My good friend The Viking is leaving this week. We began our PhDs at the same time, she handed in just a few of months after me, and is now heading home to the frozen North. I’ll miss her. Of all the things I have gained during this PhD experience, perhaps I am most grateful for the friends I have made. I know that my department was a particularly sociable one, but I hope that most of you have been as lucky as me.
The Viking and I were – and are – very different. In our second year we were elected as the student representatives, and during that time we ran a conference, reinvigorated the various research seminar series, organised Research Week, sorted out MA Thinktank Sessions and ran a monthly student-staff consultative committee. All this work really highlighted the differences between us: myself – shy, unable to take charge of a committee meeting without a great deal of stress, but very organised; she – perhaps less administratively inclined, but distinctly more able to command attention and respect, to lead people and motivate them. We made a good team; the strengths of one outweighed – and even resolved the issues created by – the weaknesses of the other. I’d like to think we changed our department for the better. But I, at least, learned minimum of three lessons from The Viking in this period.
Firstly, being a leader. Perhaps not something you expect to have to be during a PhD and I was certainly not very good at this. Too timid, keen to please everybody, and with a tendency to cry with frustration if meeting filled with big personalities got out of hand. I have to say that I was grateful when The Viking took the task of chairing the conference committee into her own hands. She had no compunction about shutting people up and moving on (kindly, of course), so that meetings didn’t run on for hours and hours. Neither did she have a need to please everyone – she had conviction enough to decide and do what she thought was right. And she could do something that to me was amazing: she could tell people what to do, whereas my attempts were always prefaced by a mealy-mouthed ‘Could you please…you’d be ever so kind to…would it be ok if…?’ and rarely got any further – I’d feel guilty and do the work anyway. This leads on to the second lesson I learned.
Secondly, dealing with people – an issue with at least two parts. Once you’ve been a leader, organised and encouraged people, you have to let them get on with it. I’m unable to do this without interfering. The Viking trusted people to do their jobs – and do them they did. They don’t have to do everything your way to be successful. The second part of the dealing with people issue is realising that disagreements and debate are rarely personal, and shouldn’t be taken to heart. As far as I could see, things that hurt me rolled off the Viking’s back like waves off a prow: whilst any form of argument at all deeply upset me, at times it seemed she enjoyed dissent, because in some sense it was productive.
Thirdly, organisation. Here, perhaps, the lessons were reciprocal. My high-stress, bureaucratic tendencies forced the Viking into action and she translated them into action. Through this, I learned that it was possible to be – or at least appear – organised and cohesive as a pair or team, something I’d previously only considered to be possible for one person alone. But working on the conference with the Viking taught me that organised and successful action is rooted in trusting the person who is supposed to have your back. And trust her I did.
We haven’t worked together in that capacity for almost three years now. But when we went for tea and cake the other week, I learned one more thing from her. I have a tendency to be nostalgic about the past and a little frightened of the future, and whereas for the longest time I didn’t want to leave our department, or give up my role in it, she was always keen to move on to the next thing. Her relief at no longer being student representative was palpable – and my sadness was probably equally material. But staying in one place and role forever, as she has said to me many times, doesn’t allow you to grow. It might be safe and sensible, but it limits your experience, and it doesn’t let you come into your own. She’s always known that she would move on after this, though I’m not sure to precisely what, yet. I’m fairly sure it will be good, though.
So there are The Four Lessons of The Viking: Doing a PhD requires and teaches more than purely academic skills – the ability to lead, to cope with difference, to organise in a group and to grow up and move on.
Good luck, Viking -Á við sópa með þreskingu árina, eina mark okkar verður vestri ströndinni.