data from twenty-two prison-based former students of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program™ and an international sample of twenty-nine practitioners of the course. I had always intended to publish about the findings of the research, but in writing my lecture, I realised that the methods I had used and my positionality as an Irish, female PhD prison researcher were also potentially publication-worthy pieces. I came to the conclusion that even if they went unpublished, the act of delving back into the data and viewing it through a different lens could only serve to give me a better understanding of my own work. A preparatory step which I may not have considered were I not self-isolating.

Read and listen to everything except the news

There is no point in worrying about that which is beyond our control. While it is healthy to keep up-to-date with current affairs, it is certainly not helpful to repeatedly refresh the coronavirus death toll on your internet browser. I am guilty of this and I tend to read the news at various points during the day. Indeed, at one point, I had a twitter alert on coronavirus, but this is a practice I have stopped and since doing so, I’ve developed a much needed sense of calm. I have replaced this behaviour with podcasts and books unrelated to law, criminology or prison. This may not sound like a preparatory step, but it is – really.  During my PhD, I met a most interesting character who, at the time was an actuary studying attachment theory. Our backgrounds and our research areas were poles apart,  but I always left our conversations having made a new connection or having had a thought about taking my research in a different direction. Listening to a diverse range of podcasts, watching the lectures fellow scholars have made publicly available and reading beyond our discipline can expand our understanding of our research and its reach.

I’ve been self-isolating for one week but I’ve never felt closer to my family and friends

Countering loneliness with scheduled family FaceTime works. There are ten of us, we are never usually in the same place and yet, at 8.30pm every night, we are altogether on one screen. This has never happened before and it’s brilliant. There’s something very reassuring about everyone being in the same boat and for me,  it is one of the few silver-linings of the covid-19 outbreak; it has brought stability amidst the chaos. It is also a reprieve from viva preparation and an opportunity to listen to other people’s stories as though we were all in one room. The normalcy of this very simple act has been hugely beneficial for me. Where it is possible to do so, talk to your people, it’s good for the soul.

You might not pass, but covid-19 will

The key steps I’ve taken in summary are: appreciate what you’ve already achieved; write a lecture on your research and listen to it; plan your post-PhD publications; use social media to your advantage; and, communicate as much as possible with your friends and family because self-isolation does not have to be lonely. While coronavivas are likely to become the new norm,  with preparation they can be managed – we are far more resilient than we think.

 

Pride aside: Beg, borrow and fully realise the struggle of chasing the academic dream

by Dr. Zarah Pattison, University of Stirling.

Aaaaaaand…SEND.

When you have worked your arse off, gotten three degrees and work experience; sending (begging) emails to make people aware you are looking (desperately) for a job can hurt an already Imposter Syndrome riddled ego. Oh, and let’s not forget my Twitter CV post frenzy either…ahem.

I love where I work at the University of Stirling. Five months before I finished my PhD, I had secured a postdoc position with another group in the same department. This was something I never thought I could achieve. I worked furiously trying to finish the PhD whilst setting up the experimental design for my postdoc research. I handed in my thesis and went straight into my postdoc field- and lab-work for the next year. Once my data were collected, I had 6 months left and instead of smashing through the analyses and churning out a paper or two, I knew I had to start job hunting. Being in the position of not earning a salary was financially and mentally not an option for me.

I knew I wanted to stay in Scotland, preferably Stirling. So I wrote fellowship applications, grant applications, postdoc and lectureship applications – you name it. I also applied for a job outside of academia, as well as postdoc positions abroad. However, I didn’t want to move. I have recently gotten married and my now husband, who was previously supportive of a nomadic life, now says; ‘No, I am not moving unless you get a contract longer than a couple of years’. He has fallen in love with Scotland and has a job which enables him to support his daughter. But I can’t shift all the blame on him. I don’t want to move either. I enjoy where I am too.

ZP4

Zarah at her doctoral graduation

So herein lies the academic conundrums:

  • Don’t settle down, it will kill your academic career as it reduces your options.
  • To be a good scientist you must move institution.
  • Two bodies are more difficult to move than one.
  • This list could go on… (For example, I am not even going into to the whole ‘I am getting older what about having a kid’ situation).

This is how I am dealing with the academic conundrums occurring at this stage of my career:

  • ‘Don’t settle down, it will kill your academic career as it reduces your options.’

We want to stay here for now, so we are. A sacrifice which means accepting a non-academic position.

  • ‘To be a good scientist you must move institution.’

To be a good scientist is to gain various perspectives on your work and collaborate. So this is what I am doing. By collaborating and writing grant applications with current mentors and new ones at different institutions.

  • ‘Two bodies are more difficult to move than one.’

For now he keeps his job, we buy a house and focus on the present (like me trying to clear my years of study debt).

  • ‘This list could go on… (For example, I am not even going into the whole “I am getting older what about having a kid” situation).’

This is not my focus, but definitely on my mind.

Never underestimate how time consuming and draining the process of job hunting is. It became my full time job. This ultimately meant falling behind on my current postdoc work and triggered all-consuming guilt. However, I am lucky to have a supportive mentoring team. They looked at my applications, listened to my practice presentations for interviews and gave me the freedom to develop and chase my career.

I did not manage, as yet, to secure a long term academic post. I have accepted a post outside of academia, as well as being recently successful with two grant applications. Which is in itself another conundrum:

  • Give up a full time job for a short term postdoc contract?

Not possible for me in my current situation, but I am attempting to solve this another way. Wish me luck!

 

For more on imposter syndrome, read Eve Kearney’s excellent piece: ‘Dr Kearney Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imposter Syndrome’

How I Changed from Science to Technology

by Azahara Fernández Guizán

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How I changed from Science to Technology

I was never a kid that was sure about what professional career I wanted when I grew up. And this has been a good thing for me, because it has let me experience many different fields, and led me to where I am today.

I was born in the north of Spain, in a mining zone of Asturias. My father was a coal miner and my mother a housewife. I attended a local school and a local high school. My grandmother says I was an unusual kid, preferring to be bought a book rather than a box of sweets. I also started learning English when I was 6 years old, and spent my free time reading historical novels and biographies.

I enjoyed visiting museums and monuments, and I used to search for information in my town’s library before going on an excursion. I loved to write stories and tales, and had always obtained high marks in school, which led my teachers to suggest that I study medicine. But I always changed my mind –  from architecture, to journalism or even dentistry, depending on the book I was reading or the museum I’d just visited.

At that age, only one thing was clear: I wanted to be an independent and strong woman like the ones that inspired me. I hadn’t seen many role models during my primary education, but one teacher told us about Marie Curie. At the library, I discovered Rita Levi-Montalcini and the Brontë sisters.

 

SECONDARY STUDIES

During the last year of high-school I was a mess, and the pressure was high because I had to make a decision. All I had were doubts

In Spain at that time, after finishing your last secondary education course, the students that want to continue to a degree have to take a general exam, the PAU. You could choose the subjects you want to be tested on and, after the exams took place, you were given a mark calculated to take account of your secondary school marks and the results of PAU exams. According to this mark, you could register for certain degrees.

At that point, I decided to take more exams than necessary on the PAU in order to have more options in different types of degree, for example, science, engineering, or languages… But the worst moment of my student life came, and I had to decide.

I had two options on my mind: a Software Engineering degree, and a Biology degree. I must admit it, but at that time I only knew engineering stereotypes and I never liked video games or anything related with hardware, so I decided that a Biology degree would suit me better.

BIOLOGY DEGREE AND NEUROSCIENCE MASTERS

During my degree, I decided that plants and animals were not my passion, but I loved Microbiology, Genetics, Immunology and Neuroscience. I discovered more female role models, researchers who really inspired me, whose lives were incredible to me. I worked hard during my degree and travelled a lot during the summers, thanks to some scholarships that I was awarded (I spent one month in Lowestoft, another in Dublin, and another one in Toronto), and started learning German.

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Azahara in the lab

During the second year of my biology degree, I decided that I would become a scientist, and started to look for a professor who would let me gain some experience in their laboratory.

During my penultimate year, I started working in a Neuroscience laboratory, studying the 3D eye degenerating pattern on C3H/He rd/rd mice. After finishing my degree, I decided to enrol in a Masters of Neuroscience and Behavioural Biology in Seville. During this masters, I worked in another Neuroscience laboratory doing electrophysiological studies, trying to understand how information is transformed in the cerebellar hippocampus circuit and how this mechanism could allow us to learn and memorise.

This was a period of my life where I worked a lot of hours, the experiments were very intense, and I had the opportunity to meet important scientist from all the world. I also had a physics peer that analysed all our data, and developed specific programmes in Matlab, which impressed me profoundly.

IMMUNOLOGY PHD

After this period, I continued working in Science, but I decided to start my PhD on Immunology, back in Asturias.

I worked in a laboratory in which, due to my friends in the lab, every day was special. We worked hard studying different types of tumours and testing different molecules, but also had the time to share confidences and laughs. After three years, I became a PhD in Immunology, and as it was the normal thing to do, I started looking for a post-doc position.

Rather than feeling happy or enthusiastic about the future, I discovered myself being upset and demotivated. I really didn’t want to carry on being a scientist. A huge sensation of failure invaded me, but as J.K. Rowling said “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default”.

I want to specify that I don’t consider my PhD a waste of time – it has given me, apart from scientific publications, many important aptitudes and abilities, such as team work, analysis, problem solving, leadership, organisation skills, effective work habits, and better written and oral communication.

BECOMING A SOFTWARE DEVELOPER

As you might imagine, this was a hard moment of my life. I was unemployed, and doubtful about my professional career – just as I had been after high school.

Thanks to my husband, who supported me while converting my career, I decided to give software development a try.  As I didn’t have the necessary money or time to start a new degree, I signed up for a professional course in applications software development. The first days were difficult since all the other students were young and I didn’t feel at ease.

But as I learned software languages as HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Java, I also participated with good results in some software competitions which allowed me to gain confidence.

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In 2015 I started working as software developer in .Net MVC, a language that I hadn’t studied during my course, but I had the necessary basics to learn it quickly and become part of a team. For me, one of the most marvellous things about software development is that it consists of team-work.

I also discovered that there are a lot of people working in this field that love to exchange knowledge, and I regularly go to events and meetups. I have also started recently giving talks, and workshops, some of them technological, with the aim of promoting the presence of women in technology.

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Women and girls need to be encouraged to discover what software development really is. The software industry needs them. Software can be better, but only if it is developed by diverse teams with different opinions, backgrounds, and knowledge.

Tackling the ethical approval process

Forms over function: Ethics, ethnography and the NHS

by Carol Robinson

At times last year I forgot that I was doing a PhD. It’s not that I was having a wild time as a student. No, by 9am every day I turned up to the office my department has kindly provided, settled down at my desk and worked solidly until some point after 5pm. Some of that time I’d be keeping on top of email, or attending departmental meetings, but mostly, I was working. Twitter doesn’t distract me, I had an organised weekly list of things to do that I worked through, and things were progressing nicely, thank you.

So why did I forget that I was working towards a PhD? Because for most of that time everything I did was aimed at getting ethical approval for my research. So it was almost a shock to look up and remember that wasn’t really my goal. My goal is to do the PhD research, to contribute to human knowledge and understanding, and to do it in a way that improves people’s lives. For a while however, compiling what became 91 pages of ethics forms plus supporting documents and all the bureaucracy that goes with that completely eclipsed the research.

I always knew I’d need to get ethical approval for my work. What I didn’t appreciate was how time-consuming, frustrating and complicated this would be. I used to listen to other people’s stories of wrestling with UK’s Integrated Research Application System, or with the NHS Health Research Authority’s byzantine processes and think either that they were exaggerating for effect or that perhaps their project wasn’t, well, good enough. I’d had approval from the prison service for England and Wales for two previous research projects; how hard could it be? I now apologise whole-heartedly that these thoughts even crossed my mind.

I did make life harder for myself by wanting to research dying prisoners, thus requiring both health service and prison service approval, as well as that of my University. The prison service process was fairly straightforward and familiar. The real trouble was with the NHS processes, and with the relationship between the three bodies. What kept me going for several weeks, as I tried to untangle the mass of acronyms and synonyms involved, was the thought that I was gaining useful experience. At the end of all this, I thought, I’ll be able to put on my CV that I understand the process, know how to fill in the form and could liaise with a health Research Ethics Committee. Not true. The process is so capricious that all such an entry in my CV would prove is that I once had the mental fortitude to see an application through to its conclusion.

Although my colleagues will tell you I sighed out loud quite a bit, I did make it through the time when an overnight update to the IRAS website hived my answers off into two separate forms, one of which I couldn’t see. I didn’t scream when I discovered just before submission that this should be changed back to one form. I stayed cheerful as my participant information sheet, carefully written to suit people not that keen on reading, expanded to yet another page with all the extra information I was asked to include. I only muttered a modest amount when asked to add the (to the participants) totally meaningless IRAS reference number to it. I maintained my outward equilibrium whilst I confirmed I would not be doing things I’d never thought of (wearing clerical dress was my favourite such request, closely followed by audio-recording outside of interviews). But I confess my heart did sink when someone I was relying on to understand what should happen next said this would be a learning process for them too.

Being a reasonable person, I did appreciate that part of the difficulty was that I was having to fit getting approval for sociological research into a process intended for clinical trials. The mismatch only seems to be partly recognised by the bodies responsible. So, whilst there’s a protocol template to complete aimed at qualitative research, I still had to say I wasn’t using ionising radiation or using human tissue samples. And whilst there are ways to amend the project once it’s been approved, there’s no appreciation that good sociological research is often iterative. Instead, there’s the assumption that you will know all possible scenarios in advance. With this comes an assumed relationship to the research participants; they are to be the subjects, not the co-creators of research knowledge. There is no scope for an understanding of ethical research that deviates from a generic (clinical) ideal, and consequently, the best of a discipline’s specific characteristics and of its newer research methodologies can be lost. I say newer, but in practice even my well established chosen ethnographic methodologies sit uncomfortably with the process of getting ethical approval from a health research authority.

There was a tendency in the guidelines provided to use language in unexpected ways. Have you ever had that experience of all the words making sense individually, but being incomprehensible when put together? I found myself trying to draft emails to effectively ask “so if ‘host organisation’ doesn’t mean ‘the organisation hosting the research’, what does it mean?” I struggled, along with my supervisors, and it turned out, the ethics committee staff, to understand what the REC had wanted when it asked whether I had an ‘honorary contract’. Later on, the REC asked if the scientific validity of the study has been confirmed independently of the academic supervisors, giving as an example of how this might be achieved “a University PhD review process”. None of us, not my academic supervisors, not the university ‘sponsor’ that I’d discovered along the way was also needed, knew what this meant. We were stumped, and resorted to gently approaching a professor elsewhere to see if they could provide such an independent scientific review, and quickly. In the end, this was not needed –all that was meant was would the University’s ethics committee be looking at it. Yes, of course.

There were funny moments too. Having had my application reviewed by a Research Ethics Committee that met in Essex, I then discovered how similarly I pronounce ‘Ethics’ and ‘Essex’, on the phone, to a poor, kindly person trying to understand which ethics committee had looked at it. Eventually, I said, “the one that met in Chelmsford” and we moved on. Having three ethics committees look at your work is not fun. As things are, it’s inevitable for research such as this, but unsurprisingly their expectations are not always compatible. The prison service doesn’t want any contact details for external people, such as academic supervisors, included on Participant Information Sheets; the NHS expects this. The University wants email addresses only; prisoners don’t have email. The NHS REC regarded the notices that prison governors would issue to let prisoners and staff know about the research as ‘posters’ that the REC should scrutinise, so needed the final text agreeing before I could get their approval – 6 months in advance of the governor issuing the text. Prison governors are incredibly busy people, so I am indebted to them for having calmly accepted this.

There is, outwardly, plenty of advice available on NHS websites. Much of it is out of date, hard to find, or impossible to understand. There are flow charts describing a parallel world, ‘start here’ guides buried beyond discovery, and directories that are out of date. Lovely, kind and supportive staff within the NHS R&D offices or working with RECs do their best, but if your project is unusual, there are things they can’t be expected to know, such as that there’s a limited number of Health RECs who will look at prison applications, until it’s nearly too late.

I’m not alone in this. In my struggle to understand the process, I came across numerous articles by academics similarly venting their frustrations, including one that fairly calmly reflecting on the problems, before revealing that their own project had spent the entire initial research budget trying to get permissions for research. Wiser people before me have also found that processes designed for quantitative-based medical interventions and clinical trials cannot adjust to the needs of qualitative research. And yet not much seems to have changed. My gripes may seem small, but behind them is a bigger issue, that of the imbalance of power between researchers and research ethics committees and the lack of accountability of the people, some experts, some lay people, appointed to make such important decisions.

So now I have all the ethical approvals I need, 10 months after I first starting filling in the forms, I’m remembering fondly why I’m here. It comes in flashes; the possibility of time to open that new book I’ve been eyeing up, something on the news that reminds me of the relevance of my research interests, a chance conversation with a colleague. Best of all was a recent conversation with a senior manager at one of the prisons I’ll be visiting for fieldwork. We’d not spoken before, but within minutes she’d reminded me why I’m doing this, why it matters that I’ve survived through all these hurdles. Out there are people who are doing their best in tough circumstances, and good quality research may just be able to help them. I’m looking forward to getting on with it.

‘When you know better, you do better’: Tackling inequality in secondary schools

by Holly Foley, PhD candidate in Sociology at TCD, Project Co-ordinator at The Rising Tide Project and Junior Chambers Ireland ’10 Outstanding Young People’ 2017 nominee.

‘When you know better, you do better’ – Dr. Maya Angelou

 

Schools are the battleground where inequality can be eradicated and the students’ right to equality can be won. Society can judge its most vulnerable members with a very harsh eye. Nobody wishes to live in poverty, raise their children in poverty and be judged by their peers for the size of their TV, the food on their table and the clothes on their back. Let us imagine that we were all genuinely doing our best with the skills and knowledge that we had, however limited or however bountiful, but accepting that we were nonetheless doing our best. Maya Angelou bestowed many pearls of wisdom upon us, one of which resonates with me daily “When you know better, you do better”. It can be that simple. Schools bring our young people together to educate them; education in its many forms helps us do better.

There is a growing body of literature which explores the influence of school in the lives of young people. Now we know better, let us do better. Let our schools raise our young women and men up from their first steps on their educational journey until they march out the door, heads high armed with the knowledge and power to do better.  Sounds lofty? I am a realist, so let’s get practical. Our teachers must teach the curriculum, but in what environment, with what expectations and with how much awareness of “the hidden curriculum”?

Let us explore class inequality first. Research in an Irish context found that irrespective of social background and Leaving Cert grades, young people attending a school with a high concentration of working-class students were much less likely to go on to higher education than those who attended middle-class or socially mixed schools. In Ireland, students from middle-class schools were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training. It is not the bricks and mortar or the tables and chairs of the school that is creating such an obvious divide. Schools need to examine their culture.  Is everyone present because it is compulsory, or because they want to teach and learn and grow and do better? What is the belief system in the school? Do the teachers believe in their students? Do the students believe in themselves? Schools cannot control the messages students are getting in the media, in their neighbourhood or in their homes. They can, however, carefully craft the messages that students receive during their day of learning and they can encourage students to control how they receive positive and negative messages about themselves. What subjects are schools offering? Is the school offering a higher-level option to junior and senior cycle students? Schools which do not offer a European language and higher-level subjects to their students are sending a loaded, negative message to their students: these are not for you. Schools which do not offer and actively encourage students to study higher-level subjects are curbing the future life-chances of their students and need to hold themselves to a higher standard. What types of guidance does a school offer? Research tells us that working-class students and students from ethnic minorities are more heavily reliant on formal guidance in schools for making educational decisions. Does the school have a college-going culture? Are students exposed to different types of pathways? Visibility is crucial when planning post-school pathways. If a student does not know a certain career or profession exists, how can they pursue that pathway?  Simple answer: they cannot and so they do not. Instead they follow the familiar pathways that have been worn before them but, no more! Now they will know better and they will do better.

This leads us to the issue of gender inequality. Research suggests that male students achieve more success than female students in co-educational schools. Reasons for this include teachers calling on male students more frequently to answer questions, allow male students to speak over or ‘shout-down’ female students and dominate the discourse. Not only is this further reinforcing gender inequality in the classroom, but it internalises the power structure for females who carry this experience of subordination into higher education and the workplace. Are co-educational and single sex schools fighting gender bias in subject choice? There is a disservice being done to all students by not fostering a culture in which male and female students can actively engage in traditionally highly-gendered subjects.  If a school is not challenging gender bias in subject choices the message is clear to students from a very young age.  Students make distinctions between what is for them and not for them; thus, their pathways become gendered which is not in the best interests of the students, the school or wider society. Gender inequality damages everyone and stunts our growth as people and as a society.

I attended a single sex school, and I lament the wasted opportunities that a ‘better’ culture and a ‘better’ understanding of our agency in society could have created. There were approximately 700 young women in my school. Can you imagine the change 700 young women could make in the world if they were armed with the tools to tackle inequality in its various forms? Prescribed prose and poetry on the curriculum in my time did not speak to young working-class women and their place in the world, or the power they possess. Geography seemed a somewhat abstract subject, mountains, rivers,  and lakes unfamiliar from my own vantage point in a housing estate. And of course, the Leaving Certificate “points race”, a tall-tale of meritocracy, which in reality is run on a two-tier track and never the twain shall meet.

We do a disservice to our young students by not acknowledging the power to create change that they possess. One young person working in isolation to tackle inequality will undoubtedly face an unrelenting path. A school of 700 young people, hungry for more, has the power to create a tsunami of change in their community, to empower their peers to go forth and demand better. Schools must acknowledge their unique position in shaping these future agents of change. Over the course of a lifetime a school has daily access to young people, where they can empower them with the knowledge to create change, consistently reinforce these values and lift their aspirations to previously unimaginable heights.

Let us end on a reflection of the school as the ‘battleground’ where equality can be won. If a school makes it their mission to wage war on inequality, their students will carry this victory with them. Empowered and emboldened by this victory, students can assert their place in society and challenge inequality on a global stage with confidence and eloquence because these students will know better and these students will do better.

Researching through Recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery

By Sinead Matson, B.A., H.Dip. Montessori, M.Ed.

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Anyone who has had the misfortune to undergo a craniotomy should do a PhD. Seriously. It makes sense. Both paths have similar hurdles: Imposter syndrome – check! Struggle with writing – check! Trouble expressing your thoughts – check! Extreme tiredness – check, check! It’s physiotherapy, but for your brain.

I joke of course, because each person’s individual recovery is different, but doing a PhD has personally given me the space to recover from a craniotomy while still actively working on my career and passion. I was always going to embark on a doctoral degree but in October 2014 (ten weeks after my second child was born) I had four successive tonic-clonic seizures which ultimately led to the discovery and removal of a large meningioma (brain tumour) four days later. When I woke up from surgery I couldn’t move the right-hand side of my body except for raising my arm slightly; my speech and thought process was affected too. Of course, I panicked, but the physiotherapist was on hand to tell me that while the brain had forgotten how to talk to the muscle – the muscle never forgets. I instantly relaxed, “muscle memory! I’ve got this” I thought to myself – forever the Montessori teacher.

Nobody tells you that recovering from brain surgery is exhausting, so exhausting. Every day I had to relearn things I had previously known. Every single sense is heightened and a ten-minute walk around the supermarket is a sensory overload. However, I never questioned the fact that I would start college the following September; in fact, it drove me to do my physio and get physically better. I even applied for a competitive scholarship and won it. I can never explain enough how much of a boost that was to my self-esteem. There is nothing like brain surgery to make you question your identity and your cognitive skills in a profession that values thinking, research, articulating new ideas, and writing. It is like an attack on your very being.

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When I started, I could not have been more accommodated by the Education department in Maynooth University, but in a manner which was subtle and encouraging whilst still pushing me to do a little bit more. My supervisor struck a delicate balance between supportive and always encouraging me to look a little further and read more. I never felt mollycoddled or out of my depth (well… no more than the average PhD student).

Of course, there are challenges. Aren’t there always? It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing) when you cannot process a conversation as quickly as it is happening at meetings, conferences, or seminars; it’s the same for when you answer a question but know the words you are saying are not matching what you are trying to articulate. Submitting a piece of writing to anyone, anywhere, is the most vulnerable thing that you can experience, especially when your language centre has been affected and you know your grammar and phrasing might not always be up to par. Transitions flummox me, particularly verbal transitions like the start of a presentation, introducing and thanking a guest speaker, taking on the position of chairing a symposium, and day to day greetings. I lose all words, forget etiquette, and generally stammer. I forever find myself answering questions or reliving scenarios from the day in the shower!

So, what’s different between mine and any other doctoral student’s experience you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I see my fellow students all have the same worries and vulnerabilities. We all have discussed our feelings of imposter syndrome at various points thus far, our excitement and disbelief when our work is accepted for presentation or publication, and our utter distress at not being able to articulate what we really wanted to say in front of a visiting professor. I do know this: it used to be easier; I used to do it better; I never had problems with writing or verbal transitions before; it is harder for me now. But (BUT) I now have a whole team of people who share my feelings and frustrations. I now have a community who champion my successes and comfort me with their own tales when I have bad days. I now feel less isolated and more normal. They allow me…no…they push me to do more, to believe I could travel to India alone to research; to not let epilepsy or fear to hold me back; to believe that I could negotiate the research process on the ground with preschool children and their parents and not get overwhelmed. They have read papers and assignments for me before I submit them and they expect the same of me. They simultaneously allow me room to vent (and take the lift when I’m too tired to walk) and they push me to be more adventurous with my reading and theory – to take risks I may never have taken.

All-in-all, I cannot think of a better way to recover from brain surgery and all it entails than the absolute privilege of completing a PhD. It gives me a space – a safe space – to recover in. The research process itself has helped me learn who I am again, what I stand for, and what I believe. It has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise but I am positive is vital to my full recovery. It has exercised my own personal cognitive abilities, reasoning skills, verbal and written expression so much more than any therapy could have, and it has given me, not a cheerleading team, but a community of researchers who are on the same journey – in a way.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone – no two recoveries are the same. However, I wish there was (and I did search for) someone who could have told me before the surgery, but particularly while I was in recovery, that life doesn’t have to stop. That it is not only possible to research while in recovery from brain surgery, but that it can also have a transformative effect on your life and your sense of identity; that it will push you outside of every comfort zone you’ve ever had, and it will be exhilarating.

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The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.