Don’t go into a PhD expecting that it won’t change you as a person. These changes may not be immediately obvious, nor should you assume they will be positive – though overall you should expect your PhD to be an enriching experience, both academically and personally. On reflection, my own personal journey over the course of my PhD was huge. I could not see it then, but I can see it now.
One of the things that I recall most clearly from that time is the number of questions I had about myself: who I was, where I had come from and where I was going. These are the type of questions most of us ask ourselves all of the time, but during this period in my life I think they seemed more pressing and urgent.
While questions led to uncertainty, perhaps even at times a loss of confidence, overall they proved valuable and allowed me to begin to connect with who I was then and who I am now. I was lost, but sometimes I found myself. Still young and learning, and not able to recognise the journey I was on.
In this blog, I look back at these years and explore some of the ways my PhD enhanced my personal development and contributed to who I am today.
Finding my grounding
There is undoubtedly institutionalised snobbery in academia – the liberal elite reign here and while there is much to celebrate through their rule – it can be difficult for a ‘green eyed’ PhD student to understand the subtleties of this snobbery and not to be consumed by it.
On reflection, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t feel at home in academia. But of course, at the time I wanted to fit in! I read Latour, Foucault and Deleuze. I drank green tea and made the effort to attend departmental ‘nights out’. I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t, I was just searching for myself and trying to fit in.
But through all that searching, I lost my grounding. I found myself meandering through my mid-20’s wondering what I really believed in, and who I really was.
I now realise that this assimilation into highbrow leftyness, and my subsequent rejection of it, in favour of something more grounded taught me a great deal about who I was. I learnt that I didn’t need to change to fit into academia, academia needs “down to earth” people interested in down to earth things.
Life is full of jobs, institutions, societies, clubs etc. that subtly ask you to change who you are. Our society is guilty of this – it’s our conditioning. We are all conditioned by someone or something in our lives, it’s part of life. But if you can find your feet, and understand who you are and what you believe in, you can find your own confident path. I’m grateful to academia for showing me this, for helping me understand who I am, and for allowing me to see that my future is most likely outside of academia.
Time for reflection and self-learning
Personal change can be difficult to recognise, as can the desire for change. I wonder how unique my own searching for identity during my PhD years actually was? I doubt whether it was unique to me, or related to undertaking a PhD alone. But undoubtedly, a PhD often comes down to questions and answers, and I’m sure there is some overspill into personal life.
One of the most interesting things about doing a PhD is the time you have for thoughtful reflection. If you do have questions about life, a PhD can provide a wonderful opportunity for thinking about all sorts of things.
Thinking alone is perhaps not worthy of note. But learning to think about things logically, learning to apply fairness and being aware of bias (both conscious and sub-conscious) are the result of being given the opportunity to think, to mull things over and practice logic and fairness in the search for answers.
These attributes may not be the first on the list of benefits of undertaking a PhD. However, I’m convinced that personal reflection and an increased aptitude for asking searching questions can result in more enlightened souls. Not all people with PhDs are saints, not all people ask the same questions with the same intentions, but I feel that my PhD gave me a more enlightened approach to answering questions and exploring complex issues – especially about myself.
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer them.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Your PhD years will be your own. I’m grateful for all the questions I had during these years, and for the fact that I’ve found some of the answers along the way.