Within days of beginning my first term as a graduate student in October 2009, I was told by peers and mentors that being a graduate student was isolating. I hadn’t really considered this before – I certainly hadn’t found any aspect of my undergraduate study isolating. Even a few months later, as I started to submit PhD applications, there were well meaning friends and advisors telling me that doing a PhD would be lonely. By this time, the chorus of voices was joined by some nagging doubts of my own.
The main thing that worried me wasn’t necessarily being alone per se – I was well aware that individual work is central to literary study. I didn’t worry about not having friends because I was lucky enough to have besties behind me. Obviously there were lots of niggling concerns like if I had the ability, if my topic was ‘good’ enough, if I could afford the time and expense, and what I would do at the end of it all. However, what concerned me the most, entering this apparent wilderness, was that if PhD research is so isolating, who could advise me?
Over 2 years on from the PhD application process, I’m happy to report that I’ve found advice and support in some likely and unlikely places. I have peers here in Oxford, and the companionship of others in my field from a research network – this much I might have hoped for. At the time, this fair blog was only a glint in my eye, and engaging with readers through this and reading other blogs (such as those in my blogroll) during my work has also been a source of support.
Increasingly, though, it is Twitter which is my most prevalent academic comfort. In the past year there has seems to have been a boom in academics and students using the network to discuss aspects of their work. I can post something about my working day, ask a question, make an observation, and receive almost immediate feedback. Yesterday, I noted that I was starting work on a conference paper in order to free up time for actual thesis writing at some stage. @EKSwitaj from QUB tweets back ‘See, that’s why I don’t write conference papers anymore. I just get up and blag.’, and @DrMagennis agreed. This, I hasten to add to any budding academics, is not exactly wise advice (but full time wisdom is time consuming and boring).
Better advice is currently being dispensed with great fervor, tagged #phdadvice. Initially started by @Nadine_Muller from the University of Hull, flagged up by mailing lists and spreading like wildfire, this hashtag has prompted questions and varied responses from those considering graduate research and from those of us already engaged in it. Such is the speed and appeal of this simple tag, that I see (on Twitter, naturally), that Nadine has already been interviewed by THE about it.
I already felt quite strongly that social networks were providing me with a very fruitful and engaging community, but this recent hashtag has me even more convinced that we can strengthen our working relationships and academia more widely by our participation and awareness of each other. Isolation isn’t trending, but #phdadvice is.