There are many challenges that you encounter as a PhD student. And a great amount of them are barely discussed within academic settings, since they are not seen as directly related to your thesis. If they are recognized at all, the general understanding is that those are your personal issues, things to deal with on your own, outside of academia. This is even more true for those of us who aim to combine their involvement in activism with a PhD.
It is only three months since I have started my PhD and I am more than grateful that I had the opportunity to attend a workshop called “Activism in Academia” organized by students of Mid Sweden University within the InterGender Network. Anna Olovsdotter Lööv, Lovise Haj Brade and Angelika Sjöstedt Landén shared with us their experiences of writing a PhD, but also spoke about their “arrivals” in academia, which was an inspiring way to start a conversation and discuss the challenges we are facing and possible ways of how to deal with them. On the following day, Diana Mulinari from Lund University spoke about a survival kit for PhD students. I was lucky to encounter this advice so early in my PhD studies, and I am more than happy to share it with you, in the hope that it might help you at whatever point of your academic journey you are. Please note that this survival kit was created in the context of Sweden. We would like to point out that despite all challenges doing a PhD in Sweden comes with great privilege in regards to financial stability (PhD positions are fully paid) and other structural support from the Swedish welfare state.
You need people who support you. We need to care for each other. Be selective of who you listen to. Some comment on your work to support it, while others don’t like what you represent. Find generous people who support your work.
- Never feel as if your work is insignificant. Your work is needed. If you don’t do it, nobody will do it. Our work matters. Defend the meaning of your work; team up with other people who are in the same field and share your values. We are here in academia because of others: We produce knowledge that decreases the suffering of people and supports them in creating visions for more just futures. Not each and every day, but sometimes, there is something in our work people can use – and even if it is only two sentences of a whole thesis.
- Understand the organizations you work in. It is not because of you as an individual, and seldomly because of you doing bad research that your work is rejected or that people are skeptical towards you or even attack you. People have prejudices of who we are: It might be that they misunderstand feminism or that they don’t get along with your supervisor or the person you share an office with – the reasons can be manifold. Understand the structural conflicts in your organization.
- You need people who support you. We need to care for each other. Be selective of who you listen to. Some comment on your work to support it, while others don’t like what you represent. Find generous people who support your work.
- Understand that this is labor: We are paid to do this job. Research processes are difficult and long. We need to manage tension – it is always there in neoliberal structures. Find friends who like you the way you are. The evaluation process never ends; it continues after the PhD. Don’t depend on these evaluations; they will otherwise destroy you. Be good enough, not perfect. Find some stable understanding of yourself. If you allow people to define you, they will destroy you. If a paper or presentation was successful or not, celebrate anyway. Don’t depend on people. Remember, this is a job, and jobs are boring and sometimes unfair, writing is difficult and takes time.
- Never accept the time frame given. The people who evaluate you had way more time for their own thesis. (Mulinari herself had eight years to write her thesis.) You cannot fulfil all demands and you cannot be on the same level after graduating within four or five years. It’s not your fault if you cannot fulfil these demands. It’s a structural problem. The PhD is work in progress. After that you can still write more and develop. With your PhD you only have to show that you can work as a researcher. Do this and move on. Don’t put all your life into it. Think pragmatically (this is not immoral): What is possible when working in the framework of neoliberal conditions? It is important that you survive the PhD; we need you in academia.
- Negotiate. Choose the fights you can and want to fight.
- Read selectively. You cannot read everything. Don’t feel guilty.
- Be careful about what you promise. (This is academia, not politics.)
- Balance autonomy and collaboration. When you do a collaborative article, be open about it and state in the text itself that you divide the money equally. Also: negotiate, smile and demand. Tell your collaborators when your name needs to go first.
- You can stay in academy or you can leave. It’s not a shame to leave. Sometimes you can have a job outside of academia that allows you to do more research and also to earn more money. Be open to possibilities.
- Allow yourself to be tired.
- A life outside of university is important. Without this you cannot survive.
- Reach out to people: It gets lonely in academia, therefore people are happy to connect. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- When you are teaching be careful with demanding students, especially with those who tell you their problems. You are neither a social worker, nor trained as a psychologist. Be selective. You cannot help everyone. Don’t let people invade your free time; protect your lunch break.
- It is not bad to be somewhere else from time to time. It is good to be outside of daily conflicts at times.