“Being geographically unplugged from one’s academic friends/community is difficult, especially in a place that has no alternative.”
The above was a tweet I made on 2 January. It was the first time I had actually written that thought. Of course, I had thought that thought, but it never really had as great an impact as the split second after I saw it in black and white. Let me give a bit of background before I continue.
If you’re new to Graduable.com, my story is that I am doing a PhD at UBC in Vancouver (hooray for me). However, I haven’t really lived in Vancouver for the duration of it. For the first two years I lived on Vancouver Island and commuted a couple of times per week to fulfill class and teaching obligations. It was a pain in the ass getting there and back on public transit, but I did it and I usually liked not living in Vancouver as I prefer Victoria in a lot of ways anyhow. This previous summer I moved to Whitehorse, Yukon because who doesn’t love a challenge, right? I knew that doing a PhD that far from my home institution was going to be tricky, but others are doing it/have done it.
Obviously, Yukon, with its population of 30,000, is not the post-secondary Mecca that Vancouver is but I had brought a lot of materials with me and, besides, most of my work exists solely in my head and on my hard drive. The paucity of academic resources did not and does not bother me, although I do miss the option of hanging out at UBC’s libraries, thumbing the stacks (especially playing with those hand-cranked shelves in the basement), and being something of an academic vampire — keeping myself young by feasting on the stress and fear shed by undergraduates frantically studying or working on assignments.*
What I find I am lacking is any kind of connection with my academic circle. I am grateful for social media, namely Twitter, for helping me keep one foot in the academic world, but this is only good to an extent. What I have been struggling with is the geographical distance between me and my physical support networks. That is, I have wonderful conversations from afar with those I consider friends as well as colleagues, though it isn’t the same as meeting in a cafe where the conversation might begin on a scholarly topic but transforms and transmogrifies into myriad other things before coming back around — usually — to the topic at hand. I think this is the art of conversation that many lament the loss of and it is one of my favourite things.
With the solitude that is the PhD, sometimes a rowdy tête-à-tête is required and no electronic form of communication that I know of can reproduce the natural progressions of an in person conversation. This does not mean I don’t have intense conversations, just that I don’t/can’t have them with the people who can challenge me in all the ways I need to be challenged. I get lots of opportunities to explain my research to disinterested parties whose backgrounds are wholly dissimilar to mine and I find this important. As academics, we really need to hone the skill of explaining what it is we’re doing to non-experts in the most concise way possible. There’s no shortage of criticism out there and we need to allow ourselves to be able to respond to the entire spectrum.
The above mentioned solitude is necessary for any kind of serious study. When it turns into loneliness, however, that’s a problem. I don’t think we talk enough about how lonely and isolating this process really is. Even with the perfect mix of academic community and resources, I still feel that loneliness and isolation would pervade the PhD process; it is an inbuilt feature of working on such narrow topics in order to gain expertise. That’s a great paradox of this life choice: the emotional abuse you put yourself through in order to become an expert in a topic almost nobody cares about, except you, of course, and that’s really why you’re doing it. For every negative feeling — isolation, loneliness, diffidence — there is always the reminder that this is a selfish pursuit. Hedonistic even.
So, what am I doing to overcome these little hurdles? Luckily, we have a small college here in Whitehorse and I instruct one course per semester. These are university level English courses so it keeps my pedagogical mind sharp and looks great on my CV. I am also putting in some time at the college’s writing centre in an attempt to integrate myself a little more fully into the small academic community of Whitehorse. I also try and look forward to the little milestones of my program. I just passed one and have another coming up in the next month or so. As a bonus, these milestones usually mean I get to travel back to Vancouver, which is always a brain and energy boost. The long dark winter here means that I often succumb to cabin fever and, most days, the only other beings I talk to are dogs. They have not yet begun talking back. I think that would propel me to another level entirely, one in which I would begin questioning myself a little more thoroughly. Or, perhaps, I’d just go with the flow and do whatever the dogs told me to. Not quite there yet. Thanks for reading. Woof.
Here’s a great post by The Thesis Whisperer on the loneliness of PhDing. It touches on more points than I have here and also has some great links and discussion below.
*Side note: there is a painting of me in an attic somewhere rapidly aging when I do this.