starting the phd – selling up and leaving home

Many doctoral researchers choose to leave home to do their research in other countries. They do so for many reasons, and there are many different stories to tell about their experiences. This is only one, by Louisa Penfold. It first appeared on her blog. It seems appropriate to repost it now, at a time when the UK government is making increasingly inhospitable comments and moves towards all of we undesirable  ‘foreigners’. 

September marked one year since I arrived in England. Moving countries or cities is never easy but the process is broken down into such small steps that the change is not as overwhelming as it may seem to an outsider. The one thing I wish I had known before moving to England was how much I would love my work, studies and life here. Doing so has opened an expanding world of possibilities and connections, many of which I never knew existed.

The decision to do my PhD was bundled up in a handful of other life decisions, none of which were particularly easy to make. There were tears, long philosophical conversations with family and friends and many bottles of wine involved. To be honest, it was possibly the hardest set of decisions I have ever had to make. It was hard because I knew deep down how desperately I wanted it and how not doing it would require putting my soul into a box.

It all came from left of field. I had thought about doing a PhD but had never found the right opportunity. I could have easily continued doing children’s community art work in regional Australia. There were many aspects of my job that I truly loved and believed in. But there was also a continuous niggling feeling inside of me that knew there was a bigger place for learner-centred gallery practice and continuously felt frustrated at seeing the low status of children within many cultural institutions. After the initial proposal was made to me, it took about eight months of deliberating until I made the decision within myself that I would do it. I then set about refining my research topic and making plans. I knew that I wanted to explore child-centred education in practice and not just as an intellectual concept. I always enjoyed art history and theory-based university subjects but none of them made my tummy flip in the way that making art and making creative spaces did. So it was decided: child-centred education, in art galleries and in practice.

3813934377_b40fb8e2e5_bThen there were the finances. Not being a UK/EU citizen made me ineligible for any AHRC funding and the Australian government does not give out student loans to people studying abroad. The only financial option for me was to be awarded scholarships and grants. Miraculously I was awarded four all around the same time that covered my tuition fees and first two years of living expenses. Without these, my PhD simply would not have been possible. Just before I left Australia I sold the majority of my belongings. I gave my precious books and artworks to family and friends who have promised to give them back ‘when I grow up and have a home.’ I never cared too much about material things and it does not bother me that I no longer own any furniture, car or major assets. When people ask me where home is I don’t know what to reply. I have moved so many times and am continuously travelling. The idea of ‘home’ is never stable.

Starting out I set myself two goals: to submit within three years and to not get depressed and stressed out. So far so good. I had heard the horror stories of PhD supervisor and fieldwork gone horribly wrong. I guess the PhD candidate-supervisor relationship is so individual it is difficult to transfer one person’s experience onto another’s. I feel guilty writing this knowing I have friends going through supervisor hell but mine are fantastic. I am glad I moved here for them.

Of course there have been times when things have not been so rosy. The difficult thing about living abroad is that your heart continuously feels like it is being pulled in opposite directions by completely different things. Of course I miss my family back home. My two brothers and I live across three different continents. That sucks because I love them so much and no-one makes me laugh like them. But being in England is so professionally fulfilling. I absolutely made the right decision to come here even considering all of the trials, tribulations and sacrifices it involved.

This summer I spent two months in the Netherlands and the South of France. During this time I cringed every time I thought of returning to England, despite the love for my research. Yet something must have shifted in me during this time as when I stepped off the plane back in London the cold weather and (sometimes) cold interactions did not feel like such a struggle anymore. I am now in the midst of my fieldwork, which is all going extremely well. I am living in another new city and working with a fantastic team. Ideas are coming alive and growing in unexpected and interesting ways. I am excited for what is to come!


Photocredit: Flickrcommons: crazyvet

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Louisa Penfold, moving away from home, starting the PhD and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to starting the phd – selling up and leaving home

  1. Yunying says:

    It is a hard decision before leaving and applying for visa. Every moving step pushes me to go further. I starts loving the place I live in for my studies. Many thanks for everyone who supports my progress.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s