Marginalised in PhD land

This guest post is by Lucy McAndrew, a second-year PhD research student in the field of Environmental Ethics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Lucy is a three-time VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer, environmental representative at local and council level (in a voluntary capacity) and particularly keen on investigating respect for marginalised interests.

In this post Lucy turns her attention to the experience of doing a PhD when you are located off campus – is the feeling of isolation only the result of geographic distance, or is there more to it?

In a sense, anyone who is doing a PhD will experience marginalisation: we’re all at the margins, and that’s a lonely place to be, full of questions from the mainstream who often cannot, and may never, see the worth of what we’re doing.

I’m looking at a contemporary problem, but from an angle which is completely foreign to anyone outside a university. I’m a long way, literally and metaphorically, from being able to integrate what’s happening in my field of study with the rest of my family life. There are two different and mutually exclusive worlds going on in parallel here: family time and study time.

I have to say before going any further that I have some serious pluses in my life: a supportive and loving spouse and two curious and intelligent pre-teens. We live in a beautiful place: a remote corner of north-west Mayo, where the kind of day you have depends on the weather, the wind never stops blowing and the sea is a constant presence.

Until I arranged to work from home most of the time, I would drive off insanely early in the morning to make the three hour journey to Galway and then either reappear long after my children have fallen asleep, or else ring them up to say goodnight. My partner and children never get the chance to see what it’s like for me to be there, on campus, mingling with other students. As far as they’re concerned, whatever I’m up to might as well be happening on Mars.

But being at home doesn’t always help – the distance is still there. I am a ‘pure research’ student and responsible in large degree for how I spend my time. There are the late nights. The early mornings. The weeks that merge into weekends. The promises that I’ll be finished in half an hour, only to find myself immersed an hour and a half later. It’s hard to explain to people who come to the door, or who phone, that I’m not just browsing the web idly, but attempting to locate papers.

School holiday time is particularly difficult. I remember loving school holidays as a kid: the long lies in, the late nights, the sleepovers, the wonderful sense of freedom around holiday time as the routine dips back into a more natural rhythm. In no way do I want to deprive my own kids of that experience, but the groans of “I’m bored” echo as I try to pretend that my own routine, at least for the first few weeks, is uninterrupted by the presence, from noon til night, of the two who I adore but find distracting, absorbing, demanding and exasperating in almost equal measure.

Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one who feels this way. I went round to the kids’ friends house the other day to pick them up and mentioned, with a gloomy face, that next week was the beginning of two whole months of holidays for the kids. My shoulders sagged as I spoke and I looked hopefully towards the other parent for conspiratorial feelings of dread. Instead I got a bright ‘hurray!’ and a fist lifted in the air. Holidays – fantastic!

Another sense of marginalisation which I’m sometimes afraid is unique to me, but which I am sure, on reflection, cannot be, arises from the sense of rural isolation. I feel like I live in a community of people whose values are the antithesis of my own. What seems to be valued by the vast majority who live here is conspicuous consumption and material wealth, and a contempt, at worst, or a sense of proprietorial ownership, at best, of the land.

What I’m trying to teach my kids, and learn myself through my PhD work, is elegant simplicity of living, without the need for most of the trappings of western materialism. But when I think about it for a bit longer, I realise that this has nothing, or only very little, to do with whether one is rural/urban (and in any case, I was brought up in the countryside). It’s much more to do with what you value – voluntary simplicity, wisdom above wealth is marginally represented in the mainstream.

I’m actually learning a lot by occupying these margins. I can now explain in layman’s terms what it is I’m doing, and use all the distractions help me to discipline my working habits. This process includes how to deal with stress in and with with communication issues, in general, and all that helps me to better deal with problems and issues that come up in the family.

I’m here, putting all my energy into something which is unlikely to make me rich, because being rich is not where it’s at for me. Sure, I want a decent job, by which I mean I want to be able to do something interesting as work, for which I’ll get paid. But that’s certainly not why I’ve undertaken to put my kids and my husband through the privation of having a mother who studies more than she works for money. It’s for future gains, financial and otherwise, that I’m doing this. So I have to learn to live within limits: more lightly, respectfully and intelligently.

I’m sure being marginalised isn’t unique to me, even though I experience it alone. It’s no doubt something a huge percentage – dare I say, all? – PhD students go through. Part of this is the process: the long distance loneliness. Part is the content: the reduction of the original idea to a mere corner, and the need to maintain motivation even with this much reduced goal all there is left to aim for. But part of this is the value that doing a PhD expresses: some things matter just for themselves, not for material purpose.

I hope that this gives people a sense that what we’re doing isn’t purposeless. Stretching the boundaries is something our species specialises in. If we can feel at the cutting edge, rather than cut out and discarded, of our communities and our societies, perhaps that will help us to remain committed and motivated to achieve a record of our journeys in the shape of a thesis.

We do it for ourselves, sure, but we also do it for the species, to grow in understanding. If this is so, then marginalisation becomes a much easier place to be because it’s a part of the whole process of being human – and we really are in this together.

Related Posts

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14 thoughts on “Marginalised in PhD land

  1. Julio E. Peironcely (@peyron) says:

    Loneliness occurs even when you are sitting in a crowded research group. My PhD involves “in theory” cooperation with other postdocs and most of the times I feel quite alone, like my project is an isolated island. And I have tried to push collaboration and discussions, but boy, everybody is focused on his own project.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Julio. I’m based in a lovely big office with lots of researchers as well as other PhD students all researching in the same broad field as me but really, I might as well be sitting in a room all by myself all day as there is very little interaction between us all beyond someone breaking the silence every couple of hours offering to make cups of tea. I have started to wonder if this is what becomes of you in academia as I have observed this more widely – academics keeping themselves to themselves behind the closed doors of their offices, very little team work unless it’s strictly necessary, and near non-existent collegiate and social interaction and effort. A scary prospect for my working future. Best get used to the loneliness I guess…

  3. Jennie Swann says:

    Something that helped me was to remember that my kids are growing up all the time. I feel the loneliness. I’m a part-time distance PhD student, I have a full-time job and my supervisors are in another country. My kids were both in school when I started my PhD. I had to make space to work at home – I was the only member of the family who didn’t have a study space. I had to train my kids to understand that ‘Mum’s home’ didn’t mean ‘taxi’s available’. During the 5 years I’ve been studying they’ve done a lot of growing up. They’ve learned to drive, gone off to uni. There seems to be a time in parents’ lives when the school routine seems endless, year after year. Then suddenly it isn’t. As a friend once said to me, ‘One eye smiling, one eye crying’. Life ….

  4. Tseen Khoo says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Lucy. In my second research fellowship, I felt incredibly isolated. It was probably due to disciplinary gaps (this is a blog entry I’m prepping at the moment so this post spoke to me quite a bit!) or maybe the fact that I’d just moved cities, but the result was that I started getting a tad paranoid about the lack of interaction. Did they dislike me? HOW could they dislike me when they’ve never even spoken to me? Why don’t they invite me to coffee (dare I invite them for a drink)? It also didn’t help that I had my first child a couple of years into my appointment, which put paid to any thought of after hours bonding with colleagues!

  5. orgmotivation says:

    A beautifully written, articulate post which captures not just the sense of isolation that can be felt when doing a PhD but also a constant struggle that I feel with materialism. Part of me would like to live as a hermit, just me and my partner away from the world, but part of me is scare to leave some of the comforts that I have become used to behind.

    I was struck with your description of isolation how it can come in so many ways – I don’t have the rural isolation and I work part-time in Central London so can’t claim isolation from people but I sit in my busy office sometimes feeling that no one understands that my PhD is so much more important to me and I am only sat in this office to pay for me to do it!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  6. Hilary Howe says:

    I just wanted to shout out ‘…but that’s me too!’ esp. the bit about being out of sync. with other mothers who ‘adore’ school holidays (at least initially). I also have two pretty understanding children, but at the end of the day I really want to be as good a mum as I want to be a good doctoral student. I don’t think it’s done my mental state any favours, trying to be all things to all people, but society expects us, as a parent, to be selfless, and the university expects us, as a PhD student, to be committed – an almost impossible pairing.
    I live over a hundred miles from campus and although my supervisor is kindly and supportive, my necessarily infrequent visits to the department make me realise that I have very little in common with these people, my research is on the outer limits of their orbit/interest. They are locked into their own introspective research grooves. Likewise, after a day spent on my thesis, I find I have no-one to discuss my work with at home, although my husband tries very hard to listen and give an opinion.
    To be quite honest, I am running out of steam and enthusiasm here. I think when my final six months are up, I shall turn my back on academia with very little regret.

  7. Karenmca says:

    I feel your [marginalised] pain! If it’s any consolation, having a full-time non-research job in an academic institution, at the same time as undertaking part-time research at another, is just as isolated. Colleagues, whether they adore you as a fun-loving team-mate, or think you’re frankly a bit weird for going back to studying, can’t be expected to share your interest in your narrow specialism. The only answer, my friends, is to keep in regular contact with people who’re going through the same experience, or have been there already. Believe me, I’ve been there. The good news is, it IS possible to demonstrate to your colleagues that you are still lovable despite being a bit weird! My colleagues have now accepted that I’ve DONE the PhD, am still dabbling in research, and am by and large a fairly normal person in spite of it all!

  8. pelf says:

    I am attending classes for my Ph.D. in a state about 8 hours (by bus) from where I stay, and from where my research will be conducted. Everything about this university from which I would earn my Ph.D. is new to me–I have never gone to school there, I have never met any of the lecturers there, except for my own Supervisor, whom I have only met once in the past year, I do not know anything about the student portals or clubs/associations.

    Do I feel marginalized? You bet!

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