I’m now in my second year, and life is good, thanks to my wonderful supporters



Despite a rather negative encounter a few days before, I had my annual review last month, and received the written report this week, which is peppered with positive comments such as ‘evidence of thorough and accurate presentation of the project’ , ‘responded knowledgeably when asked about data collection and analytical methods’, ‘clear evidence of critical thinking’ and ‘articulate, with excellent communication skills’.

However, the negative encounter caused me to have serious doubts about my abilities, which until then, I had never questioned and the inevitable ‘PhD imposter syndrome’ kicked in, along with a serious case of self-doubt. I view myself as largely positive and optimistic, and this feeling was out of character, so I sought the advice and support of my support system, comprised of friends and colleagues in an attempt to confront my feelings, see if they were ‘legitimate’ or a temporary label in a perverse way to try and motivate me (which, by the way, doesn’t), reflect and move on.

I spoke to five people whom I trust to be honest, know me in my various roles I undertake in and out of my PhD (which is the overriding identity at the moment). I would rather have it straight, and these people would give it to me that way. The overarching comment was surprise from all of them that I had been ‘shaken to the core’ from this encounter, as the majority professed, despite knowing me well, to not have seen me as vulnerable. I guess we all have our breaking points. It was also pointed out to me that I was angry at myself for letting this encounter shake me up as badly as it did, and that I would need to reflect on how I can prevent or fend off a similar future encounter, so I don’t end up as upset. But overall, my supporters reminded me of my strengths and positive attributes, and suggested I focus on these. I was also told in no uncertain terms, that although the journey I am taking is not the easiest or straightforward one, but it is very personal, embedded in an inherent desire to contribute to a potential solution of a very big problem, and consolidating and pushing forward ideas I am passionate about. The finishing of the PhD is only the beginning of a bigger adventure and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

So a few weeks later, I’m back, having learned a few tough lessons, but more importantly stopping to reflect, and realising that I am so fortunate to have such special people in my life who have stepped in and put me back on track.

Thank you, for believing in me.


Dealing with a temporary setback


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Without sounding negative, I knew it was inevitable. Something would happen that would disrupt my research, and hit me hard.  I knew what it was, and thought I had prepared myself for it, and kept hoping it would hit at a time when there were no deadlines or important milestones, so I could have a window to deal with it and get over it.  But it didn’t happen that way.

I had to have my beloved dog put to sleep recently. It was the right decision, but a hard one to deal with emotionally and it has been difficult to write since then.  It has come at a time when my annual review is due, which entails a 6000 word report and a ten minute presentation on my research and what I have accomplished during my first year.  Fortunately, I had composed an outline and submitted it to my supervision team before my crisis occurred. Since then, I have had email feedback, with the criticisms and suggestions, which were all constructive and helpful, without having a personal meeting when I am not at my best.

I am passionate about my research project and being a PhD student, I love learning and being in academia and have had many serendipitous opportunities to consolidate prior experience which will bode well for future employment. In short, its all good, in fact great, but at the moment, I feel like I am wading through treacle.

It is taking me ages to edit my report, I can’t seem to follow a train of thought and the words aren’t flowing as they were a few weeks ago, and I feel frustrated. My plan was to try and achieve something positive, i.e. produce a great report to set the stage for a positive annual review,  to prove to myself that I can get through this.

However, there is this little cloud hanging over me that I am desperate to brush away so I can move on.  How do I chase this cloud away?

Reflections on a nearly completed first year………


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I had an email the other week, saying my annual review was imminent, which threw me a bit, as it suddenly dawned on me that I am almost a third of the way through my PhD.  Where has the time gone? What have I achieved? What have I learned?  What am I going to do afterwards?………….

In some ways, the time has gone by slowly, for example, it has taken ages to obtain ethical approval from the heath service, which I knew was a potential obstacle and could delay the commencement of data collection.  But after the work was done, the application submitted and came back with ‘favourable ethical opinion’ (the new buzz word for  ‘yes, everything is ok’) the stress levels decreased considerably, but the adrenaline has kicked in again and I’m now impatiently waiting for all the administration to be completed so I can commence data collection and analysis.  However, it is the summer, everyone associated (myself included) will be on holiday, thus I need to find another outlet for the adrenaline in the interim.

What have I achieved? Interesting…personally, I have learned a lot about myself. I’m far more determined than I thought I was, and I feel I have somehow pushed myself across some sort of invisible boundary in terms of personal growth, but I don’t know quite how to express it, however the quote from Rocky ‘it ain’t about how hard you can hit, its about how hard you can get it, and still move forward’ seems to encompass my feelings. Might have to save those thoughts for a future blog.

Academically, my skills have improved. I can see it in my writing, my ability to argue and ‘talk’ like an academic, the latter of which was confirmed by my supervisors at a meeting last week.  I know I still have a lot to learn, but as I stated a year ago, the balance between confidence and vulnerability seems to be leaning on the confidence side at the moment (and long may it last!), but it is a quiet, reflective confidence, which feels great and seems to grow in little, but solid steps.

What have I learned? More a case of what haven’t I learned, but it makes me want to learn more…..its a lovely feeling to be permanently curious, not taking things at face value, being prepared to question things and to be inspired to look at things differently.

What am I going to do afterwards?  More of the same I hope.  All of this seems to be a good fit.

Today I managed to use my initiative and tackle two outstanding things on my to-do list which has proved very liberating.  I feel as if I have been bogged down by administration and not done enough high level, conceptual thinking and writing, and have ended up with a bad case of writer’s block which I am desperate to overcome.  I know I’m tired, need a holiday (which is forthcoming) before launching into Year Two and it can’t come soon enough, but it would be great to get all the loose ends tied up before I go, so I can take some reading on holiday to do in my own time and chill out.  Tired, yes, but still full of enthusiasm and motivation, but would love to go on holiday having sorted out the writer’s block, but the only way to do that is to keep writing, until it becomes natural once again……….



My Life as a New PhD Student (blog written October 2012)


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…This is a blog which I wrote for a public health website last year….I’m currently reflecting on how my position has changed since I wrote this…………


My New Life….. ‘As a PhD Student:’ Negotiating the Transition


My life is different now.

I’m not sure what has changed, but there has been a definite, almost intangible evolvement, prefixed by the term ‘As a PhD student’ for the last seven months.   Superficially, the day to day aspects appear to be the same, but they’re not.  I have noticed very subtle differences to the way I appear to be perceived by others.  ‘As a PhD student’ I am picking up range of messages from virtually unconditional support to outright negativity. These positive messages are affirming, inspiring, motivating and most importantly, much appreciated.  The negative messages are very subtle and difficult to negotiate and unpick.  After much discussion with other PhD students, post-docs, my supervisor and (of course), like any good researcher, looked for written evidence, i.e. PhD handbooks, I have discovered this appears to be a common phenomenon.

One handbook suggested the general population does not really understand the PhD process or the motivation for undertaking one.  This in itself implies an air of ignorance and arrogance, which I don’t like. However, it is well known people may react negatively to something they don’t know much about.  Do PhD students, myself included, come across as arrogant? Are we perceived by others as being arrogant? Are we assumed to be arrogant?

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend about to submit her thesis. She is in education, not public health, and I raised my observations with her to gain insight from a different discipline.  She understood straight away and had also experienced similar reactions. Little things, such as sarcastic comments and insinuations, but related to the status ‘as a PhD student’.  We discussed this at great length and she encouraged me to blog, to see if others had similar experiences and how they negotiated the negative reactions from others.

I asked her thoughts on ‘confident vulnerability’, my current ‘theory’ on ‘life as a PhD student’. Description below…..

‘As a PhD student’, one must be confident. Confident in one’s self as a person to undertake postdoctoral study, in one’s academic ability, to develop and expand a variety of skills, academic and otherwise and to present and indeed defend one’s research.  However, in order to successfully negotiate the ritual of the PhD, one is vulnerable on many levels, requiring submission to a constant process of questioning, negotiation, scrutiny and justification.  A place where academia becomes intensely personal with you and your research becoming inextricably intertwined in the journey to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy. It will likely be the most challenging, personal, positive and fulfilling journey one experiences and in order to do it properly and gain the most from the experience, one needs to have the chutzpah to assume a vulnerable position.

This requires confidence. However, does ‘confident vulnerability’ come across as arrogance to others outside the comforting world of academia and research, resulting in negative reactions from others?

The art of academic dress


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I think academics had it right a few years back, wearing academic robes over their clothes for work. Made it so much easier.  I am constantly perplexed by what to wear for work/study.  As a self-funded PhD student, coming into academia later in life from a business background, I have a closet full of business attire, which I love to wear and pragmatically, I can’t afford a new wardrobe and there is no point having good quality clothes and not wearing them. However, there seems to be some unwritten rules about what one wears in academia and I don’t think I am following these.  My research is in collaboration with a hospital, and I regularly attend meetings there, with consultants and managers and I believe by dressing business-like, I am conveying a professional image of a research student, as I am representing my academic institution in this environment.  Outside of my PhD, I am a board member of another educational institution and chair one of the committees, which I feel requires a certain dress code congruent with my present wardrobe. As a working mother, (as academia is my ‘career’ now), what is put on in the morning has to survive the day, which is usually a smart dress.  I’ve had varying responses from being too glamorous to looking professional, and it is the latter I am trying to achieve.  I also think there is an inherent desire to always present myself well, but I sometimes feel this is not what is perceived by others.  My inner circle of female academics understand this dilemma, but most of them are outside my department or outside my institution and are in management positions, and thus, dress similarly to me.  I aspire to a teaching/research position in my institution, but my management and business experience seem to place me in a different place to a typical PhD student. I don’t want to appear to be a threat (as has been insinuated by others), so I play down my positions outside my role as a PhD student, but as I evolve into my academic career, I know these will come into play.  My dilemma is likely that I am established, comfortable and know how to ‘play the game’ in a medical and boardroom environment, but I’m still learning the ropes in academia and I want to get it right, but I can’t be someone I’m not.  If anyone finds the ‘Guide to Academia for Females from a Business Background’, will they please forward it to Mme Postpostmodernist.  Merci bien ines-de-la-fressange-frm+The+Simply+Luxurious+Life Ines-de-la-Fressange_portrait_w674 Jackie In Belfastmadmen_standard JACKIE

The Art of Writing


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As a full time neophyte postgraduate researcher and possible ‘academic’ (I say possibly, as I am self funded and the only paid work I have been able to secure was a couple of exam invigilations at Christmas), I have set myself a target of writing a minimum of 500 words a day…even if it is utter nonsense, knowing I can edit it later on.  I have actually ‘rediscovered’ how much I love to write, and the challenge of writing an 80,000 word thesis sends delightful shivers of anticipation and not dread.  I keep two diaries, one for notes on my research and the other a growing list of words and phrases, in English and Latin, which  I then make every attempt to incorporate into my daily writing.  Notice the word ‘neophyte’, doesn’t it sound so much more interesting than ‘beginner’ or’novice’?  What about ‘tenet‘ instead of rule, or ‘postulate‘ instead of said….how delicious….I am revelling in my doctoral journey, not only because I love my research and being in charge of my learning journey for the next three years, but I didn’t realise, despite the intellectual demands, how much I would absolutely relish the opportunity to immerse myself in books, often exploring areas outside what I anticipated (I’m reading about evolution of scientific thought, which I hadn’t realised would be so rivetting). In addition, when reading and evaluating literature, trawling for snippets of evidence and theoretical perspectives to, as my supervisor said provide ‘intellectual justification’ for my work, I profess to feeling ‘deliciously naughty’ when I admit to voraciously scanning the same corpus of literature for any interesting words, or phrases I can incorporate into both my thesis and  vocabulary. Especially in Latin.

The End of The Undergraduate Era and New Postgraduate Beginnings

Midnight last night was the cut off time for the submission of my last essay as an undergraduate student. Although it had been electrically submitted a few days earlier, the impending end of my undergraduate years has been very emotional for me, and I confess to bouts of tears this week. I believe I am the only one out of my class who will be continuing onto postgraduate study, and I find myself annoyed at the comments of others like ‘so pleased it is over’, ‘can’t wait to get out of this place’ etc…whereas I, like the Carpenters said, have only just begun. I have had a wonderful year, academically, professionally, mentally and spiritually; to the point I feel as if I have done three years in one. I will know mid June what degree classification I will get, and it looks to be at the least a 2:1, but a first could be a possibility, depending on my dissertation mark, which I will find out in nine days. I’ve also had some further successes which Barbara Walters says ‘ Success can either make you a prima donna, or it can smooth the rough edges,take away the insecurities and allow the good things to come out’. I’m in the latter camp. I won joint third prize in a national essay competition, finding out two days after my dissertation went in. I went to London to attend a conference and pick up my certificate and £200 prize money, half of which I have donated to funding a speaker in public health for a health, to show my gratitude to my faculty. I realised, when being presented with the certificate, that the win was not only mine, but for my department and university, which made it all the more poignant. Secondly, I have been offered a summer internship with a prestigious research institute, to gain practical experience in an academic research environment, which I speculatively initiated a few weeks back. I had an interview and offer yesterday, and although it is volunteer work, the value of what I will experience cannot be expressed in financial terms. So I’m in a good place now, but I feel very emotional, most likely underpinned by the anticipation of final marks, the end of an era and the unknown, but fascinating possibilities of entering the postgraduate world, with what I feel, are endless possibilities, a chance to grow, explore, research and develop. This is what dreams are made of.