Not a Foregone Conclusion- Coming Clean a Supervisor Meeting

I’ve been in a PhD funk for a while now. I had thought it was an inevitable symptom of my ongoing mental health problems re-surfacing, but the more I thought about my thesis the more uninspired I felt. Having been working on this PhD since 2011 (and with an expected completion date of 2020), I was beginning to feel as though the moment of my research had passed me by. Talking about Raunch Culture and hypersexualisation seems so passé, as though the conversation has moved on and the paradigm shifted. Already my own opinions on the matter have changed drastically. From being naively critical of lapdancing clubs and pole fitness classes I have reached a stage where I view the whole field of my research in a more nuanced (and thankfully more sex positive) way. My criticism now is not with any particular depiction of ‘sexy’ (or the people in those depictions) but on how few variations are present in those depictions.

Over the last few months I’ve been haunted by this nagging feeling that I wish I had chosen something else; I think this happens to most PhD researchers at some point in the process, but the feeling of wanting to rip it all up and start again was lingering and making even looking at my research difficult.  There’s also the imposter syndrome too. Again, not unique to me by any stretch, but I keep feeling as though I’m having to blag an understanding of sociology that I don’t posses. My background is in politics, philosophy and political theory and I’ve never done any field work before so I think deep down I felt that the sociology bit was getting in the way of some good theoretical thinking. I know that I need to engage more with sociological theory but don’t know enough about it to have any idea where to begin.

I decided to come clean with my supervisor when we met yesterday- tell her that I hate my thesis topic and don’t know anything about sociology. I expected her to either tell me that its too late to do anything about it now and that I’d just have to bodge the rest of the thesis, or to kick me out of the department entirely. How relieved I was when she listened, nodded and actually sounded excited about what I was saying! She said that I needed to think about why I felt my original research questions are now outmoded and that researching and theorising about the changes I have witnessed in the field and in myself were interesting subjects of enquiry in themselves. She said that I still had plenty of time to change direction a little or readjust the scope of my research and pointed out that perhaps I was feeling so uninspired because I’d already decided upon the conclusions of my research before actually having done it; that now, as what I am finding doesn’t fit with what I have theorised so far, I am becoming frustrated. Rather than this being a sign that its all wrong, however it could be a sign that there is something interesting happening here which I need to get to grips with. We discussed revisiting some of the core texts I had started my research from, Ariel Levy, Brian McNair, Rosalind Gill and Angela McRobbie to name a few, to reacquaint myself with the central themes of my research and what has changed in the decade or so since many of these texts were published.

Regarding the sociology again, she didn’t seem too concerned and I’ve ordered some introductory text books, index cards and fancy pens so that I can spend some time giving myself a crash course in sociological and cultural studies theory. I think the problem was that I knew there were all these tools out there which could help with my research, but I didn’t know what they were so couldn’t even begin to pick some to investigate further. In doing a basic survey of undergrad sociology I’m hoping to broaden my knowledge enough to let me know where to begin focussing in more detail.

As academics, I think imposter syndrome, lack of job availability/ security and the often isolated nature of our work encourages a harmful competitiveness by where we don’t feel that we can admit to not knowing something, or being stuck. Too much of the time we feel as though we are blagging it and ‘faking it until we make it’ and this stunts our own growth as well as each others’. In coming clean with my supervisor I expected to feel humiliated, like a fraud exposed, but have actually been able to get the help I needed to find the next rung on the ladder and a new thread to start picking at- and man do I wish I’d done it sooner?!

I also got the chance to properly talk to my supervisor about my current mental health problems and the impact they’re having on my research. This wasn’t so much about coming clean as I’ve been keeping her appraised of recent developments via email, but gave me the opportunity to talk to her about how I’m struggling to do anything for days on end when I’m ‘down’ and so full of nervous energy when I’m ‘up’ I can’t concentrate for very long on any one thing. We spent a good hour coming up with a plan for me to work on for the next 6 months which gives me lots of different tasks to dip in and out of when I can, which, importantly, should add up to meaningful chunks of work over time.

Ellie’s Current PhD Plan

  • Continue transcribing focus group but in short spells
    • Read over short sections of transcription and create a log of observations as currently struggling to transcribe and analyse simultaneously
  • 1 page a week of ‘Free Writing’ spending 1 hour writing non-stop on what I’ve been working on, not too much thinking or planning just writing
  • Revisiting what I have already written
  • Revisiting core texts
  • Looking at research questions
    • Which ones still work? Which ones don’t? Why?
  • What do I fell has changed?
  • Why does my research feel ‘frumpy’?
  • Why have I come to feel that my research questions and conclusions are ‘sewn up’?
  • Look at undergrad sociology text books – check out sociology website
  • Review women’s studies text books – particularly Victoria Robinson and Diane Richardson

I’ve spent the day out in the garden working and have got more done than I have in ages. My plan is now to spend the next few days and weeks ‘dating’ my PhD, exploring her further and reminding myself that she is not this separate entity from myself; she is an extension of me and she can be whoever I want her to be.

With the Feminist Media and Cultural Studies Summer School in Lancaster next week, I’m looking forward to having the luxury of a whole week away with nothing but me and my research to think about. I am going to try approaching my thesis from a fresh perspective as if we were starting again as strangers and am excited for the first time in ages about where this might lead.

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