13. Reflections on starting a PhD: ‘One day, the shoes begin to fit’

One of our newest committee members, Kieran Phelan shares some reflections about his first weeks as a PhD student at the University of Nottingham.

As I am writing this post, I have just returned from a fantastic school seminar by the esteemed Professor John T Andrews. Not only is Professor Andrews a pre-eminent geoscientist, being a Penrose Medallist (Google it- it’s pretty big) , but he is also an alumni of the University of Nottingham. Mentor and academic, his scholarly contributions to glacial geology, stratigraphy, palaeomagnetism, geodynamics, geochronology, paleoceanography and paleoclimatology have revolutionised these fields. He has done what all geographers aspire to do (I think); inspire a generation and profoundly influence the discipline. Whilst I found his lecture on glacial geomorphology incredibly interesting, as a cultural economist, I admit that most of the talk wasn’t really applicable to my area of research. Despite this, I appreciated the seminar for what it was; a rare opportunity to hear from one of the ‘Greats’.

Upon my return to my desk, I joined a number of my peers in a discussion about the seminar. Whilst we didn’t all share the subject specific expertise to talk over the finer points of glacial geomorphology, we all recognised one thing; Professor Andrews has achieved a great deal. His research contributions and legacy have, and continue to be phenomenal. In light of this, conversation quickly descended into a discussion about the current anxieties we all have at the start of our PhD ‘journey’. Overwhelmingly, most of us were apprehensive. We were anxious that our abilities might fail us, we were nervous about sustaining a research project solidly for the next four years, and we were worried that the thesis we produce might just not make the grade. More pertinently, being based in a department with some of the geographical academy’s leading thinkers, we found ourselves worried that we were just not good enough to fit in. We were experiencing the symptoms of the infamous ‘impostor syndrome’.

At a Graduate School introductory lecture entitled ‘The Nature of the Doctorate’, the course leader said this; ‘a PhD is one the highest levels of qualification a person can get’. No pressure. We had been selected through a competitive application process, done well throughout our educational ‘careers’ and were now ready to embark on a doctorate. Whilst the idea of this pep talk was to instil within us a newfound level of confidence, personally, it had the adverse effect. Looking around the room at all of the smart people sitting beside me, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t one of them.  Somehow I had snuck in by mistake.

Returning back to Professor Andrews’ seminar, he started by talking about his time at the University of Nottingham. He spoke with great fondness of the times he played rugby, went on field trips and made lifelong friends. Amazingly, he spoke of how he completed his PhD in just one year?! He also peppered his talk with candid reflections of the expeditions, personal friendships and time spent in the field. Lastly, he shared personal anecdotes about his family life and home. It is just then when I had a light bulb moment; he was a normal guy, who had just managed to do something remarkable. The ‘Greats’ we hear about, read about and enthuse us, are also human.

As the adage goes, when we pursue scholarly work, ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’. Inevitably, these ‘giants’ provide lowly graduate students with giant shoes to fill. Whilst sometimes these shoes may feel far too big, uncomfortable even, they also provide us with the growing room we need to flourish. It’s ok to feel like we don’t fit them right now, and it’s ok to feel out of our depth, but give it time. Keep chipping away at the work, keep enjoying the challenges and relishing the uncertainty, for our ‘Cinderella moment’ might just be around the corner. Despite all the anxieties, stresses and hardships, we may find that one day, the shoes begin to fit.

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