One of the few (possibly only) perks of having a Dad who was a postman was that occasionally, just occasionally, you got letters before they were due to be delivered. That is the same day but maybe a couple of hours before the postman would normally deliver them because rather than wait until our own postman made his way to our house my Dad would pop home around about breakfast time with them. Strangely though I can’t remember whether this happened with my A-Level results, either it was so traumatic I’ve wiped it from memory, or the little details fade into insignificance as time goes by. I have a niggle in my mind that maybe Dad was at Cadet Camp when they arrived, which would have meant normal service, or maybe I had to go into college to pick them up, I don’t remember. I guess that is my first learning point really:
1. However significant your feelings are today, they’ll fade with time. The good and the bad ones.
I left school at 16, a very good grammar school with a fantastic academic record to study for my A-Levels at the local ‘technical’ college (the ‘technical’ bit was spat out by my head teacher when I asked her for a reference – that she refused to give, deferring to her Deputy Head hoping she’d talk sense into me). This was a decision that few people in my life understood, and my parents took some convincing, but I’d had enough of the regimented and ruled life. I’d had enough of the snobbery and expectation. I’d had enough of feeling like I didn’t really fit in and I craved to no longer wear the pedantic uniform (yes a uniform can be pedantic!). I was desperate for freedom and I also wanted to study Psychology, not on offer at school at the time, so to college I went. Lots of people warned me I’d fail my A-Levels. Some threatened that I’d ‘drop out’ of education and/or end up getting pregnant. I don’t think there was a single person who believed this was a good decision.
2. Believe in yourself. No-one knows what is right for you better than you yourself. Listen to other people, seek their advice but follow your gut (and prove all the doubters wrong).
The truth of it is they may have been right. Tech was an amazingly different experience. Suddenly no-one cared if you turned up in the morning, there was certainly no-one with a ruler measuring the length of your skirt in relation to your kneecap – in fact in the two years I was there I don’t think I ever wore a skirt, after about the second week tutors didn’t even bother taking registration – never mind push you to study. There was freedom, in bucket loads. I revelled in it, I had fun, I met new friends and loved having boys to hang out with (single sex education was not an inspiring environment for me), I played rugby, I socialised, I studied a bit – nowhere near as much as I probably should, I got involved with the Student Union, and I worked (at Sainsbury’s) a lot.
It was a great couple of years and definitely amongst the most formative of my life. One of the most useful things I learnt was to motivate myself. You really had no choice because there weren’t any other people interested in doing it. I had a tutor who I saw a handful of times, we discussed university and I decided to apply. No-one in my family had ever been to university and Sainsbury’s were tempting me into their trainee management programme, but luckily my friend Geoff who also worked in the bakery was studying at Cardiff and he convinced me life had more to offer than supermarkets alone. I owe him, a lot.
3. Earning money is fantastic, especially when you’re young, but there are some experiences that money can’t buy and finding the time to get to know yourself (cheesy as that sounds) is one of them. If I was facing £9k tuition fees I very much doubt I’d have felt able to goto university, but I do feel it would be worth that if you can afford it.
The downside of all that freedom was that I studied, but I also lived. I had an offer to study Psychology at Cardiff the following year (I was going to take a year out with my mate and travel). My offer required me to get 3Bs, something that should have been well within my grasp. However, when my results came in it was not to be. I hadn’t got the grades. I had 2Bs (Psychology and English) and a D (in RE – which I enjoyed far too much, and studied far too little. That said I did meet my first drug dealer on a bus in Leeds on the way to visit a mosque – for a girl who’d grown up in the sheltered Westcountry that was worth way more than studying books would have been). I digress.
The results weren’t good enough. Worse still my mate had failed her A-Levels altogether and was going to have to stay and retake them, there would be no travel and hijinks. My Mum always says that it was thanks to Geoff that I went through clearing, I didn’t really know what to do and the Sainsbury’s option was looking more attractive, it came with a pay packet to start with. Anyhow I called Cardiff and spoke to the admissions tutor for their Education degree. It allowed me to study psychology and still get BPS recognition. It allowed me to start that September. It allowed me to leave Torquay and yet more freedom beckoned. So Cardiff it was.
4. Just because you don’t get your first choice doesn’t mean that you can’t find something that fits. Although you won’t know unless you ask…
To cut a very long story short I did my degree in Education, I followed a similar pattern to my A-Levels really, I studied and socialised in equal measure. I ended up with a 2:1, I actually fell in the points band between a 1st and a 2:1 but when asked by my tutor (strangely enough the same woman who’d offered me my place through clearing) to appeal my degree classification to get the 1st I refused! My exact response to her was that I’d worked hard and earned my degree, and was exceedingly proud of it, but I wouldn’t beg anyone for a better grade!
A couple weeks after my degree results my Dad came home with a letter I’d be desperately waiting for. It was the letter from ESRC to say whether they’d fund my PhD. I was petrified they’d say no (because I only had a 2:1 not a 1st – because of my own stupidity/stubbornness/values) and then I had no idea what I’d do – but luck was on my side and they said yes, they’d fund me to study full-time for three more years. So I embarked on my PhD, under the ever watchful eye of my undergrad tutor (who’d given me my place through clearing year earlier). I studied for three years, got my first proper job as a lecturer in Dublin and finished writing up my PhD. Seven years after I’d picked my A-levels up I sat my viva and six months later I graduated for the second time.
The first person in my family to goto university became Dr Julian!
5. Nothing is as bad as it first seems – nothing.
I remember getting my A-Level results and feeling like my world was crashing down around my ears. I felt like I’d let my parents down, and I’d let myself down. I knew that my grades were ok, but I knew I could have done so much better. I couldn’t study Psychology, I wouldn’t get to university, suddenly I felt trapped in my old life when I’d started imagining a new life months before. There would be no adventure, no travel, no leaving home, no university, no nothing. Slightly dramatic, but I felt completely overwhelmed and completely disappointed. I carried that sense of disappointment for a long while, I put on a brave face and went through the motions, but I found it hard to shake the feeling I could have done better. Looking back I am so grateful that Geoff encouraged me to look up and widen my line of sight past the immediate, I’m glad I made the call and took a punt on my degree course. It was the best decision.
Next week I’m going to the wedding of one of my two best mates at uni. We met on the first day, in the canteen at our halls of residence. She was studying education too and I was relived to meet someone else to find our way to our first lecture with. We spent the best part of three years studying, socialising and hanging out together. When I started my PhD she studied a PGCE, then went on to become a teacher, studied some more and now she’s an Educational Psychologist. She didn’t get great A-Level grades either, few people on our course did, but we’ve done really well considering, even if I say so myself!
If you put your mind to it anything is possible. If you don’t get what you want today, don’t despair. Take some time, talk to people, think about things and make a plan of action. Then whatever that plan is give it a go. What’s the worse that could happen?
It’s almost nine years ago that I had my PhD Viva, bits of it I remember like it was yesterday, lots of it I couldn’t recall if my life depended on it. In fact, if I’m really honest I think I could say the same about my PhD itself. I was reading a news story recently about a special school in Oxfordshire and I couldn’t recall why the name rang a bell, until I realised it had been one of the schools I visited as part of my PhD research. It was one of the schools I spent a week in, conducting observations and making fieldnotes, to complement the mass of interview data, questionnaire survey data, census data and additional fieldnotes and documents collected for document analysis. Despite that, it was lurking in the distant realms of my mind; at the time if you’d have suggested I’d forget the names of the schools I’d studied I’d have laughed it off, as a truly ridiculous suggestion, these schools had featured so heavily in my life for four years, I’d spent more time looking at and thinking about them than I had anything else in life.
Yet as I sit here now I couldn’t even tell you the names of all the schools I studied. I guess hindsight is a wonderful thing to have, and to some extent given my time again I’m not sure I’d change anything, but I do think I could have taken a lot of pressure off myself if there had been a few more people to let me know it would be alright; to reassure me that these details while hugely important to me, and my sense of integrity that I presented them well and accurately, were actually not really the point; that most people don’t bother with the detail; and that in fact no-one except myself, my supervisors, external and internal examiner would even read the damn thing (I always thought my Mum had, but I’ve never actually asked her outright and I don’t want to know the truth now to be honest)!
So why am I rambling on about this now? Well in my twitter stream today alone there have been tweets about people trying to finish their PhD, or approaching their viva and I know at least one person who is working hard to make the minor corrections required after their viva. I’m not suggesting for a moment that those people need to hear my thoughts, or will pay any heed to them (if indeed they even see them). However, I am recalling my own experience, and how solitary it felt at times, and how good it would have been to know that the weight I felt I was carrying wasn’t unique to me. No-one in my immediate family had been to university before I went, consequently no-one I knew had a degree, never mind a second degree. In one way this was fantastic because it meant a distinct absence of pressure, I had no-one to live up to, in another way it meant I had no-one (other than the few fellow students I’d once shared offices with) to compare notes with and only my own expectations to live up to.
One thing struck me about the day of my viva, a comment from the person responsible for postgrads. She was one of the lecturers in my department (who I’d not seen in years and who didn’t really know me at all), what I remember is her breezily calling down a corridor ‘You’ve got your viva today haven’t you? Make sure you enjoy it’. The woman was quite clearly insane, something I’d long suspected as she was a sociologist who appeared to pride herself on her dress sense as much as her research (I’m just being honest, I was young and had a thing about sociology because my friends who had studied it had ‘seen’ exam papers as undergrads….yes they actually got their papers weeks in advance to prepare for; probably quite inspired thinking when I look at it now but at the time it just led to an all consuming begrudgery of anything to do with sociology!). This was an exam, did she not realise that my research millstone far from just hanging around my neck was now starting to choke me, and she was telling me to enjoy an exam. I can’t tell you how ridiculous her words sounded to me.
As I look back now I absolutely understand what she was saying, it just severely lacked context. I’m sure what she was actually meaning was take the opportunity, make sure you get the most out of it, this is the one chance you’ll have to talk to people about your research when they really care. This is probably (let’s be honest) the only opportunity you’ll have to talk to people who have actually read your PhD….and I really wouldn’t expect anyone else to ever read it, it’s three inches thick and full of good stuff hidden in my horrific self-taught academic prose, prose that was encouraged. I was always told I wrote well and yet when I open it now I’m horrified at some of it, but I digress that’s a conversation for another time.
If you are on the final slog of your PhD or Masters, if you are preparing for a viva, if you are wondering why you are still studying for something you started years ago, have faith, listen to those around you (even sociologists) and shout if you need someone to rant at or share your concerns with. I wish anyone who is hoping to finish an academic thesis in 2012, all the luck, support, Diet Coke, inspirational quotes, cake, music, enthusiasm, statistics advice, distractions, religion, pancakes, places to stay, breakfasts, karaoke, toasted cheese sarnies, and above all else caffeine* that they need to get them there. Good luck with it.
**These may not actually help at all, but they are all things that people have acknowledged in their acknowledgements pages over on the Acknowledgers Blog. I’m always looking for contributions so please share yours once they’re done and remember that writing your acknowledgements is the absolute best bit, ever.
Tonight I started a new blog, www.acknowledgers.wordpress.com as a way of sharing some love for acknowledgements pages! As a student I spent many hours reading other people’s acknowledgements pages in a desperate attempt to provide a light diversion from the task in hand and also as a reminder that I had some opportunity to express myself, outwith the rules and regulations of academic writing.
The plan for the blog is that it will provide an opportunity for people to share their pages, or to write one if they haven’t had any cause to do so to date. To kick things off I’ve included my own, rather embarrassingly sentimental page (I was *extremely* tired, stressed and emotional by the time I finally got that far) #dontjudgeme which you can read here. If you’d like to know more about the thinking behind the blog the about page is here.
Please spread the word and let me know if you have anything you’d like acknowledged. For now I’ll leave you with a quote I borrowed from TSElliot.
“We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time” T.S.Elliot, Little Gidding