Tales of Toxicity

“Why don’t you just quit?” is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the last three years or so. The answer is usually something along the lines of “I’m too stubborn”, or, “I’m not coming out of three/five years of my life with nothing to show from it but poor mental health” but is never “because I enjoy it”.


I stopped blogging on here some time ago because I had nothing to say other than “I hate everything” and because I had been told to stop mentioning my mental health, and even to delete all mentions of my struggles (which I foolishly did) because it would affect my place in the job market. A job market, I might add, that is excruciatingly over-saturated with exquisitely smart and worthy people, many of whom will never succeed due to an extremely problematic system in which you’re expected to prove you’re the best researcher, publisher and teacher all whilst being expected work on a zero hours contract for a minimum of three to five years before you get properly hired. Anyway, most of us know the woes of academia already, so I’ll shut up about that.


This time last year I handed my thesis in. I was about as mentally ill as I ever have been, I was on the highest dosage of anti-depressants possible outside of a ward and I had maxed out my allowance of counseling sessions at my institution. In June of 2018, I failed my viva spectacularly. I was given a year to do corrections before needing to viva again.


How did I get to that point? Let me tell you a story, team.


In 2014 I was a young, naïve and excited student who had won a scholarship to do my Ph.D. on trans theory and fiction. I was, and am, so grateful for the scholarship and the opportunity it allowed me. Having grown up as working class and with an occasionally…difficult…home life, it is something I had always aspired to and could never have afforded on my own. I packed up and moved across the country on my own, and then spent two months wandering around the city and another month at the university before I even met with my supervisors. Not the most auspicious of starts.


After a year and a half, I had lost a supervisor without having been told they’d left the university and failed a transfer viva, the recommendations from which I was advised to ignore, something that definitely came to bite me in the arse later. I then spent two years under the supervision of someone with no experience or expertise, and who, despite appearances, was a toxic and manipulative bully. They encouraged me to do work for the university, which they then stole without paying me for. They bad-mouthed me to other staff behind my back. Most crucially, they gave me little to no useful feedback. By the time I had another person put on my supervisory team I already had a submission date.


My viva date came. Before the viva, I sat with my supervisors, one of which was very supportive, whilst the other (guess which one) told me they were really nervous, leaving me to reassure them rather than the other way around. Then the viva happened. It was… yeah. Afterwards, I had a cry, a pint, and got the train back to my Mum’s house where I had moved because I wasn’t given enough teaching that term to pay my rent.


A week or so after my viva corrections report arrived, I had a phone conversation with The Supervisor, who a) turned up half an hour late, and b) basically told me that ‘the viva report is clear, you should know what to do’. When I said I didn’t, they sighed and told me to ‘just deal with it and get on’.


I finally asked the graduate school for help.


My newer supervisor was made my director of studies and a new member of staff was bought on to the team. The first meeting I had with them made me realise how different my entire PhD experience could have been. They were encouraging, they were clear, they gave me actual feedback and suggestions. They didn’t make me feel stupid. It’s been six months since then, I have two months until my new thesis is due to be submitted, and whilst I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, three stone heavier, and about a fifth as fit and healthy as I was, I still don’t feel nearly as hopeless as I did a year ago. My new supervisory team has truly kept me going, I couldn’t be more grateful.


I have a job outside of academia, one that is kind of boring, but which doesn’t completely destroy my sense of worth. I miss teaching, I miss my students, I miss watching them flourish, I miss cheerleading them, but there is no power in the verse that could make me put myself back in the toxicity of academia.


I recently posted a list of things I’m looking forward to doing once the PhD is over on Twitter

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It was intended as a personal reminder of what life might look like in a few months time so I don’t collapse into a puddle of woe, but the kind of response it’s gotten and the number of people who have said they feel the same really concerns me. I thought I’d had a pretty rough time of things, but if this is The Story of academia, then why do we still do it to ourselves? Why are the narratives of success still based on whether or not you ‘make it’ in academia – a field in which the recompense isn’t that great and the hours are frankly terrible? As a lecturer, something we had to push more and more was the idea of ’employability’ – basically helping students to understand that their skills are transferable. We spoke about the different fields they could go into and what their futures could look like, but by the time you get to a PhD, this is completely undone, and everything is about getting publications, getting teaching experience, getting to the top. What I saw with The Supervisor, and what I think we’ll see a lot more of in the future, is the people that end up in teaching positions are a) those that can financially afford to live on a zero hours contract for years, and b) those who are willing to tread on anyone to get to where they’re going. It doesn’t bode well.

It hasn’t all been bad, though. I’ve met some brilliant people, made some amazing friends, and loved teaching. I’ll come out of this with an appreciation for life I don’t think I would have had otherwise. I’ve learnt my own strength and resilience.

So, to anyone who is doing, or thinking about doing, a PhD, please make sure you’re doing it for yourself, please realise that your worth as a person is not based on some words you write, please think about what you’re actually hoping to gain from the PhD. I firmly believe now that it would be much healthier to treat the PhD like a hobby rather than a job. Do it because you enjoy it. Stop if you don’t.


What A Difference A Year Makes

This time last year I wrote my first post. It was about how I had spent the prior four months feeling woefully out of my depth and struggling with depression. I’m pleased to say that this post will be vastly different.

I often feel as though I’m achieving very little in any given week, and in all honesty, when I started contemplating this post last week I felt as though I’d achieved very little in the last year and a half. However, I’m feeling slightly more positive today, admittedly after a truly disgusting amount of caffeine and some rather frantic procrastination cleaning.

On paper, these are my achievements of my PhD so far:

  • Very rough introduction drafted.
  • Almost complete chapter drafted.
  • RF1 passed.
  • RF2 passed.
  • Five conferences attended, two spoken at.

I had initially, naively hoped to have the intro and first chapter entirely finished and the second chapter started by now. I absolutely did not factor in the amount of time and energy that goes into teaching, even when it’s only one module a term; that’s something I’m going to need to take into account this year.

Whilst my achievements may be fewer than I would have liked, they are ultimately overshadowed by my state of mind. This time last year I felt utterly worthless and genuinely considered quitting the PhD. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and no idea how to work it out. All of the motivational posts on pinterest couldn’t help me shake the notion that things would never get better and that I had little or nothing to offer to life, let alone academia. Luckily, that same sense of helplessness meant that I couldn’t work out a different direction to take, and so I carried on plodding along. Eventually my spider diagrams and half-digested journal articles started to click together in my brain and I gradually came up with some plans and ideas.

Although I hated them at the time, the things that pushed me through that block were the Rf1 and RF2 – hoop-jumping paperwork and presentations that make you explain and justify your project. For the RF2 I had to provide a chapter plan; at the last minute I chucked one down on paper, believing that it was just there so that I had something to say, but it stuck and gave me the structure that I needed to push on with my thesis. I could never have gotten to that point, however, without the months of reading and hopeless spider-diagramming that at the time felt utterly useless.

One of the turning points last year came in March, when I watched James Hayton’s video on surviving the PhD – which I blogged about at the time.. It gave me a new perspective on what the PhD actually is, ‘the entrance qualification to the world of professional academia‘ rather than the culmination of your academic achievements to date. It means that, of course you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ve never done anything like this before.

Another thing that helped me was attending conferences. Meeting other people who share your interests and worries, listening to people who are passionate about their work and having people get excited about yours is an invigorating experience that boosts your energy. Submitting abstracts and writing papers is also great for creating firm deadlines and helping you articulate thoughts that you might otherwise leave until later (forget).

Less tangible things that I have achieved this year are things like making amazing new friends, getting out of my comfort zone more often (attending conferences, talking to new people, talking in front of people), traveling, learning to ski, learning yoga, getting fit, getting healthy (or at least healthier). All of which have attributed to my increasing sense of wellbeing. Of course, I still have slumps, but I’m more able to deal with them. The sense of utter despair has dissipated, and when it starts to creep back in, I’m more able to knock it back.

My aims for the year ahead are to write a couple more chapters, try and get at least one paper published (publish or perish), and to travel more. I’m hoping that I get better at teaching, I think I did ok last term, but I want to do the very best by my students. Ultimately I’d like to happy, or, at the very least, moderately stable.

Marking and Larking

On Tuesday I spoke at an event held by the careers service. It was about getting on to a PhD and what it involves. There were two of us speaking, both second years. Rachel was far more upbeat, it must be said. She was great at talking without a script and still actually making sense, which is just not somrthing I can do. I shared with them the horror story of my first PhD interview, which is still to this day the single most humiliating thing that has ever happened to me. And I embarrass myself a lot. Ultimately it was entirely worth it, it gave me more focus, it prepared me for what was to come. Taught me that expecting the unexpected isn’t just for paranoid Aurors.

The end of this week was a dark pit of marking. I did two mammoth sessions and just got them all done. It was an interesting experience. It took me about five essays to get in the swing of locating the assignments within the grade boundaries. I was really chuffed that my students did so well, they came up with some really intersting ideas and have clearly been listening in class. I can’t wait to see them improve over the next couple of years.

Marking left me entirely brain dead, so I pretty much lost the weekend to staring at the walls and hoping that the world would make sense soon. Not ideal. I wanted to get all of my lesson planning done over the weekend so that I could work on my chapter today and tomorrow. Oh well. Will just have to knuckle down.

I’m heading to Birmingham from Thursday to Monday for my birthday and to see various beautiful people. Feel a bit guilty about sacrificing so many days to larking about, but I miss my mates something fierce and I’m so bloody excited to see them.

Stuck on a short story I’m writing. Have about half of it done, but no idea where to take it. Hopefully the weekend will shake something loose.