7. Reflections of a Pseudo-Geographer

Jennifer Hoolachan, University of St Andrews.

I am not a geographer. Or at least I didn’t plan to be. Let me explain.

As with most PhD students, I have been in academia for a long time – 12 years in fact – gathering qualifications and moving from discipline to discipline. I have qualifications in Psychology, Alcohol & Drug Studies, Applied Social Research and in December 2015 I submitted my PhD thesis which spans the subjects of sociology, social policy and social work. On the plus side, I can tick the ‘interdisciplinary’ box when applying for jobs. But my academic journey has left me with a disconcerting feeling that I don’t belong anywhere.

Cutting a long story short, I am currently a qualitative Research Assistant in the Centre for Housing Research (CHR) situated within the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St Andrews. CHR comprises a relatively small subsection of the School which is dominated by environmental geographers and quantitative human geographers. My research interests include qualitatively exploring housing and homelessness issues and CHR is a great fit. For nearly a year, I have been working on projects connected to youth housing and the socio-spatial aspects that underpin this subject (e.g. urban/rural divisions).

However, being in a geography department, I am invited to attend lunchtime seminars about sustainable development, population change, glaciers, coastal regions, the Earth’s evolution and archaeology. I try my best to follow along while eating my sandwich but with the monster of Imposter Syndrome weighing me down. I cannot contribute to the Q&A session because I have barely followed the presentation and do not want to appear ignorant. When I find myself standing at the coffee machine making small talk with a geography professor we are confronted with the awkwardness of not being able to find a common subject to discuss (inevitably the conversation turns to the weather!). While I sit at my computer surrounded by books and papers, my office mate (wearing a lab coat) sits at his desk examining rock samples with a microscope. I receive departmental emails scolding staff members and PhD students for leaving their soil samples in the food fridge!

Within this alien environment are my CHR colleagues who I now consider to be my friends. They are my comfort zone – people that I feel a sense of belonging with[1] and with whom I can discuss and debate issues within my areas of expertise. Recently (and much to my surprise and amusement), upon reading my latest outline for a paper about rural housing, my line manager commented: ‘you’re becoming a real geographer’! I don’t know if I will ever feel that I fully belong in one particular department or if I will ever be free from Imposter Syndrome. But what I have learned is that sometimes when we think we do not belong somewhere, it turns out that this is exactly where we should be.

[1] For anyone interested in the topic of belonging see May, V., (2013) Connecting Self to Society: Belonging in a Changing World. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.