You make many connections and friendships whilst doing a PhD, and some of those bonds are very strong. I’ve spoken quite frequently on this blog about my friend ‘the Viking’. She was one of my PhD cohorts, has frequently given me very good advice, and she’s often one of the central characters in my anecdotes. She’s one of my very best friends, and although she’s back home now, across the sea in Iceland, we still speak a lot. She has just handed in her PhD amendments, and therefore I thought it would be the perfect time to interview her and talk about her experiences.
So, it’s time to unmask ‘the Viking’. Please welcome the inimitable, incomparable, Gudrun D. Whitehead.
1.What was the subject area and topic of your PhD?
When explaining my research to people, I usually begin by asking what their immediate image of a Viking is. Most people picture the pop-culture fuelled Viking warrior stereotype, horned helmets and all. This is the basis of my research interest. I analyse visitor interpretations and reactions to Viking history as it is exhibited in Icelandic and English museums. By conducting interviews with staff and adult domestic visitors, I research the role of collective memory in the meaning creation process. Additionally, I look at the manifestation of personal, collective and national identity formations in museums in relation to pre-existing ideas on the Vikings. History is political and subjective, it is used in society in order to verify and explain national identity, establish collective social unity and normalize various social ideals and norms. In my research I accept this basic principle when analysing in what way individual memory is guided by a collective framework when navigating museum spaces. So, basically, I am interested in visitor understanding and interpretations of historical exhibition narratives and the manifestation and uses of the Viking myth within museums.
2. How did you end up doing a PhD? What were the circumstances, histories and personal desires which sent you in the academic direction?
That’s a great question. My father is a recently retired professor of History from University of Iceland, so I pretty much grew up in the hallways of that institute. Some of my earliest memories revolve around seeing these ‘old’ people, sitting around, talking about complicated stuff and disappearing into inviting, mystical rooms and down long hallways. It just seemed like such a magical place to me. Added to which, my parents read Icelandic sagas and folktales and myths to me (my favourite was Egilssaga, because it was terribly exciting and violent) and as I got older I memorized some of them by heart. This deadly duo had such an effect on me that even before I learned how to read, it was my aim to have a job which would involve literature, folklore, myths and sitting around, having deep, obsession driven conversations with other like-minded people.
I am lucky to have supportive parents, who always encouraged me to pursue a career which would make me content, and so I suppose I never really grew out of that wish.
Yet, after a master’s degree in comparative literature and Nordic studies it came as a shock to me that I needed a break from academia. Eventually I started working at a travel agency, managing tours for cruise ships which arrived in Iceland during the summers. This turned out to be an extremely valuable experience, from which I learned a great deal. The most important life-lesson I learned was that I was not on the right career trajectory.
Quite early on in that job, it became evident that I was the ill-fitting metal solo in the middle of a well-tuned pop song. Instead of organising tours to museums, I wanted to be in the museum, setting up the exhibitions. Rather than starting my day at 6 am, greeting cruise ships, I wished to be at my desk, reading thick, dusty academic books on visitor studies and exhibition interpretations. Through my work with foreign visitors, I became interested in understanding how museums might make themselves more meaningful to domestic visitors.
I will always be grateful to my former employers for giving me a chance and setting me back on the right track. This job allowed me to gain insight into the tourist industry, work with diverse people, museums and businesses, as well as travel around Iceland. Yet, as explained above, after approximately a year, I started missing academia, desktop research and sitting long hours at the library tracing obscure references and analysing Icelandic (and international) society, culture and history.
I explored my options for a while and discussed my career dilemma with my family. Eventually I stumbled on this course called ‘museum studies’. This discovery set the wheels in motion. I received good advice from numerous great people here in Iceland, which eventually led me to apply for a full time PhD study at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. And just between you and me and the readers, I found my childhood magic kingdom, filled with odd creatures who thought just like me, whose semi-mad ramblings about obscure interests and writings I thoroughly enjoyed. And here I am. Four years later, completely content despite some bumps along the way.
3. What did you value most about the experience of doing a PhD?
This is really tough question to answer, because I gained so much from the PhD journey. I suppose one of the most valuable lessons was gaining a renewed confidence in my work and in me.
From the very first day at the department, I felt as if people around me were rocking out to the same tune as me and this gave me the confidence I needed to continue my work, to rebuild myself and know that I was on the right track again. Everything else I learned and experienced during the PhD can be said to result from this realisation. From this sense of belonging. I met other like-minded people, gained their friendship based on mutual understanding and support. It was a department where each individual understood and allowed for each other’s quirks, individuality and obsessive research pursuits. I volunteered as a project manager over a successful international three day conference, Curiouser & Curiouser, I was student representative and took an active part in the PhD community because it felt natural and easy due to the positive energy of my surroundings. I gained a PhD in an academic field in which I have a passion for, learned research methods which will benefit me for life and developed my academic methodology and writing style. I travelled around England and Europe in the company of friends and colleagues who expanded my horizon and learned to work with different kinds of people. I taught, lectured and reviewed other people’s work and more. I did all of this because I felt that I was finally speeding on the right road. And all the stress, difficulties and anxieties I had during that time never outweighed the benefits I reaped.
4. How have you found life after handing in your thesis? Is it what you expected?
It’s hard to put into words. Doing a PhD is such an intense process. You become so involved in your PhD community and you go quite deep into the dark, unexplored, odd recesses of your own mind. Therefore, it can be hard to step out of the academic bubble and go back to the challenges and routine of everyday life.
Despite having been back in Iceland for months, I still feel like I’m living abroad, simply because I’ve been so involved in the final stages of my research that I haven’t had time to fully readjust to my old/new environment. That will hopefully change in the next few weeks when the final stages of my PhD are completed.
In many ways, the last year has been measured in a series of waiting for something. After handing in my thesis I waited for my viva, after my viva I waited for my energy levels to recharge enough for me to be able to deal with the amendments. At the moment, I’m waiting for those amendments to be accepted or rejected, so that I can fully take the next step in my life. This is both terrifying and rejuvenating at the same time. Each step you take, each obstacle that you finish waiting for brings you closer to completion. Each time you start really panicking about something, you can look back and think something to the effect of: “well, at least it’s not as bad as walking into the room where your viva panel is waiting”. By the way, I hope people don’t let this comment scare them away from doing a PhD, just like everything else in this process the viva (cue dramatic music) is simultaneously terribly scary yet wonderfully fulfilling and fun.
As to what I expected to feel, well, to be absolutely honest, I’m not sure what I thought would happen. One of the most used sentences during my PhD was ‘ATT’, which is short for ‘after the thesis’. I had all these plans on what I was going to do, how I was going to feel and react to my ATT life. Yet, I never wrote any of these intended ATT activities down, so most have now been forgotten. I consider this to be a good thing, because it gives me a blank canvas to work with, allowing myself to rediscover all the things I left behind when I went to England to study.
One thing that surprised me in all this, I suppose I expected to fall easily back into the rhythm of my old life. I didn’t anticipate the PhD process to change me as much as it did. I’m happier in myself and I can’t wait to get started on new projects, working towards my newly (re) discovered ideal job. I look forward to stop waiting and shifting into fifth gear, knowing where my destination is. I look forward having time to visit my old haunts, relaxing with good friends, who patiently tolerated my endless PhD related virtual rants and hanging out with my family again.
5. What are you currently up to?
Apart from waiting for the amendment results, I’m currently working on a number of small projects. Along with fellow recent graduates from the department, I’m taking part in establishing an international early research career network which I’m pretty excited about. I’ve been working part-time at the Museum Studies department at the University of Iceland which has been an amazing experience. I’m also working on several articles, both as co-author and individual ones, applying for grants, jobs and working on various other side-projects in relation to museum and cultural studies. Basically, I’m seeing what’s out there, testing my new wings.
It should be noted, that at this point, it has only been approximately two weeks since I handed in my amendments, so I suppose what I’m mainly up to at the moment is sleeping and being shocked that I’ve gotten this far and still have most of my faculties intact.
6. You’re teaching at the University of Iceland, you say. What is it like to move from being the pupil to the teacher?
It was an amazingly natural process. I was quite certain I’d be hesitant and nervous to begin with, but right from the first class I taught, I found that I was exactly where I wanted to be. I enjoyed teaching in the same school rooms that I was a pupil, being at the front of the room, rather than the back, lecturing rather than listening.
The first group of students I had were thoughtful and enthusiastic and I enjoyed their contributions and insights into the study material. It was important to me that no topic would be taboo in my class and to provide people with a platform where they could discuss anything in an academic setting. I hope that this came across in my lectures: I certainly had very diverse discussions during class. It was quite a rewarding process to see the students take some of the teaching lessons to heart during the course of the semester and I look forward to continuing that next fall when I’ll be teaching a couple of classes in the department.
7. Museum Studies is a relatively new course in Iceland. How does it differ there, in terms of teaching style, topical focus, influence and popularity?
To start off with, I think that because this course is very rather new, it is not really comparable to the course at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. It is at a different stage, finding the balance between international museological theory and domestic museums/cultural institutional practices and its place within the University of Iceland.
Yet, what I find most exciting about the course here in Iceland is the fact that it’s relatively new. It is still developing its own distinct academic trajectory, finding its place within the University of Iceland and within the museological literature. It has been great to see and to an extent, be part of this process. The museum studies course here in Iceland has the capability to become a relevant, wide reaching department, where people from a variety of disciplines benefit from each other’s experiences and academic backgrounds and to introduce new museological theories to the many, diverse museums we have in this country.
If I was forced to pinpoint something more specific, I think that students on an MA and even BA level of study here in Iceland are allowed more academic freedom to pursue their own interests within the course. I was teaching a course called “Trash Culture in Museums” last semester and in each class the main focus on student discussions and each project allowed them their own interpretations of the reading material. I did not assign any particular final paper topics or questions, but allowed each student to write in their own way about the course. The results seemed quite encouraging to me, students generally responded well and understood the coursework on their own terms, fitting it into their own life and interests in various ways.
8. You’ve lived in a number of different countries and studied in a quite a few. Do you think there is anything that the British academic system could learn from other European institutions?
I believe it is important for all European educational institutions to work together and learn from each other. However, it is perhaps impossible to speak in such general terms. Certainly it is bound to be dependent on each individual discipline, each institution or department.
Speaking from my own experience, I consider it to have expanded my horizon significantly to have studied in diverse learning environments. People are so different and so their experience within the education system is bound to be variable. From the strengths and weaknesses of each institution that I was part of, I learned a different lesson. Perhaps then, this demonstrates even more the need for cross-cultural academic collaborations and research.
One thing that springs to mind was a meme that regularly circulates around the web. A teacher stands in front of a group of animals, elephants, giraffes, apes, birds and more and says something to the effect of “today we are going to learn how to climb trees”. What strikes me about this ‘meme’ is it’s poignant way of addressing the increasing demand for education to be tailored towards different types of people, towards individuals with diverse needs and ways of learning. Certainly this is not exclusively directed at the British academic system, it should be a basic principle in all learning environments, including museums.
9. Is there anything you’d like to say to those embarking, or wishing to follow, an academic career path?
There is quite a lot of advice for people starting their academic career and PhD study. Making lists, focusing on your goal, managing your supervisor, reading enough, not reading too much, networking, focus only on your thesis, or alternatively, focus on lots of things besides your thesis. My first advice is, stop listening to all this advice. Think about what your goal is, why are you doing this PhD? What is your ideal job and what do you need to do to get it? The PhD is tailored to your needs.
My best advice for those starting their first shaky steps of a PhD would be to have something that reminds you of why you decided to embark on this journey to begin with. Keep something close by that constantly reminds you of why you are enthusiastic about your research. You have some stressful, life-altering, self-doubting moments ahead and at those times it’s very important to remember what your goal is, to remind yourself of your passion and interest.
Right at this moment, I’m sitting at a café, looking out the window. On the roof of the building across from me, is a large wooden cut-out of a Viking longboat. In all the years I walked past that house before my PhD, I never noticed it. In the window of the café is an advert for Viking Christmas beer, which, unsurprisingly, has a Viking related logo. I’m surrounded by the very thing that led to my research interest in the first place and it reminds me that despite everything, I’m still passionate about my work, I’m grateful to my PhD journey, even if it was hard at times. At home, I’m surrounded by the various little memorabilia people gave me which reminds me of the friendship and support of the PhD community. Whatever you put into life and your work, that’s what you’ll get back, so focus all your positive energy on your PhD and your surroundings and you are bound to reap the benefits.
Another thing which is good to keep in mind is that most likely you will never again get the opportunity to emerge yourself to this extent (for this long) in your own research. This is complete freedom, nobody else, not even your supervisor, can tell you where to go with your research, it’s all dependent on you. This may sound scary, but it’s actually quite liberating. Because in the end when you have finished your PhD, once you’ve passed your viva and gotten over your shock, you know that you earned that degree purely based on your own merits, your own perspective and theories. How amazing is that?
10. Obligatory cheesy/predictable question – where would you like to be in 2024?
Well, I suppose there are various cheesy answers to this cheesy question. I could tell you that I’d like to be working full time at the Museum Studies department at the University of Iceland, and that I’d like to be established in my field, a flat, car, vacation home in a beach town in Europe and all that. I could tell you all my hopes and aspirations for the future.
Yet if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that aspirations change. Tomorrow I might discover that I am better suited to work in a museum, or in a different academic field or that actually academia in its entirety is not for me at all. That I’d rather move abroad and open a vacation hotel in a sunny beach town somewhere.
Where would I like to be in 2024? Here’s a cheesy answer for you: I’d like to be in a place where I’ll be able to look back on my life without regrets, knowing that wherever I ended up, was the place I was meant to be in. This cheesy answer is brought to you by too much daytime TV, cheesy online memes and spending too much time in my own head.
Perhaps it’s best to end this conversation with a different answer then. One which is more reflective of my research perhaps? In 2024 I’d like to be an adventure seeking Viking, scouring the seven seas, a real shield-biting berserker mad with power and content with my silly, oddly designed horned helmet and a big axe. That seems like a fun life to me.