Monday, December 12, 2005

On being a Phud

It's a bit like being 19 again, staying with your parents on an extended basis as a 30-year old. Having to borrow the car, explaining when you'll be away overnight and who you'll be with (just so no one worries), calling to confirm if you'll be home for dinner, and ... well, not having anything approaching an office space. Not bad, or difficult, just odd.

Anyway, a further 19-ish experience was a weekend in Sydney, getting lifts both ways with grown ups. A salient reminder that I am a grown-up myself was an evening in Leichardt with friends from uni: all law graduates. All but one had done time in corporate law firms.

One had jumped from the Tax Office to corporate law, one had started there and stayed there, one had gone from corporate law to a public broadcaster, and one was in State government. Then there were the two PhD students, me and an English PhD student now based in Melbourne (the amazing Beth).

So Beth and I managed the Phud conversation: "I can't believe that some weeks I can write a thousand words a day, and others I'm beating my skull in to finish a paragraph ... some books I tear through, others take a week to crawl through taking notes". Okay, not the exact words we used, but the gist.

The Phud conversation is valuable: while all work-talk is potentially boring to others, we're an isolated group who need the peer support to keep going. As people, we read to know that we are not alone. As humanities Phud students, neither blessed by nor shackled to a lab group or office, we have the work conversation to escape our little boxes and gain some perspective on what is "normal".

In at least one survey, half of those discontinuing graduate study rated isolation as an important factor for leaving their studies (especially, it seems women).

I guess this is one thing I get out of being in Cambridge in particular: if you want to be isolated in Cambridge, it's easy. Stick to your room and your lab or library and don't socialise. A good number do this. However, if you want a social network of other graduate students - it's there on your doorstep. My college in particular is known for being small and friendly.

Frankly, I think being surrounded by people who know psychologically and emotionally what being a Phud is like is amazingly helpful. It's not that other friends are insensitive, but the invisible support of peers - especially across subjects or disciplines - is a major part of maintaining the morale to keep going.

That, and fear. Fear is really useful too.

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