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.

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