This guest post is from Linda Kirkman  a PhD student in Health Science at La Trobe University, researching baby boomers in ‘friends with benefits relationships’. This post is partly the story of Linda’s experience of walking an ancient pilgrimage route and beautifully extends our recent  ‘why do a PhD? theme.

A PhD is like a pilgrimage; a solitary journey where we value our companions.

This time two years ago I had just started walking the Camino de Santiago, a 1,000 year old pilgrimage across Spain…

I did the walk for a number of reasons; for the adventure, the spiritual experience, and to try to let go of some personal baggage. I wanted a transformative experience; to feel a sense of freedom.

It was the start of five weeks in what felt like an alternative universe, the world of the pilgrim. We had an instant community, as all of us were undertaking the same quest to reach Santiago; we were recognisable to each other by the backpacks and walking clothes, and many people tied the scallop shell symbolising St James on their packs as an additional token. We were united by the common daily concerns of sore feet, the need to find daily food and accommodation, and coping with whatever weather happened that day.

Physical concerns were not what made the pilgrim community special, it was their attitude to life that stood out. Simply by being on the Camino it could be assumed the other people had a similar approach to questioning the big things of life, an interest in spirituality and a desire for self-transformation.

I had many conversations when I fell in step with a complete stranger for a short period of time, and with minimal preamble, would discuss philosophy, human rights, history, art or culture, share ideas or insights, even personal motivations or traumas, then move apart as we walked at different speeds. Another pilgrim was a spiritual sibling and it was a safe place to explore deep things. If you happened to meet up again it was like greeting a long lost friend, and conversations would be resumed and connections built on.

The PhD journey is similar in many ways. The journey is solitary and intensely personal, but there are others who we encounter on the way who share the same quest, have the same desire for knowledge of universally understood insights, self understanding, and seek to achieve a major goal.

We eagerly connect with fellow travellers, share tips and ideas about strategies and pitfalls to avoid, and intersect meaningfully with culturally different strangers about specialised areas of common interest. Those connections are precious, and give great support and encouragement to keep going.

Modern technology has made sharing the PhD journey much easier. Through the thesiswhisper  blog, and hashtag #phdchat on Twitter I have made friends, given and received support, learned about software and study tips from people all over the world who I would not have met otherwise. The desire shown to meet these fellow travellers in person, and the happy and excited tweets that result when they do, is an indication of the strength and value of these relationships.

Every journey is solitary, but the friends we make along the way are what carry us through. I’m feeling much love for both my fellow pilgrims and fellow PhD tweeps right now. Buen Camino (a wish for a good walk, but also an approach to a thoughtfully lived life) to all.

PS: I made it to Santiago, and even  to Finisterre, the end of the earth, with an increased self confidence and self awareness. Still carrying some of the baggage, but it is lighter now.

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