This PhD has been an intense journey of learning and unlearning full of challenges, something I will be exploring in this post. My work is political, everything I do is political. This is why I took the loving task of doing research differently, of finding the right ways that allowed to tell what is so violent about development (imposing and negating others), and about doing research too (classifying, representing, appropriating, othering, denying); while bringing an epistemology that does not have its roots in western-modern-logics. This means bringing options where one is often told there aren’t any. And as an attempt at decolonizing the field. In what follows I would like to share some of my personal experiences while reflecting on the process of doing a PhD in a European University as a woman of color. Hopefully someone else finds it useful. As peoples from different backgrounds, sex, gender, race… our experiences within Western Academia are also shaped by these intersections. For example, the possibilities of being heard, dismissed or considered are different for white people than for people of color. A supervision team aware of these aspects and power relations makes the journey more bearable, but this “awareness” is rare. What other aspects influence experiences within academia? For example, I think of single mothers whose challenges are different than for those who happen to be able to rely on a partner, or from those who do not have kids at all. Aspects of everyday life, relations, and health can add to the number of factors that make one’s journey in this institution more difficult or even violent.
A PhD can be a very solo journey, these words are an attempt to reach out to others walking on this path. Perhaps these are also a mirror where others who are or have been in similar situations can see their own reflection. Those who are doubting/struggling in their very own PhD journey. I want to particularly address women, and especially those engaging with the decolonial option. Those who seek to decolonize knowledge in whatever way they choose to do so. I know by experience there are huge bumps, cliffs, holes along the way which is not linear. Some of these difficulties have to do with what kind of resources one has in terms of time, budget and actual possibilities (support) in challenging academia creatively with its own tools. There can be several restrictions to engage with decolonial thinking. These become institutional walls similar to those described by Ahmed (2017) that prevent one from moving. Some of the biggest walls can be put in place by supervisors as well as by others above the hierarchy. On top of that, consider what an increasingly neoliberal academia means, and how it shapes the experiences of PhD researchers who are at the bottom. For example, the pressure for publishing, attending conferences, teaching, getting involved in committees and other activities while progressing with one’s own research. These can be quite stressful. It is not surprising that PhDs are at high risk of developing mental health problems, something universities are not necessarily prepared to deal with. This means that if you ever break down or face any mental health problems, remember the system is the problem, not you.
If you are considering a PhD, or are starting one… I want to be honest, it will be exhausting at times, it will be confusing and even scary since it is a path full of doubts. Some of us are hegemonically constructed to embody ambiguity. What I mean by this is that we were meant to doubt ourselves, since our rationality is always in question…There are ups and downs along the way, I remember moments when I wondered what and why was I doing this for…If you are a woman of color reading this, chances are that you will be ignored. I have also been dismissed, I have seen other brilliant women of color being dismissed. Remember you are not alone. The system is set to make you feel small and isolated. Feel the presence of every woman of color who dared to ask the “wrong questions” inappropriately speaking to power as if they were entitled to and as if power could listen…Warning: Power does not listen. Feel the strength of the words written, spoken, bled through generations of women born with a question mark on their foreheads daring to walk into the tower that we hoped was accessible to us. Warning: is not. This only means you will have to open the way, follow the steps of those who have been tracing a path for you to walk on. Find the clues of your ancestors, do not be caught up into the fantasy of the race that one is supposed to compete in. Warning: none ever wins this race. It brings extra hours of work, solitude, burn outs, harms relationships and health. It is one of the strategies of the system to isolate and impede the creation of nourishing communities of mutual support and exchange of knowledges (Icaza 2015). You will need a nourishing community, you may have to plant the seeds for one to flourish.
In what follows I would like to share some tools that I found useful along the way. I do believe though, that each person needs to find what works for them. Find what works for you! These tools allowed me to walk through challenges that were emotional, in relation to personal health, intellectual, and in finding ways to balance different aspects of my life. I am a PhD researcher but that is not all of who I am. This means I dedicate my time-energy to other aspects of my life, to other relations that are not entirely about the research I do, even if that defines a big part of where I go and how I get to be in that place. To these tools I add those reflections that other women doing their PhDs shared with me. Some of these women have children, others do not have funding for their PhDs. This means they have jobs on top of their research to pay the bills. Others have the privilege of focusing on their work since funding is not an issue. This is my case as well, it was not like this during the first year of my PhD. I know too well how difficult it is to have other precarious jobs and do your PhD at the same time. I also know that having funding does not mean one is not living precariously.
- I would first suggest doing a visual map of where and how you spend your time-energy, to have it clear what other aspects of your life are meaningful and need to be a priority. Have it somewhere you can see it often.
- If family and friends are important to you, then make sure you make the space to nourish these relations. This will have an impact on the emotional aspects of your life.
- Sleep if you can! A good sleep is precious and not always a possibility, but if you have the choice and can make it happen, do it! It will be good for more than mental clarity.
- Walk, this might sound meaningless, but sometimes one gets caught up in reading-writing mode and barely moves the body…Going for a walk makes a big difference during these times.
- Pay attention to your body. I noticed how during the winter I get slower and tried to rest more when possible. Once the darkest times are over, I wake up earlier and try to do more, for me it works. This is to say: find your own rhythm, see if weather/seasons affect your body and if so, use that information accordingly. It is a way of being in sync with one’s own body and respect it. I know… deadlines have no respect for such organic rhythms…
- Make room for things that make you happy, it can be a Skype call with an old friend or an evening of cooking with friends.
- Find a routine that works for you. My routine includes yoga and meditation. These have been great tools for me. Yoga classes forced me to stop working and get out of the office/house. Meditation helped me deal with stressful moments. I meditate every day and can only recommend it. I know by experience what it does for me. I also know there are several techniques of meditation and finding the right one is important. By that I mean that choose a technique that helps focusing easier, one that “speaks to you” best. And if meditation is not your thing, then find what helps you create a routine that sustains you emotionally-mentally.
- Seek support when you need to, take time off when your body calls for it.
- If you have a deadline coming and cannot sit down to work (procrastination), but anxiety is increasing, remember how less stressed you will feel if you just start. There is no way around it.
- Keep in mind that ideas will come in the most unexpected moments like when taking a shower or washing the dishes so, keep something nearby to write your thoughts. And do not stress too much when things do not flow while you are starring at the screen of your laptop. Do something else instead of writing, it could be reading or searching for material to read…this is to say there are moments in which forcing it is more stressful and less strategic.
A PhD can be a journey that helps one ground in their own skin. Learning what their body needs, how to read-relate to it better. Take this chance to connect with yourself. This can be a form of resistance to the fragmentation and numbness required by dominant academia (Icaza 2015). I find this essential in relating to others, in building nourishing communities of learning-sharing (Icaza 2015). Perhaps this is what I am so grateful about persisting on this quest, that it took me back to my roots and to my body in unexpected ways. I yearn for reaching out, inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) and particularly with those whose bodies inhabit the border, any kind of border… those whose bodies place them outside the norm (white-male…). I am also inspired by María Lugones (2015) in building coalitions of solidarity from a feminism that parts/acknowledges the colonial difference.
A final advice would be to make sure you can count on meaningful relations that allow you to sustain yourself and others. Take care of yourself and other women around you, support each other in whatever way you can. This is a clue for survival, but also a conscious attempt at doing academia differently. It implies bringing the body into the “body-less” dominant notion of doing research/producing knowledge. It also implies prioritizing life and what sustains it. In the spirit of indigenous feminists walking the path of feminism comunitario who ask to build community wherever we are, and whose vindication of rights come from the community; not from an individual subject. What I am saying is let’s build community, let us walk together, let us recognize, support, sustain each other instead of compete in isolation. Perhaps this is how we can open cracks in the tower, shake its ground and watch it crumble…
What are your tips/tools for surviving academia?
Note: Cover Image is by Molly Costello