Some time ago I wrote a post about what I thought was an ‘anti-PhD attitude’ displayed by some recruiters I interviewed for a research project. In that post I suggested that the small number of PhD graduates in the workforce led to graduates facing similar problems to other minorities who faced problems like stereotyping. After that post came out some people objected to my use of the word ‘minority’, although they did not suggest a better term (I am still trying to think of another way – if you have suggestions I welcome them!). One reader wrote to me with a positive take on occupying a minority status, and I encouraged her to write a post on her experience.
This post is by Michele Seah, a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle. She recently submitted her thesis on the material foundations of late-medieval queenship, focusing on three queens consort in fifteenth-century England. Her research involved delving into the economic resources, particularly the lands, that provided these queens with their financial and material wealth. She also looked at how those resources were expended in the maintenance of queenly households and networks. She does not consider herself an extrovert at all but has learnt how to harness her courage in the cultivation of networks and building her people skills. It’s a work in progress. You can find Michele on Twitter as @mlcseah.
There are two specific ways I was positioned as a minority during my PhD: being an Asian woman and being a medieval scholar. Being a medieval scholar was the more difficult of the two!
I was one of the few women postgraduates working regularly – or even occasionally – in the postgraduate room where I was assigned a desk. I worked primarily at home, but also wanted a space to call my own on campus. All of the regulars working in the same room were men; other women came in only occasionally. Whenever I chose to go to campus, I was surrounded by male postgraduates, but it was not a major problem. I never found myself on the receiving end of discriminatory remarks, or anything like that. OK, the room had a nickname: ‘the Men’s Shed’. It was a moniker with slightly derogatory overtones, or, at least, it seemed so from the occasional ‘jokes’ made about the gender imbalance in the room. The guys in the room, outwardly at least, always treated me as just another PhD student and a colleague. They seemed unconcerned about the fact that I was Asian and a woman. I have never felt like I was intruding and the community spirit in the Men’s Shed kept me buoyed throughout my postgraduate years.
The more significant minority experience for me was created by my topic area. I certainly believe I was the only PhD candidate working on medieval history in that particular history department at the time and the difficulties were compounded by there being no medievalists on staff. It is too long a story to recount how I ended up focusing my postgraduate research in that specific field. Doing so has presented some challenges, not least the fact that my supervisors are both early-modernists and non-specialists in my field. It is difficult to bounce ideas and discuss contextual issues about your topic when your supervisors are not really conversant in the field. By the end of my candidature, however, I discovered that I had taken them with me along for the ride and they had invested time and effort in getting to know my topic and being able to discuss the thematic issues, even if the nitty-gritty details of my research were still a mystery to them.
The experience made me especially aware of the enormity of the task that all supervisors take on and I’m particularly grateful to my supervisors. But I did feel quite alone, especially at the beginning. I encountered few, if any, other history candidates whose research was remotely related to mine. There was no jolly medieval collegiate atmosphere in my university to help me stay enthusiastic about my research. No one to talk medieval history with me in the corridors and tea-rooms. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that most of the leading scholars in my particular field of research are not based in Australia and the main conferences are held overseas. The other history candidates around me seemed to be able to organise and participate in reading/writing groups, go for conferences within Australia and interact with many Australia-based scholars in their field. I had to meet the networking challenge another way.
First, I made an effort to reach out to scholars in the English department of my university, who I knew were working on topics within a chronological century or so of my research. This small group of people did not work on topics that were very close topically or regionally to mine; the research methodology they employed was different and there was little overlap to generate meaningful exchanges of ideas. However, it was a pleasure to be able to occasionally wallow in the late middle ages in the company of like-minded individuals.
Next, I endeavoured early on to connect with other scholars in my field internationally. I set up an Academia.edu page and a Twitter account. With these tools I was able to initiate and form tentative connections with the broader scholarly world and escape the geographical boundaries of Australia. Being Twitter ‘friends’ adds an interesting and often useful aspect to setting up connections with other scholars and researchers and lessened the feelings of isolation.
Lastly, I decided early on that I needed to participate in relevant conferences sooner rather than later. Local postgraduate seminars and conferences were the practice grounds for papers that I then tweaked and edited for overseas conferences. I joined the Australia/New Zealand association for medieval and early-modern studies and presented at their biennial week-long conference quite early in my candidature and took part in their training seminars for postgraduates. From there I gained the courage to submit abstracts to major overseas conferences and went over to present. The relationships I formed with the people I met at these seminars and conferences have been priceless. Some meetings were so fortuitous that it seemed like sheer luck, but on reflection it was my willingness to get out there, network, and take a chance on getting to know people that played a large part in enabling these valuable connections to be formed.
In short, a topic that makes you a minority in your university can seem daunting, but I have few regrets in choosing this particular pathway. I believe there have been more positives than negatives and I have developed strategies for dealing with the challenges.
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