A PhD life sitcom: It's the friends who make you appreciate the journey
Before starting the PhD, there was a sense that there was no doubt it was a long journey ahead. I’m no stranger to long journeys or solo travel so the PhD was almost an intellectually perfect fit. I often pictured any long piece of writing, be that the two previous dissertations or the two novels that I’ve written, as long climbs. Long climbs, for example, on the bike are always more about mental strength than physical. Cycling up a long hill, looking up to nothing but steeper road and no sign of any peak, is exhausting and everything in your head tells you to quit. Yet, when someone else is cycling with you, you keep going, you jeer each other on. The PhD is exactly the same. Any article I read about doing a PhD before I started was everyone saying how lonely the PhD experience was. I had images in my head of three years of solitary confinement and turning into Tom Hanks from Castaway. Perhaps the thesis would be called Wilson?
In some aspects as a PhD student, you are on your own little island but others are on that island too. Ironically, like Lost, it’s an island that tries to kill you at every turn and we try to escape it over the course of three academic seasons.
I’ve been very fortunate to be in a position that not many new PhD students get to be in and that is a part of a cohort. My PhD was created through a new stream of funding and they wanted to develop a new PhD community in the Education faculty. So I was really lucky to start at the same time as a group of students were starting. So in September we all boarded the PhD boat and it set sail into the bold new waters of undiscovered research. At the moment that boat is somewhere between the Costa Concordia and the Titanic, but what matters the most for this metaphor is we’re all in it together!
And that’s important to me. Those of you who know me well enough will know that I pride myself on the company I keep and I cherish my friendships. As much as I love friends and family who are not involved in the PhD, they simply do not understand the stresses and strain of the PhD. That’s not their fault. It’s an entirely different world. I might as well be on the Enterprise as it’s a vastly different adventure to anything else. PhD friends however just get it and like Vic put it so well, “You’re the only ones I can talk to about this stuff.” She’s right. For example, the stress of the RD9R form, initiation into the PhD, quest or journey to hell and back, whatever you want to call it, was about as annoying as hearing Adele on the radio every two minutes! I could have complained to friends or family about it but I don’t think they quite grasp the scale of the torture of an RD9R form. On the other hand, my fellow PhD brethren fully appreciate my anger at it all. We all seriously had good and bad days with that form!
Those that know me well will also know that I am rarely one to ask for help or seek council. When I do, you know it’s bad. I prefer to deal with issues myself but while doing this PhD, it’s almost as if the currency of a PhD is collaboration and help. You don’t help others for any person gain; it’s just what you do here in this weird and wonderful PhD world. If you don’t help each other out on this island you’re all going to starve. If one of you is a d**k, then you’ll get murdered and eaten. I’ve read Lord of the Flies; no one wants to be Piggy.
That being said, I love helping others out and I love giving objective advice. I’ve been on the other side of education as a staff member and I’ve seen all the issues that come with it. Therefore I’m well equipped to deal with most problems in academia, be that god awful supervisors to vast amounts of red tape. The former; I am so lucky to have brilliant supervisors for my PhD but I realise that I am one of the lucky ones. You read about horror stories of terrible Directors of Studies; unfortunately a dear friend is the one who has that nightmare! Pretty much “the empire strikes back” with that one. This is how villains are created! You know when you thought you could rely on someone being nice and then they turn really horribly on you. Her supervisors have basically pulled a Paolo from Lizzie McGuire.
So, the PhD friends have made this PhD so special in just the 6 short months I’ve been at it. I still don’t think the PhD is hard. That’s not some ‘ooh look at me doing a PhD and finding it easy.’ The Research Assistant job was just way way harder. I guess I have a busy GID department to thank for my training in those two years! So the research is fun, but what makes it more fun is the people. As much as I am a self-centered narcissist at times, I deeply value teams and team goals and I demand success from myself, so I demand it from others. I want other people to succeed. Yes, I like to be the leader of said teams or a point of contact for advice. It makes me feel like I have a purpose, which fuels my ego – pretty straight forward cycle. However, I love giving advice. There is nothing better than seeing your words being put into action for the benefit of others! If there’s s one reason I’m in academia, that’s to make a difference. Yet, in this job I don’t actually see myself as better than anyone else. We’re all equals in that office because we all have our different strengths that we all bring to the team. We’re pretty much the PhD avengers. Viva people and research degree committees are pretty much Hydra too.
You know well by now that I feel like my life is a TV show in a parallel universe due to the vast randomness that happens to me and all the drama that happens with my fellow cast members! If it was a TV show, I’m sure the audience would all have their favourite characters (as do I!). But if my life was broken down into a series then this new series would be the PhD one. I’m pretty sure if the PhD was a series or a new TV show, we’d “deffo” be rocking a 9.5 on IMDB. We’d even have our own theme song! ‘Sheryl Crows – Winding Road’ if you wanted to know. It’s literally the perfect song! This group has it all. Vast amounts of comedy and I mean vast. Every day is a laugh and some of the one-liners in this group are amazing! Sarcasm is rife; intellectual debate and comedy is pretty much how we talk to each other. You’d struggle to write a script as good as this. Yet, there is plenty of drama, there have been tears, and what makes every TV show compelling is the dynamic bonds between the characters. It’s pretty much the TV show community. Everyone is there for everyone else because we’re all in this sinking research boat together. It’s amazing to be in such a friendly and collaborative environment. No problem is too big or too trivial. Everyone chips in to help out. Not for personal gain but because we want all of us to succeed. Statistically, one of us will quit the PhD at some point. I like to think that despite us all wobbling at times we’ll be unique in doing this journey together. I’ve pulled one person back on the ship after nearly going overboard and I’m hauling another in as we speak. There will be no better sense of accomplishment to when we all graduate, knowing we’ve got through three years of the hardest mental challenge ever together.
So, a little bit about my PhD dudes!
Emy: The Dad. Is pretty much a time lord, I swear. For 52, he looks about 27! I don’t know if he bathes in a Lazarus pit but damn… I hope I look that good when I’m that age! Emy was the first PhD student I met in H003 and for about two weeks it was just the two of us in that office. Emy is like the Dad of the group, he’s the wise figure head. His life experience is invaluable to all of us and I think I speak on behalf of the group when I say we massively respect him for looking after a family and doing a PhD! His desk is a work of art in the sense that I thought mine was messy but holy cow, you need a Sherpa to navigate that desk! Luckily his advice and guidance far outweighs his sprawling mound of paper!
Laura: Cycling Bae. Laura was the second PhD student I met in H003 and my mornings would not be complete without our morning chats! Or should I say rants, and by rants I mean I sit there and listen intently and filter the information before giving wonderful advice, if I do say so myself. Laura though is very funny and we have real, deep, and meaningful chats. And we have our little side adventures – be that our cycling trips or sneaking into meetings that we’re not strictly meant to attend. Laura is probably the most studious out of all of us. She’s pretty much replaced Alex from Master’s in undergrad in that regard. A very hard working person! Also, there isn’t a staff member or trick about the uni that Laura doesn’t know!
Rosie: My office P.I.C. That’s partner in crime if you weren’t down with the kids. There is a two hour window in the day when we’re not in the office together and that’s pretty much when 90% of our work gets done. We talk constantly! Probably to the annoyance of others in the office, sorry guys! I often like to think of myself as one of the most laid back and chilled people you’ll ever meet. Rosie blew that straight out of the water. I think Hammock is a pretty apt nickname. We’re very much alike, which is no surprise, considering we’re only born three days apart. Practically twins! Also, a southerner who hates Margaret Thatcher!? What a winner. Rosie is also a constant source of good food and TV advice and especially sweets… but not before 12. You have been warned!
Vic: Miss Fun as well as miss organised. Vic is always the one to keep us motivated, happy and all together – forever organising stuff as a group. She’s incredibly funny too but I don’t think she realises how funny! She says what she thinks (which I love) and is a real down to earth, honest, and genuine girl. As she’s older than me she is pretty much almost like the mum of the group for her caring nature. Now that she’s our post grad rep, I couldn’t think of a better role for her and I know any concerns we do have are certainly in her most capable of hands. In the nicest way, she has that fun quirky charm which I know we all appreciate!
Hannah and Cara: I speak about them as one because they’re almost impossible to separate. They’re a package and a double act. Like Ant and Dec… but way funnier, cooler and generally more likeable. They don’t spend as much time in the office as those core groups of the original H003 but they’re always fun to be around. Again, always a good source of humour! They really do have a hell of a lot to juggle and I am amazed at how well they do all of it!
Katie: The newest addition to this mad house that is H003. Even though we’re only 6 months in, we all kind of feel like veterans of this PhD game now. Battled, hardened, and wary already! We probably came across as miserable buggers when she first met us, when we discussed the RD9R form and what lay ahead! More so than anyone else are we here for advice for Katie because we wish we had someone who’d been there and gotten the battle scars; so we want her to have an easier ride! Yet, it’s almost as if she’s been here from the start. She’s fitted in perfectly! Again, I feel kinda guilty that she drew the short straw sitting next to me because I really do talk a lot! On the plus side of that, she has a great sense of humour, sarcasm in spades, and what a wonderful surprise to find that we share a love of writing and the anguish of what it’s like to put words on paper through novels and blogs (get back to blogs!!). Also it’s so fun to see another person who has random and weird train journeys! See everyone, it really isn’t just me, it happens to others too!!
Some new PhD students will be starting soon but I think this core of students is the one. The beauty of this is that I am always in the mind-set that it’s the people that make the place. These people make that place. The PhD, although not hard, is by no means easy. It’s mentally challenging, it’s one hell of a roller-coaster ride. We all share and celebrate each other’s highs because we know, in the blink of an eye, we could get a crushing low. Everyone else in the PhD environment puts you down, tells you you’re crap, and that your work is never good enough. If it wasn’t for this bunch of PhD avengers I doubt any of us would have any positive outlooks on life. For someone who is highly independent, I never thought I would rely on a group of people as much as I do now. They’re friends, they’re a family. The PhD is one long and arduous journey in a boat that is constantly trying to fill up with water. Yet, with these people, I know we’ll survive and we’ll get off this PhD Island one day. For now, at least we have many episodes to come and I cannot wait to see them play out! I’ll end this blog with a quote that I find very apt: “It’s the friends we meet along the way, that help us to appreciate the journey.”
Anthony David Cliffe (@TonyCliffe210) is a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University and an editor at the International Journal for Students as Partners (IJSaP). This story was published on Anthony’s blog, The day in the life of Tony Cliffe (available here), and has been republished here with his permission.