This is the third post in a set about what to do during your PhD. Its been written by Sarah Burton, who is in her final year of a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths. Sarah describes her research as “using the concept of ‘mess’ to examine the relationship between practices of writing, power relations, and the production of legitimate knowledge”. Sarah tweets as @MsFloraPoste and is a convenor of the British Sociological Association Postgraduate Forum aka @BSAPGForum.
Poke your nose into the academic hash tags on Twitter or other social media and you’re head-on confronted with reams of instrumental advice: all the things you absolutely must do in order to form the best CV ever, and woe betide if you don’t, because you’ll only have yourself to blame when you end up unemployable. I jest – some of this advice is useful, and junior researchers often appreciate the help of their more senior colleagues in pitching our CVs in the most effective and creative ways. But consider this perspective: the PhD process is about more than just securing a job.
There are things we do along the way which push us to engage with our academic community in a way which is affective, supportive, and stock-full of what RuPaul would call ‘realness’. One of these is working with your subject association or learned society. Joining the British Sociological Association was something of a strategic decision: pitching up in Sociology from English Literature, I thought going to the subject association conference might give a measure of the discipline and hopefully provide a few friends. At the same time I spotted an advert for Postgraduate Forum Convenors: what better way to learn about how a new discipline works than to actually work in, and for, it?
Probably the most obscure form of support I’ve received is best described as spatial. It’s hard to come into a new discipline and work out its Machiavellian manoeuvrings (and even the nicest of disciplines plots and schemes!), but being part of the subject association gives a vantage point where you see how stuff happens. You see how people relate to the Association – even when you’re resented and hated, that exposes how the power relations work. Ultimately – and I feel certain the BSA will adore me for saying so – you get to see the dirty laundry of your discipline. And that is enlightening and powerful. For a ‘baby academic’ (as one of my research participants insists on calling me) this is incredible: it’s basically critical theory in action, uncovering the machinations of power in order to critique and destabilise that power. Awareness of how your discipline works, how it inscribes and implements rules, and how others circumvent and rebel against these rules, means that you can move more knowingly within it. This isn’t always related to building your career – though undoubtedly it helps. It’s both building your own field, whilst being aware of how others build theirs. It goes to social, emotional and intellectual support. Moreover, it gives you a seat at the table – even if that table happens to be the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Being part of my subject association allows me to position myself in the discipline and it brings with it the legitimacy of that position. Of course, this often means tacitly buying into hegemonic power but doing so is productive: it means getting our voice heard instead of shouting into the void.
The security of position that working with a subject association brings is reassuring and empowering, but for me the crucial benefit to working with the BSA is social and emotional. It brings supportive connections – from my fellow co-convenors, from the convenors of other groups, and from the central BSA staff themselves. Doing BSA work bluntly means that I get to meet vast numbers of people in my discipline which gives me more opportunities for finding like-minded folk and making friends across the career spectrum. There are more subtle emotional and social advantages though. Getting to know people through working with your subject association brings an extra layer of embeddedness in academia. People see your work, they see your labour – administrative, intellectual, emotional – and they appreciate it (no, really, they do). Through working with the BSA I get to support other postgraduates through our funding and conferences. It’s really heartening to create positive, open, creative spaces for postgraduates to come together. I also get to support senior academics by inviting them to speak at events. Speaking of, I won’t lie – we do plot our events to work out our own emotional angst within academia. Often (actually, always) choosing the themes for conference panels or who we get to speak is as much a political decision to tackle the dominance of powerful groups and voices, as it is about getting a line up we think will attract people. This gives emotional succour: you feel like you’re doing something and this means you don’t feel so helpless and at the behest of a behemoth-esque edifice.
There’s a hash tag – #survivephd15 – from a MOOC designed to help you ‘survive’ your PhD. Some people have terrible thesis experiences and these sorts of courses are, of course, useful to them. But I worry about entrenching the notion of ‘surviving’ our PhDs, and I suspect that this rhetoric comes from a narrative which sees the PhD purely as training for a very particular job rather than a period of exploration, creativity, and intellectual nourishment. If that job is precarious (and it is), then we naturally relate to it through concepts of survival, or Academic Hunger Games as my perspicacious friend @MinxMarple describes. But what if we thought of the PhD as beyond than that – as valuable for more than what it might bring to our CV? My academic activities aren’t about what goes on my CV; rather, they’re geared towards being part of a community, making space for myself and others, engaging and supporting strangers who then become friends, and going boldly into the unknown (to paraphrase Patrick Stewart). Lots of things help with this (I have the best supervisors ever, no contest), but being an active member of my subject association has provided tangible and agentive means of moving in academia in a way which is both affective and intellectual.
(Photos: the late Pierre Bourdieu and Dorothy Smith, living academic treasure: the captions are all Pat’s fault.)