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The heart vs head…

15 Aug

I feel a bit broken today. Broken for a country I love that has descended further into turmoil, and broken because the changes I thought I might have to make to my fieldwork plans are probably just the beginning of a retreat away from a project I (and, I think, my supervisors) really believed in. My heart and head are in conflict and it’s coming to crunch time…

My research explores activism in Egypt. Having worked and lived in the country on and off for over two years, I have a deep affection for Egypt and the many people I grew to care about in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and beyond. There was always something special about arriving back in Egypt: my Arabic skills would wake up at passport control, groggy from the months of rest and the late night arrival, and, as the taxi reached a familiar flyover in central Cairo, I would feel, in some ways, that I was coming home.

As part of my fieldwork, I was hoping to return to Egypt and explore political learning with community activists as their struggle for democracy continued. But as the situation escalated since the protests of June 30th, my researcher ‘head’ is being battered with the ethical concerns for the safety of participants being asked to discuss politics and thoughts of ‘the political’, and the university’s risk assessment for me as a researcher in the field. These battles mean the time has come to make some changes to my research project. Not completely, but enough that my heart feels a sense of sadness for the stories that cannot be told in the way they need to be told.

One of my criticisms of the academy has been the lack of research in authoritarian states and in the middle east – but today, it feels like I’m perpetuating that bias. It’s not a decision I take lightly, and I’m determined to remain focused on Egypt and Egyptian activists, but theoretically and methodologically, the plan we were so sure of has to evolve and take into consideration the heart and the head.

When we start a PhD we know there will be inevitable changes along the way: a new theoretical direction emerges from an illuminating reading session, or a new way to use a method previously dismissed seems possible, relevant and necessary. People in my department who know my work is on Egypt have enquired of my plans, many suggesting simply, ‘you can just apply the framework to somewhere different though, yeh?’. For me, changing case studies is not an option I’m ready to consider: my heart is still connected to Egypt, even though my head knows of the practical and ethical concerns of the university, not to mention my partner and family.

But maybe it’s being stubborn and maybe it will come back to haunt me, but I think we have a commitment to doing research that needs to be done, and that contributes understandings that can help to make the world a better place. If I were to back away from Egypt now, I would feel I was letting down all the Egyptians who made me so welcome for so long.

The immediate challenge is to use my head to adapt the research theoretically and methodologically because my heart tells me the ongoing revolution in Egypt is too important to walk away from…


The trouble with summer?

2 Aug

I love summer, but being based in Manchester, in the north west of the UK, we don’t always get one. We do reliably get 3-4 months where we can reduce layers from four to two (and maybe a cardigan!) but we haven’t had a period of more than about two weeks of good sunshine for what feels like years: official reports say the last prolonged period of sunshine was 2006…

But this year we can now declare we HAVE had a summer. A lovely, gorgeous, warm, make-your-veggies-grow-wonderfully, fabulous summer. Which makes motivation for a PhD topic that’s already being tested by political unrest and foreign office blocks on my intended fieldwork all the more difficult. I can read in the sun, I can write/type in the sun, but I can’t ignore it when it’s outside winking at me, and I admit it’s scuppered my ability to get 6 hours good work done each day. And with a lack of 6 hours good work a day comes a huge side order of guilt; I feel cheeky for having time off from the PhD. It’s clearly a common theme in this blog that I feel I should be working ALL the time, even though I know it’s not possible. So I am taking a moment to think about what I have done with this troublesomely lovely summer, and for my own sanity, I’m going to list things I have achieved (note: achieved, not done… I’m making that distinction on purpose!) in these 7 weeks since my end of year 1 viva (many of which have been put off for anywhere from 3 to 13 months… agh!)

Work: Read one whole (very relevant) book and around 150 pages of journal articles/reports. Two days paid academic work. Written about 1500 words, literature searched and planned. About 30 hours blog/news reports on current events relevant to my research. Home: plastered, painted and decorated hallway, lounge, dining room. Sorted the garden. Sorted post and filing,  the car and all those boring chores. Me: made it back to yoga (which makes me very, very, very happy!). Back up to 6+ mile runs and feeling good. Had time with many, many friends in France and London and locally, and lots of fun, days out, evening walks and time with the other half: festivals, art, movies, sport, travel. I finally got into a rhythm with the volunteering, have applied for a couple of interesting posts, and progressed on the freelancing.

And I had a haircut.

Although this summer may feel cheeky because I haven’t been cooped up reading, typing, typing, reading, I might finally be learning that productive time off is what will keep me sane and motivated for the long haul.

ImageI spent some time running in meadows, through woods, along the river. The flowers bloomed this summer so I also ran about and took photos. This picture reminds me of one of those lovely runs… 


The balance from running

26 Jul

Done a lot of running here

I’ve been silent on my blog for a while… I started posts, then stopped them… wrote a LOT (about 23,000 words) in April / May of academic stuff then just stopped. And ran. And ran some more…. it was beautiful!

For a couple of weeks, every time I put on my trainers after 8.30am (I am normally an up-and-out-the-door-by-7am runner) I felt a teensy bit of guilt nag at me: for being free to do this during the day when I should have been ‘at work’; for having what feels like ‘me’ time ALL the time (the PhD is surely a form of me time?); for enjoying life so much. Then I decided I should slap myself around the head and remember I left my (well paid) job because I had no life beyond that, and what I did have made me more stressed. I worked 70+ hours every week meaning that running, yoga, reading for pleasure, my own political activism, friends, had all slipped down in the pecking order. So this picture is here to remind me of one important part of what got me here and why I have to enjoy it: work life balance.

The conference nuggets and baby steps!

26 Mar

Now, I’m still a baby in PhD land, a conference novice, so forgive me for an extreme naval gazing moment (yes, again!). This post is really for me to acknowledge the baby steps we take during a PhD, and to hold on to a feeling of achievement I gained from noticing the difference between a conference in November (8 weeks into PhD) and now, March, (6 months in). Part of the difference is in my attitude, part in the content, and part in the implications for my work.

Among many reasons, we go to conferences for those golden nugget moments: the little spark that illuminates a new direction or a different meaning on some part of your work, or maybe even opens a new path that changes your perception of something you thought was or wasn’t related to your PhD. It can be the moment when you realise a critique you have (but perhaps are still reluctant to say aloud because conferences can also be intimidating places at times) is the same insight you should apply to your own work. Or it is the moment where you connect with someone else’s ideas in a way that clarifies and sharpens your own understandings.  These kind of golden nugget moments are exciting and provoking, challenging and rewarding.

I had a few nugget moments today, particularly one that arose out of a discussion of contrasting understandings and practices of solidarity. When one audience member responded to the presenter, I felt an argument brewing against what he’d suggested. I pondered (no really, I actually put my pen in my mouth and gazed upwards…. oh, dear, dear, dear….). I scribbled frantically and knew I’d had a moment where I could see real progress. But then a second, golden, nugget…


I realised that, whereas the November conference had me festering in a bewildering pit of my own fear at how much I didn’t know and excitement at how much I wanted to know, not only was I was now able to actually understand more of what people were saying (I’ll readily admit I remain befuddled at much of what social scientists say…) but I was growing in confidence in my own opinions and responses, arguing against their suggestions in my head and tracing my own journey to that standpoint. Ok, so it’s a seemingly trivial moment, but the golden nugget moment I’m taking from this conference is that the greatest achievement for me if (when… when… when!) I complete this PhD will be surviving the process and learning from all the positives and negatives that come with it – not simply the topic but all the other ‘stuff’ that makes the PhD such a unique experience. It really IS the journey, but it’s a journey full of tiny steps that will (hopefully) come together in one big, happy leap.

The ‘no’, the guilt and the change

20 Mar

Last week I attended a coaching workshop for PhD students. Aside from the moments where I felt sick, tears welling, lump in throat sticking, it was a great day – full of realisations and reflections that will hopefully make life in PhD land a bit easier over the next couple of years (please, I want to do this in 3. Not 4. 3. Three… yes, three).

One of the exercises encouraged us to think about barriers and ladders, thinking about the risks we need to take to take control towards our own progress . Amongst others, I realised one of my barriers is my distinct, definite, debilitating inability to say NO. No to the conversation started by my desk, No to a quick coffee (ok, tea) break, No to the long overdue ‘catch up’, No to “can you help with this…?”. But underlying all the times I’ve refused to say No or ‘not now’ is my definite success at saying ‘YES, COME ON IN, LET’S PARTY’ to something so much more powerful: guilt. Feeling guilty that I’ll come across as rude when I don’t take my earphones all the way out and stand up, feeling guilty for always seeming reluctant, feeling guilty that I feel like I’m always cutting things short.

So rather than putting myself in a position where I end up feeling guilty about saying no or taking control, what have I done? Removed myself from the whole situation and am now working at home, tucked into a much more comfortable work-chair, with daylight, blanket on lap, one cat by my feet and the other on a bean bag winking from her snooze. It feels good. I’ve had the most productive three days of my year. Yes, it’s a bit more lonely and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t become disconnected from everything that goes on in uni life… plus, I can see why so many 3rd year PhD-ers prefer to work from home but seem a little bonkers! But for a week where a deadline is looming then working from home seems to have done the trick, even if this is one giant avoidance tactic of the fear of saying ‘no’!

The Tigger is back!

4 Mar

My philosophy of life could probably be summed up as one of extremes and my daily moods reminiscent of two central characters in Winnie-The-Pooh; most days I am will be either full of Tiggerly vim and vigour being overly-enthusiastic, excited, giddy (and probably highly annoying) or pessimistic, full of doom and much more like Eeyore. No in-betweens. All or nothing.

Embarking on a PhD has definitely tested my (predominantly) Tigger tendencies; it seems there’s a distinct lack of bouncy-jolly-ness in academia which has made me question my ability to stick with it but that’s for another post on another day…

Over the last two weeks, the atmosphere in PhD-land seemed to be perfect for Eeyore to find a resting place and get comfortable. As I continued to write, I was finding myself much more inclined to think every sentence was terrible, that every article I read was incomprehensible, that I wasn’t going anywhere except down. With a supervisory meeting looming, I wasn’t holding out much hope that the few thousand words I had written was remotely what they wanted to read.

And this is where PhD-Land is clearly going to keep surprising and shocking me, and why I want to write these moments to look back on. In PhD-Land the word ‘good’ is magical. And in that meeting it was also preceded by an even more magical one: ‘very’. I could have fallen off my chair and bounced back to my desk. Yet had that word ever been used to evaluate any one of my lessons when I was teaching I’d have been devastated – good was NOT good enough. Neither was very good.

But in PhD-land, good / very good feels incredible. It feels magical. It feels like Winnie himself has given me a giant bear hug and told me I can do a Tigger dance and Eeyore wants to join in! Tigger’s glass is definitely half-full and I’m going to try and remember this moment and drink it in very slowly!

The Big P…

20 Feb

I’m sure every PhD student goes through it… in fact, maybe someone should do some research to see if there is a connection between the P word and the C word. I think I could safely hypothesise that when Confidence takes a dip, Procrastination soars.

In the last three days I have caught up with many an important task: completed emails and urgent Amnesty International actions; trawled Manchester trying to find an NHS dentist; ensured fridge, cupboards are stocked; ensured freezer has stock of meals we can just defrost and munch (for when the brain gets into gear again and I end up staying at the office until the late hours…); cycled the long way to and from the office; made sure washing is up-to-date (including the dodgy crusty tea-towels from the office that I brought home to clean); changed lightbulbs, sheets, towels; called my dad for a chat to discuss his birthday; started writing my blog… I can only be a bit proud that I stopped short of making a new ‘studying’ playlist, though I do think I might have to at least edit the current one!

The morning was generally ok, started well at least; I read a couple of interesting chapters and made some useful notes and convinced myself there was a bit of progress towards pinning down a couple of concepts I’m looking at putting into my framework. But it seems like there’s a motivational blockage that really needs a bit of feedback from either supervisor to find the drive again. I’ve not discussed my work with either of them since the middle of December and can’t muster the energy to carry on going with no sense of whether the path I’m on is in any way pointing in the right direction. But I have got ingredients for a yummy dinner, am off to swim training soon, and have an assortment of healthy packed lunches ready and waiting.

Procrastination: another one of the things to be calmly aware of so it doesn’t get a grip on the PhD process? Hmmm…. Now, bathroom could do with a mop….


A morning run cheers up the spirit!

19 Feb

A morning run cheers up the spirit!

We’ve been treated to frosty and cold mornings in the UK, perfect for running and cycling and blowing away the cobwebs of self-doubt. On a morning as beautiful as this I realised this is one of the huge benefits of having this time: instead of being in my office at 7am with the list of demands on my time growing ever larger, I was pounding the pavements at sunrise and thinking about my work that develops my interests. It’s a real privilege and probably SHOULD be hard…

The big C

18 Feb

Today I had one of those moments that (from trawling the internet) appears to have happened to many phd students: hating academia utterly and completely. It seems like most people go through it – wondering how they got to the point of deciding to start the phd, let alone reaching a point where they feel able to complete it.

I am well aware that my main problem is confidence. No matter what I’ve done, I’ve always thought I’d be found out as some kind of fraud and that I had made it where I was because of a lot of luck and other people equating enthusiasm with ability. Even when I passed additional qualifications or got letters and cards that should have given me faith in myself I wouldn’t ever believe what was said. I love writing, love my topic, and I really love where the research is going. BUT (of course there is a but!) I have started to hate academia already, particularly the feeling of inadequacy that follows me everywhere as soon as I step away from my desk and have to interact on any academic level with anyone and they’ll find me out.

And so, I hope this post becomes the realisation that I have found the battleground of my PhD: self-confidence. I don’t know how to change it, but I hope that recognising it is the first step to ensuring I don’t quit…

Now I know this is all self-pitying twoddle, but apparently it’s normal to feel like this… A more amusing stance on the issue is evident in this list of acronyms for PhD (taken from

Patiently hoping for a Degree
Piled higher and Deeper
Professorship? hah! Dream on!
Please hire. Desperate.
Pour him a Drink
Philosophically Disturbed
Probably headed for Divorce
Probably heavily in Debt
Patiently headed Downhill…
Permanent head Damage
Potential heavy Drinker
Professional hamburger Dispenser… “Would you like fries with that?”
Post hole Digger
Professional hair Dresser
Piano hauling Done
Pizza hut Driver
Pretty heavily Depressed
Prozac handouts Desired
Pretty heavy Diploma
Pretty horrible dissertation
…and the funniest of them all – Philosophiae doctor

The Silence and The Step Back

31 Jan

Although I didn’t fall into a hole and hide from the world, the three months silence from here was probably a manifestation of my work taking so many directions and my confidence taking so many tumbleturns. Being able to step back a little now is much less about feeling more confident and more about feeling more confident that this is exactly the process I need to go on to feel confident in the end. 

The research topic has taken new shapes, new dimensions, new forms and has, ultimately, become driven by the theory… but weirdly, it’s better BECAUSE it’s driven that way. And it’s not even particularly different but it does feel more original and more necessary. That’s got to be good, right? 

During ‘The Silence’ I learnt to step back entirely from what I expected from myself and what I expected the PhD to look like in the end. It’s a freeing moment when you realise that the joy of doing this type of research is the myriad of avenues your reading and inquiring can take you (and on a side note, the moment of joy when you realise Foucault IS relevant, IS interesting and IS comprehensible… in parts!). 

The Step Back was actually many forms of stepping upwards, backwards, downwards at the same time; up a level of theory, down into specific parts of that theory, back to historic theory; upwards in my own knowledge and understanding, backwards in expectations of myself… The list really could go on. 

By the end of next week I should have completed the rewritten, reformulated, refocussed, retheorised, repositioned (……etc!) proposal for my research, and my first chapter. I’m hoping the next silence is as I breathe and enjoy a step forward.