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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?