Breaking the Fourth Wall: Working in Researcher Development as a PhD Student

This week, PhD researcher and events intern Emily Hay continues our series on working while undertaking a PhD. In this post, she considers how the different roles she’s had (professionally and academically) have affected her own self-perception and identity as a researcher.

As PhD researchers we can wear many different hats, and we often switch between them multiple times every day. Sometimes we’re trawling the library looking for a plug socket alongside lost-looking undergrads; other times we’re in charge of teaching and marking the exams of those same undergraduates. Sometimes we’re writers, other times archivists, or presenters, or committee members. We’re no longer students, we’re researchers, we insist – unless we’re trying to get discounted stationary or a haircut, that is.

My point is, when you take on a PhD (especially if you’re doing so as a stepping-stone to a future career, be that academic or professional) there’s an unspoken rule that you have to do much more than just your PhD research. You’ll write papers for publication and attend conferences to disseminate your research to others in your field, while doing public engagement work to bring your research to non-academics. You might teach undergraduate courses, organise conferences, or put on training sessions for fellow researchers. The PhD is a lot more than just doing your research and writing it up – and some days you might not even feel like a researcher at all with all the different plates you’re spinning.

Given how much the PhD can feel like an intricate balancing act, it may seem counterintuitive to attempt to add ‘extra’ work on top of this, especially if you don’t necessarily need to do so for survival’s sake. Yet, despite this, some work experiences can be endlessly valuable to do alongside your PhD, even if they don’t necessarily tie seamlessly into your research project.

As well as being a PhD researcher in Scottish Literature, I also work with Research and Innovation Services at my University as their PGR Events Intern. The main objective of my role is to facilitate community building amongst all post-graduate researchers (PGRs) at University of Glasgow, and involves a whole host of different tasks and responsibilities including: helping to programme and run induction activities for new researchers; organising and advertising our big PGR competitions, like Three Minute Thesis; and both organising and presenting at our This PhD Life conference. Through this job I’ve also done things like edit videos, make graphics for social media, and edit University webpages, as well as getting to meet and interact with PhD students across a range of subject areas. There’s a lot that goes into it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In my time studying, I’ve worked a whole host of different jobs – from retail to hospitality, from arts journalism to festival PR. And though I got something out of each of those in their different ways, this has by far been the most rewarding and easiest to balance alongside my academic life. During my MPhil I found it pretty stressful that I could be getting into a rhythm with research in the morning, only to have no choice but to leave it behind to head off to my hospitality job in the afternoon – it was stunting. I had a similar issue with my work in radio research, also during my MPhil. Since I freelanced, I was often offered cover shifts at very short notice, not wanting to say no to the money (or be taken off the freelance roster) I always said yes, even if it derailed my research for the week ahead. Now working within a team dedicated to skills development and wellbeing for researchers, I find I no longer have these issues.

My job now is, in many ways, more high stress than my old hospitality job. Because I’m working from home with my own dedicated responsibilities and workload, I never really get to leave work entirely behind mentally – much like the PhD (though this is something I’m working on personally). When I worked in hospitality I didn’t have to worry about the customers after I locked up at night, and even when I freelanced, I got to leave my stresses and to-do list behind for someone else at the end of the day. I can understand why, alongside a PhD which is already so mentally and emotionally demanding, someone might prefer to work those kinds of jobs (or indeed, may have no other choice).

But I do get so many things out of my current work that complement my PhD research, even if that isn’t in subject matter. Organising my own schedule and having two separate to-do lists really helps fulfil me on a day-to-day basis. It means that even on those days when the PhD just isn’t flowing, there are always less ‘thinky’ tasks that I can do for my internship; and if I need to change around my working schedule because inspiration has struck or I need a last minute supervision session I almost always can. Getting to see the workings of my University’s dedicated researcher development team improves my own knowledge and understanding of my own skills development; and the way it’s allowed me to get so much more involved in my local PGR community inspires and motivates me every day. Working on a lot of those ‘extras’ we associate with the PhD – conference organising, presenting, teaching and facilitating peer learning and networking – but getting noticed (and paid) for them in an official capacity is also a wonderful tonic for the often toxic relationship between academia and unpaid, unrecognised, extra responsibilities.

There’s also a sense of perspective that comes with having something else to occupy your time than just your research. We’re always told to remember that we are more than out PhD, but this can be really hard to accomplish when almost everything we do professionally and personally revolves around it. My job forces me to do that – though I am still a PhD researcher there, I’m also an events organiser, a graphic designer, a member of admin staff. I’m not defined by my research there, which places less pressure on research as the only area of my life where I gain success or fulfilment. It may sound ironic but spending less time hyper-fixated on my research is making me a better, healthier researcher – and it’s helped me find a lot of the fun in it again.

Emily Hay is a first-year PhD researcher in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and the current PGR Events Intern with Glasgow’s Research and Innovation Services (@UofGPGRs). Her research evaluates the self-portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots as presented in in poetry and correspondence from 1567-1587, and how this contrasted with what others wrote about her in the same period.

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