I’m 112 in PhD Years: Exploring and accepting my fine Academic ‘Mess’

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‘I’m 25 in the rest of the world, but I’m about 48 in actress years. I’m just around the corner from my midlife crisis.’

Amber Heard cited in (CBS News, 2011)


I started my PhD a long time ago. A REALLY long time ago; David Cameron (remember him?) was still Prime Minister, the country was rioting, and the US had just killed Osama Bin Laden. I’ve come to realise that every PhD journey is an epic one, the late nights, the nagging doubts, the permanent and soul-destroying combination of inferiority complex and imposter syndrome; they’re all part of the price we pay (to say nothing of the actual price, as tuition fees continue to rise, the academic job market becomes ever more casualised and the prospect of every paying off one’s overdraft is almost as absurd as that of being able to buy a house!). Rant aside, I am aware that the ups and downs of doctoral research are almost universal to all of us who dare (are daft enough?) to wander here. That said, my journey has been an exceptionally long one. The nature of a (financially dictated) part time study, coupled with my long and complex history of mental illness has meant that (gods be willing!) I will undertake my viva nine years after I made that fateful decision to submit my application to study.

Writing a thesis over the course of a decade has many downsides, you suffer the envy of watching your colleagues come and go, moving on to new opportunities, smiling and with doctorate in hand. You spend longer trying to think up new and interesting answers to the question ‘so, how’s your PhD going?’ than you do actually working on your research, and you live in a constant state of awareness that other people are researching and publishing in your area, faster and more reactively that you are. Since staring my PhD, I have moved house four times, had four different jobs, experienced two major depressive episodes, a suicide attempt, two periods of study leave, the breakdown of a thirteen year relationship (never thought the PhD would outlive that affair), attended two weddings, gained five stone, lost three stone, watched my friends ‘grow up’, buy houses (while I rent) and start families. I have also learnt to knit! All of this, by way of saying that just as the world of academia has kept on moving, so too has my life outside the academy.


Enough is Enough: On learning I was wrong, and being okay with that

 

‘There’s a difference between giving up and knowing when you’ve had enough’

Proverb

 


Eight months ago, I was the closest to quitting my PhD I’ve ever been. I mean really quitting; not the day to day ‘I can’t do this anymore’ ideation about dropping out, but the sitting down and talking to my parents kind. I was no closer to having a thesis than when I started. I had no idea what my research was about or even for any more. The little amount of field work I had done was not going well and I felt like I had written myself into a theoretical cul-de-sac.

I began my research thinking that I would be looking at the impact of hypersexualisation, lads’ mags, page three and lap-dancing clubs. However, 7 years later, I found myself looking up from my research and realising that the whole field had changed… almost beyond recognition. The lads’ mags have gone, Page 3 is no more, and the gentleman’s clubs that were popping up all over town when I started, have had their licenses refused and shut down; all things that a younger, less well-rounded me who have been delighted about. Mission accomplished. No work here left to do. What once I would have regarded as a victory for womankind had been won, I simply hadn’t moved quickly enough. As the lethargic pace of my research trudged on, the ‘problem’, as I saw it, had resolved itself. Hurrah for feminist me… a massive problem for academic me.

I think I had known that it was ‘over’ for a long time, but had been in denial about it. The back of my mind was filled with clichés about having missed the boat, and my first tentative steps into field work had only served to further drive this point home. My pilot discussion group, (consisting of self-recruited, feminist identifying/ allying friends) had answered my questions on ‘hypersexualisation’ primarily by referring to things in the recent (but not that recent) past. Their answers and comments, though thoughtful and well-meaning weren’t really revealing anything I, and society as a whole, didn’t already know. A lengthy part of the discussion centred on the paucity and inadequacy of sex education in British schools… an interesting and important topic, but not really the focus of my study, and made worse by the fact that all bar one of my participants were child-free so could only speak to their own experiences… for most of us, some fifteen or so years ago!

One pilot interview had also not worked as planned so my initial response to the pilots was to think that perhaps I hadn’t framed the questions right, that I wasn’t making the right kinds of enquiry to yield the situated knowledge I was in pursuit of. But the more I sat in front of my laptop attempting to re-write the same queries, the more hopeless I began to feel. I became aware that it wasn’t the participant questions themselves that were the problem, but the fundamental research questions I was trying to answer; the fieldwork wasn’t the problem, the entire project was. Suddenly, my nagging doubts about missing the zeitgeist could no longer be ignored. To revisit the cliché, I had not so much missed the boat, as failed to buy a ticket and lost any kind of meaningful concept of what ‘the boat’ was, or where it had been going anyway. I was bereft.

This PhD is everything to me. Being an ‘academic’ has become a huge part of my identity. When people ask what I am going to do after I graduate, I avoid the question by joking about how the economy is crying out for Marxist, Feminist scholars so I’ll be able to walk right into a job. Though being able to study for my doctorate is a privilege that I am well aware of, like all PhD students, I have forgone such a lot for this journey. As mentioned before, I have sat by and watched my friends progress in their ‘grown-up’ jobs, developing meaningful careers, buying houses and starting families while I have remained a perpetual student, working all the hours I can get in low-paying but flexible jobs, still financially dependent on my mum and dad at thirty-one years old, and not even able to drive a car! My baby brother (27) is now in a good job, earning great money and looking to buy his first home. He travels abroad for work and pleasure whilst I have not left the country at all in the last eight years. He has, (more often than I’d like to admit), been the one to pay for our lunches and dinners together and given me lifts in his car for a number of years now. Most of the time, it genuinely doesn’t bother me. I chose this, I tell myself (and others, when I’m feeling defensive), I am working towards a life goal of my own. I joke (a recurring theme, and evidence of insecurity) about liking the taste of baked beans and embracing my inner Peter Pan. Jealousy is not a pretty emotion, and it serves no-one, but there are times…

The thought of quitting my PhD was thus too much to bare. The reality that the personal, professional, financial and mental health sacrifices had been for nothing was gut-wrenching, and the feeling of losing that sense of self that being an ‘academic’ had become, left me staring, terrified into a void of uncertainty and personal failure.


Embracing The Mess – The ‘Miraculous Coffee’

It feels somewhat sycophantic to say, knowing that she will be reading this piece at some point, but ‘thank god for my supervisor’. In November last year, we had agreed to meet for a supervision in the comfort of one of York’s numerous twee but welcoming coffee shops. I had not slept much the night before, tossing and turning, running and re-running how I was going to break it to her that her un-yielding faith in me had been misplaced. That I was at a dead end with my research and could see no way forward but to withdraw. I took some consolation in the knowledge that she was inevitably going to agree with me, accept my explanation that my project was a bust and let me leave quietly. This is not what happened.

I have some-what immortalised that day in my memory and personal journal

I had also fallen out of love with academia, for good this time I thought. Disparaging conversations with friends and colleagues, coupled with the methodological cul-de-sac I had found myself in was not helping. When I looked around me, all I could see were overworked, stressed and tired people, in a competitive and petty race for underpaid and insecure job prospects. An existential crisis was looming to say the very least. Thankfully, a miraculous coffee with Ann helped me to see a way out of my thesis problem and left me feeling excited and hopeful about the next stages of my research. I’m still feeling fairly unenthusiastic about the prospect of a career in the academy, and am trying to look at other possible options (perhaps a women’s officer in the union….)  and am very aware that I am fast running out of time to get this PhD done, but I am feeling determined, and think I understand what I need to do next; I just need to find the time and confidence to get on with it. I am sadly all too aware of how much time I have wasted over the years, and particularly last year when I wasn’t working. Now I have so much to do and need to cram it in along side working 30 hours a week at Lime Trees. Oddly though, now that I am working again, I seem to be more focussed and disciplined, so that is something I suppose.

Personal Diary entry 01.12.17

As I reflected and wrote about the ‘miraculous coffee’ straight afterwards, I couldn’t quite pin down exactly what had happened. Even now, some months later, I remain unsure, only able to recall an almost mystical occurrence; a serendipitous meeting of minds, ideas, suggestions and paths of enquiry. All I know for sure is that I left that supervision, still enrolled on my PhD programme, full of enthusiasm and finally able to see the next rung on the ladder.

My supervisor has always talked about the ‘messiness’ of research, and feminist research in particular which is inextricably bound up with our passions, fears, politics and very selves, but though I understood what she had been saying all of these years, I don’t think I actually ‘got it’ until last year. If I am honest, I may even have privately, been a bit dismissive of the idea of intellectual messiness; ‘interesting, but not for me, I’m too organised for that!’. What I think happened that day was that I was able to take a step back and see my mess for what it was; a myriad of ideas, theories, and experiences around cultural and societal perceptions of women’s sexual agency. Through discussing with Ann how my subject matter was ‘so over’ I began to see that there might be some advantages to a long period of study after all.

That my period of study has witnessed the decline of ‘lad culture’ should have been a cause for celebration, albeit one tinged with panic about what this meant for my research, but instead, it felt at best, like a hollow victory. The more I have studied raunch culture, the more I have come to acknowledge its complex nature. Far from being a black and white, sex positive/ negative dialectic, I have come to see the tremendous amount of grey area, the blurring of lines (more on Robin Thicke, elsewhere!) and the need for a more nuanced conversation around it. It would appear, that not only has raunch, and general culture evolved during my research, but so too have my own ideas, reactions and understandings. None of which is a bad thing, and might in fact, even be an upside to taking so long to complete my thesis.


For the Love of God Woman, Stop Thinking and Start Doing! – A Few Tentative Thoughts on My New Approach to Field Work

I do not think for a minute, that I am the first PhD researcher who has fallen into the comfortable trap of spending too much time thinking, planning and theorising about, but not enough time actually doing my field work; I also do not think that I will be the last. Throughout my time working on this thesis, I have been acutely aware that my academic background is in philosophy and political theory and not in Sociology. This has been ever more brought home to me by reflecting on how much reflection I have undertaken to date!

It has not all been in vain however. At the start of this piece, I alluded to how I had believed myself to have arrived at a dead end, not only in terms of the content of my research but also in terms of the pilot exercises I had done in my field work. I had carried out a discussion group and a pilot interview, with a view to conducting further interviews almost because it seemed like the thing to do in this kind of research. After these initial first steps however, I was not getting the kind of data that I had hoped for. It’s not that my participants weren’t engaging with me, or that they weren’t telling me what I thought I wanted to hear; more that they were telling me what I already knew, and what countless feminists and scholars had already written about several years before. I essentially realised that in asking them direct questions, I was really only getting ‘text book’ answers, for want of a better phrase.

I discussed this with my supervisor during the ‘miraculous’ coffee, and it became increasingly apparent that as well as not being particularly academically fruitful, I wasn’t excited by my fieldwork. We discussed how what I was really interested in was how my participants created meanings and navigated the issues surrounding sexual politics as opposed to what they thought about those issues, or thought that other people thought. It sounds like a difference of semantics, but I came to realise that it was a significant one, and have since begun thinking about how I could re-design my fieldwork in such a way as to allow me to observe these processes of knowledge creation and navigation that I felt were [pertinent.  I realise that I wanted to explore the kinds of conversations and interactions that my participants were having in a more natural and organic way, and so I have decided to pursue the following two approaches.

  1. The creation of a digital space for the sharing of ideas, articles, cultural artefacts and commentary. I have done this via the creation of a secret Facebook group which my participants are utilising in much the same way as they would other online feminist communities and spaces
  2. The facilitating of a creative workshop/s featuring creative tasks such as creating visual collages or timelines. My intention is to observe these workshops and look at how my participants discuss the relevant issues as they collaborate to complete the tasks. I am still in the process of thinking about what this will look like in practice, but my hope is that it will yield much more natural conversations for me to probe and analyse. I am also hoping to create a small DIY zine using the material produced during the workshops which I can give as thank-you gifts to my participants and also use in my thesis. I particularly like the idea of cultivating such as a Zine to explore cultural and political ideas via the medium traditionally feminist medium of zine making.

I want to finish this piece by highlighting some lingering questions and thought-provoking quotes, which I am still mulling on, and I think act as a kind of honest transparency about precisely where I am NOW in my own thinking and conceptualising. I want to leave this section slightly open ended, in part because I am not yet ready to draw it to a proper close, and in part, to hint at where I might be going next with my research and this thesis.

  • Am I now more concerned with what the evolution of the sexualisation debate means for feminism than for girls/ women?
    • Does this matter?
  • Am I more interested in the evolution of sexual politics than in hypersexualisation?
  • I’ve come to think of Levy as slut shaming, but when I think about whether I would take part or be involved in the production of something like Girls Gone Wild, the answer is still ‘no’. -WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
  • Can I construct a story, narrative or historiography of sexual politics from Lad Culture to Rape Culture finishing (?) with #MeToo
    • Both ‘lad culture’ and ‘rape culture’ have often been used in totalizing ways to demonize working-class communities in the UK, and are too easily linked to panics around issues such as alcohol and pornography (Phipps, 2016a)’ cited in (Phipps et al., 2018, p.2) What do I make of this poignant challenge?
  • Are we are now ‘post raunch’ – if so, what was ‘raunch culture’?
    • What might the consequences of post-raunch be?
    • How might we examine this?
    • What does the decline in apparent resistance to, and discourse around, raunch culture tell us about
    • Raunch culture itself?
    • Women’s liberation?
    • Feminism?
    • Sexual identity?
  • Thoughts I haven’t even began to explore
    • The President’s Dinner Club
    • Is there more to say on class and sexualisation – Rotherham cases and trafficking
    • How does the 4th Wave resurgence in feminism relate to apparent resurgence in socialism, ‘Corbyn Mania’ are both lacking in political substance?

  • ‘The sex wars weren’t only a question of sexual pleasure, circulating around a definable set of discrete practices or even identities; they also involved the pleasures of substantive freedom, of equity, of inclusion, of justice. And “danger” signifies the rawest sites of masculinist violence but also the dangers of cultural occlusion, of economic marginalization, of gender norms and normativities. Feminist theory, it seems to me, can’t really do its job if it’s not talking about both.’ (Walters, 2016, p.2)

  • ‘Feminists advocating for the criminalization of pimps and traffickers may have strategies and even underlying ideologies that many (myself included) find problematic, but they may also— simultaneously—have deep and abiding commitments to enabling women and girls to live lives free from violence and coercion’ (Walters, 2016, p.2)

Walters’ short article has had quite a profound effect on my current thinking. I have found myself, leaving discussion of her contribution to the end of this piece, I think in hindsight because, although I knew I wanted to talk about it, I did not know what I wanted to say. As I near the end of this exercise, I am still not sure, hence I have left the above quotes without any comment or critical engagement. Initially I felt a little panicked about not knowing what I wanted to say, but I have reached a point where I am ‘okay’ with this. My thesis is still a work in progress, and the points Walter’s makes are of crucial importance to where I want to go next, and how I want to begin formulating my fieldwork.

I want to close this part of the piece one last quote from Suzanna Walters, which I am viewing as a call to action; a challenge that I now know, is precisely what I want my research to try and address, and which, in combination with the last 40 pages of reflection, at least now means, that when my friends ask me how the PhD is going, I am able to tell them, in excruciating detail… and funnily enough they seem to have stopped asking!

‘The feminist sex debates— for all their fractiousness and tendentiousness—let the sexual genie out of her rose-colored bottle. And then smashed the bottle. The point, then, is to not attempt to get her back in that bottle or build a new one or even to treat this particular genie as a sign of the randy Messiah of the free future, but rather to see where and when she alights on our collective body politic.’

(Walters, 2016, p.2)


Bibliography

CBS News. (2011). Amber Heard talks ‘Playboy Club,’ acting, with Playboy. [Online]. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/amber-heard-talks-playboy-club-acting-with-playboy/ [Accessed 28 February 2018].

Phipps, A. et al. (2018). Rape culture, lad culture and everyday sexism: researching, conceptualizing and politicizing new mediations of gender and sexual violence. Journal of Gender Studies, 27 (1), pp.1–8. [Online]. Available at: doi:10.1080/09589236.2016.1266792.

Walters, S. D. (2016). Introduction: The Dangers of a Metaphor—Beyond the Battlefield in the Sex Wars. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42 (1), pp.1–9. [Online]. Available at: doi:10.1086/686750.

 

One thought on “I’m 112 in PhD Years: Exploring and accepting my fine Academic ‘Mess’

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I had a moment when I felt like a baby bird that was thrown out of the nest, and I was falling to death. But a meeting with my advisor saved me! I was worried about not having a topic, and whether I was doing well enough because I wasn’t getting statistically significant results or conclusions from a dataset I had access to. My advisor helped me realize I did the best I can. I didn’t find a topic immediately after, but everything came together when it was time 😉

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