I’ve now been in the role of SGSAH Blogger for one month, so I think it’s time for me to address the elephant in the room. Yes, I live in the Highlands, and yes I am doing a full-time PhD. Although I don’t have a previous PhD to compare it to, it’s likely that this particular situation has shaped my approach to, experience of and decisions about my research more than I am fully aware of. This week, I thought I’d write about my experience as a ‘Remote’ PhD student, and consider the highlights, but also the assumptions and challenges which I’ve encountered in my first year.
Firstly, I think it’s important to point out that there is no single ‘PhD experience’. I think this is something that we often hear (‘every PhD is different’), yet it seems to me that there are a lot of assumptions about PhD students which are often not made explicit. This is true from online advice right through to the infrastructure in place at Universities and supervisory expectations.
For example, there are plenty of blog articles out there about time management, imposter syndrome and managing your relationship with your supervisor. These are very helpful (just last week I scoured the web for handy advice on my first-year literature review). That said, I haven’t come across many articles which discuss the challenges of finding childcare to allow a PhD parent to attend a conference; how some Universities assume that all PhD students have the finances at their fingertips to pay for expensive international conferences and claim it back afterwards; or the reality of embarking on a PhD after years out of academia and with a supervisor many years younger than you. Yet I know PhD students in Scotland who have experienced each of these scenarios (and we are always looking for guest bloggers to write about their individual experiences!).
My point is that so many people express surprise at a PhD student based in the Highlands because there is often a very real but implicit assumption that there exists a broadly standard ‘PhD experience’ to which there are occasionally exceptions. In the case of being a ‘remote’ PhD student it is often simply a good conversation-starter and an opportunity to talk in detail about my research. Yet for the many others who don’t fit the implicit PhD norm, I can only imagine that these assumptions can sometimes make the already often isolating experience of a PhD feel even more so.
Secondly, what do we mean by ‘remote’? My trusty PhD companion, Microsoft Word, suggests some of the following synonyms: distant, isolated, inaccessible, and far-flung.
Let’s consider these for a moment: who am I distant or isolated from? Not my University – which is spread over 13 campuses across the Highlands & Islands, makes extensive use of video-conferencing and Skype, and has a fantastic Graduate Office who have a record of getting back to me on any query within the day. Nor am I distant from my research subject – heritage and tourism in Scotland. As one of the most visited regions of Scotland, Lochaber has been a fantastic place to gain first-hand knowledge of mass tourism and its effects on communities, day-to-day life and the economy of this area. As for the heritage, it’s everywhere you look, and becoming embedded in my local community has yielded a lot of information about how local heritage sites are managed and used.
Rather than being based far away from the subjects and participants of my research, and visiting on research trips, I feel that I’ve gained important understanding about my topic early on, which I can incorporate into my research design. This can only be an advantage.
Finally, what about other PhD students? Am I remote from them? On the one hand yes, there is only one other PhD student based on campus. On the other hand, we make the most of each other and I really enjoy discussing our diverging research topics, as well as making the time to explore the area together.
You may also be surprised to know how many PhD students there are north of the Highland line – and not just at the University of the Highlands & Islands (as described in this article). Both The Glasgow School of Art and Heriot-Watt have campuses in the north, not to mention the PhD students who live away from their University campus because of family commitments or other reasons. Over the past year, from a standing start, we’ve developed something of a network of similarly situated PhD students. From linking up on Facebook and Twitter to arranging regular Skype catch-ups and writing groups, there are now even plans afoot to try to expand this network by holding an event for any ‘remote’ PhD students in Scotland (watch this space!).
I’m lucky enough to know PhD students across many fields of study and at a whole range of Scottish Universities. Some are based in large, established Universities, are in offices with many other PhD students and are studying traditional subjects. Yet there are many different forms of ‘remoteness’, and there are a plethora of reasons why even the most outwardly conventional PhD student might feel remote on their PhD journey. Perhaps it’s time to reject such language completely and concentrate instead on creative approaches to building networks based not on location or institution, but constructed instead around common interests and shared challenges.