Some answers

I have given this precisely no thought at all, so my answers this evening may be totally different to my answers tomorrow morning. But I have finished my chapter and can’t face marking the OU essays yet, so what better than a bit of procrastination, and as it’s relating to my thesis I can kid myself that I am using my time constructively. So, here are some answers to Tractor Girl’s questions about the experience of being a postgrad researcher.

What have been some of the most stressful parts of the process, and how have you dealt with them?

It depends on the stage of the PhD. At the beginning, it was feeling like everyone else doing a PhD was Brain of Britain and I was a fraud, and that one day they would find me out. When I was on fieldwork, it was picking up the phone and asking a complete stranger in a foreign language if they would give me some of their time so I could interview them (I’m a bit phone-phobic). Since being back and writing up, managing my time has been probably the most stressful thing. I think I dealt with them by a. realising that everybody else felt like that; b. feeling the fear and doing it anyway (cliche but true), and c. er, I’m not sure I have dealt with time-management very well to be honest!

Other stressful things included moving to the other end of the country away from friends, job, security, etc; having a long-distance relationship (that was lovely too, but did add to the time-management issues); and financial concerns. And the fact that I had to do so much work for the teaching side of things (it was part of the deal as I didn’t get Research Council funding – in return for doing all the tutorials and marking essays for the 1st year undergrads, I got my fees paid and a stipend). It was, by and large, a good deal, as it gave me some really good experience, but the time pressure was enormous and I don’t think I managed it very well.

How do you strike a balance between work and the rest of your life?

Not very well! I think there is something to be said for treating it like any other job, and working 9-5 Monday to Friday. But the thing is it’s not any other job – sometimes the distractions and procrastinations are actually really productive times and you need what looks like time out or wasted time in order to fully “chew over” what you’re going to write (sometimes of course they are just wasted time!). But I often bring work home in the evening – as often as not it will sit there in the bag making me feel guilty and I end up taking it back to the office having done nothing in the evening, not even taking it out of the bag never mind looking at it properly, but if I don’t take it home I feel guilty that I could be doing more work instead of the frivolous stuff I do do in the evening. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, and one that after 4 years I am no nearer getting out of. But again, as in the question above, realising that everyone else does it as well and therefore I am not actually a failure is quite helpful! Having people around (in real life and online) to encourage me to do normal things is also helpful!

What has made you most excited in your studies?

Having the chance to go abroad and meet really interesting people – mainly on fieldwork, but also at conferences here and abroad too. Realising that I’m onto something and not just making it up. Being taken seriously by people I respect. Seeing connections and disconnections between what my respondents have said and what is “out there” in the public domain and trying to make sense of it all. The fact that after 4 years I still think my research subject is interesting!

How do you see theological work relating to the wider world?

The original question came from a panel of theology students – obviously I am not part of a theology department and in that respect am doing secular research. But because of the nature of my subject, religious voices have had (and continue to have) strong opinions which they’re not afraid to shout out. From the perspective of my research, I see theologians (some official, some armchair) doing great damage both to the people and practices they condemn and to their own cause. It’s very sad. I hope that my research can build some bridges, but the reality is if it is not ignored (honestly, the most likely scenario) then it will piss some people off. I still need to work through how I disseminate my research outside of the academy. Which leads me on to …

How do you see your own work as part of your calling?

This is a difficult question in a way. A couple of years ago, before and after my fieldwork, I spent a bit of time with someone much wiser than me discussing the idea of vocation. This included consideration of the possibility of ordained ministry, but we both quite quickly came to the conclusion that that was not where I was at and not where I was being called, at least for now and for the forseeable future (and, with any luck, beyond that as well 😉 ). We spent quite some time, particularly after I got back from fieldwork, discussing this very question, which was a useful exercise though possibly not the best time to be doing it, as returning from overseas fieldwork it takes a long time to adjust and process your experiences, and I was also just getting ready to get married (hooray!). In terms of my actual research, I still feel that I can use my experiences and insights in some sort of bridge-building way, but I’m still vague as to how, where, etc. It’s not helped by the fact that, by and large, the religious voices I am dealing with in my research are so strident, shrill, and frankly offensive (not to mention very often bonkers). However, they would feel exactly the same about me, and a major part of my challenge and calling is to find a way of imparting grace when what I really want to do is hit them with a bloody great big Clue Stick.

In general, I tend to see calling and vocation as, in the broadest sense, being who God made me to be. So in that sense my research work is part of my calling in that it is more than a 9-5 job, it is a reflection of me and how I work as well as (more importantly) a reflection of the people and situations about whom I am writing. This is something I’m going to have to explicitly acknowledge and explore a bit in my thesis – for all the talk about researcher neutrality, we all come to our research with our own baggage and expectations and values and – at least in the type of research I’m doing – it would be dishonest to claim neutrality.

How has your own faith been part of your work?

In a very low-key and understated way, I think. It’s a secular study, not a piece of applied theology, so it’s not ever going to be an overt thing. I think though that my faith is part of it in the same way that it was part of my work in nursing and all the other things I’ve done – through treating people with respect, and trying to give them a fair hearing, and taking care of the things (insights, opinions, resources, time, relationships) they have trusted to me. I don’t think that having a faith gives me a monopoly on these actions and ways of working – I’d say all of them are hallmarks of good feminist research methods for example – but for me that’s where they spring from.

What advice would you give beginning students? What might you do differently if you could start again?

For practical stuff, I wrote about this a year ago so would direct you to this post. Also, remember that not only is it not about you, it is totally about you, so reflect reflect reflect and take care of yourself. What would I do differently if I could start again? I hope I wouldn’t spend so much of the 1st year faffing about, I’d really like to be more organised, and I think I’d be more systematic about things like research journalling and that sort of thing. I’d have also got into NVivo from the beginning rather than leaving it till the last minute. Other than that though, I think I’m basically glad with how it’s turning out.

3 thoughts on “Some answers

  1. This is from your linked advice:
    “Can I add “prepare a sentence on describing your PhD to people who are polite and interested enough to ask, but who won’t understand the finer points of financial regression/physical science/17th century crime literature etc.”

    Did you do it? What is your research about?

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