The ‘ivory tower’
One of the commonest misconceptions about research is that it is an ‘ivory tower’ activity, far removed from reality and from social contact with others. If you say you are doing research, people will often talk to you as though you had decided to spend a number of years in solitary confinement from which, in due course, you will emerge with your new discoveries.It is not like that at all. Although there are considerable periods when you will be working on your own (thinking and writing, for example) this is not the whole story. There is also a considerable academic network of people with whom, as an active researcher, you must interact. This network includes your supervisors, other academics in your department, the general library staff, the specialist librarian who deals with computer-based literature searches, technicians who help with equipmentin the laboratory or with statistical analyses and packages on the computer, visiting academics giving seminars, colleagues giving papers at conferences – the list is very considerable. To be an effective research student you must make use of all the opportunities offered. Research is an interactive process and requires the evelopment of social, as well as academic, skills.
Even if the people you meet are in different faculties, working on topics far removed from your own, it will be helpful for you to have contact with them. Since they are at the same stage as you, they have some understanding of your own experience. This introduction provides an opportunity for you to make friends outside of your own discipline and to meet people you otherwise might not meet. While training sessions are meant to impart a particular skill, don’t underestimate their use as both a place to make contacts and also to provide a schedule. Remember that the first months of a PhD can feel very unstructured. Make it one of your first tasks to get the names, mobile phone numbers and email addresses of a few of your peers. Use this list to get in touch with them, via computer or texting, to form a mutually beneficial support group. Throughout the whole of your course this group will enable you to compare not only how your research is progressing, but also your feelings about it. The reality of this situation is that all personal relationships within the academic community, as elsewhere, have to be worked at and take time to develop.
Another popular misconception, this time of supervisors, is to believe that so long as they are on first-name terms with their research students everythingis fine and the student knows that they are friends. Some supervisors even invite their students to their homes or take them to the pub for a drink in order to reinforce this camaraderie. But no matter how far the supervisors may go to assure new students that their relationship is that offriendly colleagues, the reality is that students take a considerable amountof time to become comfortable about this degree of informality. This is as true of mature students as of the more traditional new graduate.The reason for the students’ difficulty is that the supervisors already have that which the students most want – the PhD. They have the title of ‘Dr’ and are acknowledged experts in the chosen field of their research students. The students have admired the supervisors’ work during their undergraduate days, having come into contact with it through lectures or reading, or having heard reference made to it by others. They feel privileged to be working so closely with such individuals, and are aware of the supervisors’ authority in the subject and power in the relationship.You may be in a department with many research students or perhaps you are the only one in your discipline. Either way, you will probably meet others at an induction seminar, introductory lecture or other meeting for new higher degree students arranged by your university or student union.
‘I work alone in a lab, full of people, all research students, all working alone.’ This quotation is from Diana, a student in biochemistry, who was part of a ‘team’ of research students who were all engaged in the search for an effective anti-cancer drug. It exemplifies the situation in scientific research in which a large programme is being funded and the professors who hold the grants gather around them several research students. Each student is working on a specific problem. Each problem is closely linked to all the others. In theory there is a free exchange of information and the whole group works in harmony. In some programmes though, research students take care to guard closely the work for which they are responsible because they occasionally fear that one of the others may discover something that will render their own research unworthy of continuation.The PhD is awarded for original work. Postgraduates working on a programme such as the one described have two worries: first, that another student’s work so closely borders on their own that it will make their work unoriginal or second past the post; second, that somebody else will demonstrate something (for which that other person will be awarded a PhD) that will at the same time show their own line of research to be false.What is needed is collaboration, not competition, between people who should be making each other’s work more comprehensible and less alienating.In well managed laboratories there are regular group meetings to ensure that there is a general knowledge of the work that is being undertaken, and good communication about the issues and difficulties involved.Yet often students experience alienation and isolation as the overriding themes of their postgraduate days. The strange thing about this is that sometimes the science students appear to feel the isolation more strongly than their counterparts in the social sciences or arts faculties. This is because within the sciences there is the illusion of companionship, and the expectations of new postgraduates are that they will be part of a group of friends, as well as a work group. In other faculties new research students expect to be working alone in libraries or at home, reading, writing and thinking rather than experimenting. Any socializing that may take place as a result of a seminar, shared room or organized event is perceived as a bonus.
PHILLIPS., E. M. & PUGH., D. S. (2010). HOW TO GET A PhDA handbook for studentsand their supervisors ( 5th ed) (. Open University Press.