As PhD students we sit in a strange place within the academic network. Often, working in Universities or Research institutions, we’re surrounded by employees and students without actually being employees or feeling as if we’re students ourselves.
At my University I’m granted staff status for all IT purposes and I get paid (a stipend) every month in return for showing up and conducting my research. These things make me feel like an employee. However, as PhD students, you and I fall into a grey area. We feel like employees but we aren’t. Of course, this comes with some perks, the student discount being the most obvious one, but there are also a few downsides.
We often begin our PhD journey as our friends and partners are starting to get settled into the “real” working life. The only student life those who haven’t completed a PhD know is undergraduate life, so this is what they base their perceptions of all students upon. This means that even though I get the train at 7:30/8:00am to work (and to me it is work) Monday-Friday and work a longer day than most people I know, they think I have much more free time than they do. Of course, as PhD students, we have the luxury of flexibility that our friends outside the academic world might not be able to enjoy. I love this flexibility and see it as one of the obvious draws of academic life, however it often mean people misunderstand the time required for a PhD, especially if you factor in all the “extras” we often do, such as demonstrating for undergraduates and outreach work. The result of this is that we need to accept that people outside of our academic lives might not always understand and, as is the case in many professions, hold stereotypes about what we do. This doesn’t mean they aren’t supportive though. My boyfriend often jokes that one day I’ll need to get a “real job”, but I know he’s joking, I know he knows I work hard. I also know that when I need someone to pull me out of a PhD-induced funk, he’s my man. Just because some people don’t completely understand doesn’t mean you can’t rely on them.
So, if those outside the university bubble don’t always understand does that mean we can rely on those within? Unfortunately a problem crops up: undergraduates think you know more than you do about how the university works, and academics think you know more than they do about how the university works. By this I mean things like timetables, semester dates, room bookings and even knowing where all the rooms are located. Undergraduates will often assume you know what they mean when they say they have a deadline in week 11. I hate to break it to them, but this University isn’t the same place as where I did my undergraduate degree, and even if it was, University processes evolve quickly and it’s been a fair few years since I graduated from my first degree. It normally takes several goes to get undergraduates to actually tell me the date they’ll stop working in the lab or when they have to hand in a piece of work. On the other side, University employees (or supervisors as they’re know to us PhD students) often get taught these things as it isn’t assumed they know them already, so they don’t realise that no one taught you how to book a seminar/meeting room. Luckily PhD students further along in their journey are often there to ask, and we tend to be a resourceful bunch, working out who can be our go-to person to ask about the various things we don’t know. Eventually you’ll become that person for another PhD student – treat them well and remember that once upon a time you needed someone to ask.
So what does this all mean? It means that PhD study is very well adapted to making you independent, which is their exact purpose, but while you’re learning that independence you’re going to fall into this grey area. You’ll view yourself as an employee but no one else will. Along the way you’ll feel like you know nothing, in crowd of people who seem to know everything. At times you’ll definitely feel like everyone but you has it together, but I’ll let you in on a secret, I’ve never felt like I have it 100% together but other people seem to think I do.
Megan De Ste Croix The University of Leicester @MeganDSC