on a PhD ... as self-care
I want to preface this update with a clear disclaimer: my PhD experience — the way I’ve chosen to structure this experience — is atypical, and very much enabled by my privilege.
Being able to undertake doctoral research as a matter of passion, in the same way others might take on a side hustle for survival, is possible for me because years of private schooling, plus university, mean I’ve been socialised into a traditional academic mould since I was young. Because my salaried job (and before that, my parents’ grit) grant me the financial leeway to invest in things like extra devices and productivity tools and notetaking software — bits and pieces designed to optimise my time.
This is not to say I haven’t worked hard. I’m comfortable owning the fact that I’m pretty darn good at this research stuff. It’s just to acknowledge that the commitment to a grueling, multi-year research project is one I have been able to take on with safety nets, and fewer of the barriers that would otherwise make it daunting.
Everyone asks me how I’m surviving this: a nearly full-time job (four days a week, sometimes with a five-day workload), plus this part-time PhD. The notion of a PhD carries weight — for those familar with what the process actually entails, but perhaps more so for those not in the know. I think the vision is the worst of an undergraduate degree, but on steroids. Triple the assignments, deadlines, readings?
I’m still working my day job because I know policymaking is still my long game; because it is actually complements the research very well; and because I can’t quite bring myself to give up the security of it. But hey, I’m going to be honest — I’m starting to resent the day-to-day of it. It’s a grind; it’s layers of bureaucracy and tedious requests; it’s a slow-moving beast, a system that knows its flaws but is unable to (refuses to?) correct them. Sometimes I can’t see the meaning of the tasks I’m given, and the outcomes of my everyday actions are starting to feel disconnected to the bigger picture of social justice that I am playing this game for. Liberation will not be won by sending emails and coordinating approvals for the most inconsequential bits of text.
To be frank, as a woman of colour, it is also often unsafe and exploitative. It takes a heavy psychological toll. I fight White supremacy constantly, in the form of benign ignorance, and hypocrisy, and a persistent colour blindness at every level of the organisation. I defend myself and I defend others. I have to play a constant game of weighing up options — finding strategies of resistance that will rock the boat enough to spark a change, but for the sake of my self-preservation, not so much that it will backfire on me. I know women of colour have come before me, tried what I have tried, and fallen on their swords; I know it’s not worth the sacrifice, because we need to be more strategic, and focus on the long-term vision.
The truth is that I’m not only surviving my PhD; I’m surviving because of it. This research process (which, currently, is mostly reviewing feminist literature by women of colour) is helping me to stay grounded. It is the lifeline that is preventing me from losing myself in my job, and becoming jaded beyond redemption.
I am immensely grateful to the generations of women of colour — before and beside me; in and beyond the academy — who have used knowledge to inform praxis, and have drawn from lived experience to demand social transformation. They remind me of why I am not giving up, and why I am patiently but doggedly insisting on structural change. On tearing institutions down, and being so aspirational as to envision new systems. I find solace and inspiration and strength and purpose in their writings.
Again, I know this drips of privilege. I’m not racing to complete my research (within the bounds of an international student visa, for example), and at this stage, the outcomes of my PhD aren’t burdened by questions of career prospects (academia beyond this project is not for me, so I don’t have to publish or perish). I get to immerse myself in theory and spend quiet days on a sunny campus and soak in my thoughts, and that’s a luxury.
But sometimes, I think deciding to take on this whole PhD thing was also a radical act of self-care. An honouring of my sense of purpose, and an unashamed embracing of my curiosity and values and identity, and a bold claim to the authority of my experiences. A celebration of the very best of me?