Neo-liberalism rescues no man: the guilt factor.

Guilty is a feeling I feel a lot of  the time. Sometimes guilty for specific things (like getting a funded PhD when there are lots of people out there who are cleverer and better placed to do it, or hopelessly killing plants with wild abandon because I forget to water them) and sometimes as a more generalised feeling that I am not doing all the things that I should be doing.

For me studying is always a really weird time because of well… the time! Time when I have a full-time job has always felt very compartmentalised: there are my regular working hours, and yes sometimes you have to go over them, in fact sometimes you have to go over them a lot, and find yourself taking a work call at 10pm or writing a report into the small hours. But mostly you know (particularly when you’re real junior) that so long as you put in your 9-5 you’re good, you do other things with your evenings and weekends, and that is all good because you already have a job. With studying I find that I struggle to compartmentalise in the same way, time gets really elastic, even when you’ve made a decision about the time you are going to spend on tasks.

Now I know that I am a ridiculous future planner, but I think that part of my struggle to compartmentalise is rooted in the impending doom of unemployment. Now it’s hopefully two and half years away (if I finish on time, which I’m told by peers is v unlikely) but I think employability is high in the mind of most PhD students. If you spend any time on the internet, the likes of Twitter and Times Higher Education is awash with a constant stream of stories of the stressful, casualised and under-valued labour expected of Early Career researchers (if you want to scare yourself look here and here). Even without the dulcet tones of the internet if you open your ears in most departments there are people talking about the perils of combining short-term academic contracts with mortgages, families, or general future planning. You will also hear quite a lot of

‘this isn’t actually part of my job!!!’

So there is a little bit of fear struck into my tiny heart. This is only intensified when I talk to my parents who both are very working class and literally encouraged me into higher education to avoid the exact kinds of problems that we see early career researchers experiencing.

Now there are obviously things that we as students can do (no I know, ‘neo-liberalism to the rescue!’ much? But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.). We have a researcher development framework that clearly outlines the kinds of development activities we should be doing during our PhD, and there are more general things to do like getting involved in research (and then writing articles about that), organising events, sitting on university committees, and teaching that can help (for good ways of getting involved why not check out this brilliant post on the PhD Women’s blog and if you haven’t, but you are a PhD woman, join the Facebook Group or follow on Twitter).

The thing I find a bit difficult about it all is that alongside a narrative about the increasingly competitive and casualised work we have to look forward to, we have a slightly different narrative about ‘students today’, that tells of students who are not resilient enough, who are too stressed out for no good reason, who aren’t prepared for the ‘real world’ (as if universities are somehow an alternative reality). The suggestion is often wellbeing activities to take breaks, go outside and do things in nature, exercise, participate in activities that are often organised and facilitated by institutions. Now whilst I totally agree that these are all fabulous suggestions, worthwhile provision from universities, and things that I try and do, sometimes I feel like the narrative almost treats this as a cure-all for PhD stress.

Feeling stressed at a stressful time is, I think, fairly normal. In fact I find trying not to feel stressed when faced with something stressful only serves to intensify that stress. PhDs are stressful, you are trying to carve out a piece of new research whilst also trying to work on your personal development whilst also trying to resist the impending doom of being unemployable despite all that. You also have to be a person:  do some exercise, keep up with friends and family, pay your bills, try desperately to get your five a day, do something so that you can talk to said friends and family in a way that won’t make them think you are a complete and total workaholic bore. Sometimes we’ve just gotta be allowed to feel our feelings and institutions have to become comfortable, or allow themselves to be uncomfortable, with that. That does not mean that their investment in wellbeing activities is futile, or that they should do nothing. But it does mean that whilst they are unwilling and/or unable to tackle some of those root causes, it will have an impact on staff and students, and activities to improve wellbeing in an undesirable and stressful context will only ever temporarily distract from it, not cure it. The parallel narratives about students lacking resilience, and a precarious and unstable job market for early career researchers, perhaps need to start talking to one another in order to understand their links.

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