This is a guest post from Michelle Redman-MacLaren and Karen McPhail-Bell. Michelle is based in the College of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University, Australia. She tweets as @shelmaclaren. Karen is a Senior User Researcher in the medical device industry, based in the Silicon Valley, U.S.A., and Honorary Research Fellow at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, University of Sydney. She can be found at LinkedIn, Twitter @Dr_KMcB and her personal blog.
Do you ever feel like the world is conspiring against efforts to complete your PhD? Are you hesitant to reach out for help? We all need friends during our PhD, and here we share our story to show how peer support helped us – and might help you.
An 80km per hour impact changed my (Karen’s) life in an instant. A serious cycling accident left me with a fractured skull and brain injury. As a previously active, goal-oriented PhD student commencing my third year, I now struggled to plan and set goals, became easily disoriented and found it hard to break down tasks required for my PhD. Hours would pass of failed attempts to write, with only exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety to show for it. I needed support to structure my PhD progress, to re-learn how to write and plan. I reached out…
During the third year of my PhD, I (Michelle) was writing, retreated from my family responsibilities and part-time work in a peaceful, tropical environment – I was thriving. During this time, I noticed Karen’s SOS social media post asking “How many times is it normal to think about quitting your PhD?” This was unusual from my friend and colleague who was positive, high achieving person and rarely reached out in this way. I responded with a suggestion we share our plans to progress our respective PhDs, perhaps even weekly. A commitment was made, and a precious connection formed.
Weaving our stories together
During the next three years, we completed and submitted our PhDs (Michelle in 2015; Karen in 2016) and stepped into academic work. We wrote 215 emails (mostly weekly), had two face-to-face meetings (both two days in length) and three Skype meetings. Using co/autoethnography, we analysed the data generated and wrote into each other’s story through loops of reflection.
Three big ideas emerged from our co/autoethnography, with the details recently published in The Qualitative Report. Being in Academia encapsulated our shared experiences and processing of what it is like to be an academic – how we grappled with juggling commitments, managing finances, connecting socially, and then managing post-PhD transitions, working worlds, and somehow maintaining our own wellbeing in the midst of that. Not unfamiliar to any PhD or Early Career Researcher (ECR), Michelle reported, I need some meditation, exercise and rest . . . there just feels too few hours to go around. (Michelle’s email to Karen, 3 May, 2015). In a market oversupplied with research candidates for available positions the temptation was and is to be the academic super-hero, as Pit and Mewburn describe it.
We both grappled with Doing Academia, including making progress with our research and goals relevant to academic careers. We developed methodologies, planned our research and wrote, to achieve our PhDs and become employable ECRs. We discussed our shared commitment to enacting research and practice according to our values, including participatory and decolonising research methodologies. When one of us got stuck, the other often stepped up and provided suggestions, alternate frameworks, and possible ways forward. Karen reflected on writing goals sent by Michelle, writing,“I like your word goals for the coming months. I’ve wanted to set some goals like that, but really didn’t know how… My supervisors say everyone is so different, it’s up to me to choose my own goals. Some days, word numbers help; other days, sections of pieces make better targets. Right now, I don’t know! :-). As peers we supported each other to become independent researchers.
Our trust-filled, reflective relationship enabled our Sharing in Academia. We shared struggles, resources, opportunities, connections, and learning. While these actions nurtured the sharing between us, they also produced benefits. Tangible results of this sharing including publications, expanded networks, job applications submitted, and a joint project. The support was, for us, priceless.
It is becoming increasingly common for universities to support formal doctoral cohort programs that involve face-to-face workshops, Shut Up and Write sessions and support from formal mentors (Michelle is a mentor in one such program). Much of the value of these programs is resultant peer connections and peer support, fostered through shared time, space and interests. Online platforms also support PhD peers to connect, such as Shut up and Write on Twitter. Whether the peer support is formally or informally established, our experience is that it can be highly valuable – with peers you can say what you want to say in an empathetic environment and it is not likely to be career limiting!
PhD scholar, do you also find yourself in a situation where you feel like quitting? We share this personal account of our vulnerabilities and support needs to let you know that your experiencing is not unique – you are not alone! We encourage you to consider to who you could reach out in your network. Take a risk, even a small one at first. We hope our story has convinced you it is a risk worth taking!