Those who follow this blog may have noticed that I missed a post last week. This was mostly due to brain fog caused by jetlag – I was fortunate enough to be in Sydney for a week on a focused research visit, meeting with a group of scholars in my field of research to share my own work with them, to learn more about theirs and to give a public seminar on part of my recent PhD study. This was quite an undertaking for me, and I was very nervous about it. Would the work I was presenting and discussing actually be interesting to others? Would I sound knowledgeable about my own research? Would this work yield the outcomes I wanted in terms of my own learning and network-building? It was a big step for me to move outside of my own smaller local networks and spaces, which mostly feel quite safe.
I must preface all of this by saying that, like many others I know, I expect a lot of myself. My professional standards for myself are high, and so I am hard on myself when it comes to preparing for these kinds of things. I stress a lot and worry a lot, and usually things are way better than I expect them to be, and less scary than I think they will be. But, last week (even though I knew I would be working with new colleagues who are friendly and who would share their own work freely and be interested in mine) was a scary space for me because I really wanted to do well, and I wanted my week to be a useful and productive one. It would have been really tough to fail my own expectations and come away with less. I am sure this sounds familiar to many of you.
Doing a PhD forces us, in many ways, to enter into ‘scary spaces’ like research groups, online discussion threads, supervisor meetings, faculty and departmental spaces where research and progress has to be formally reported on, professional networks through conferences and colloquia and so on. You could do a PhD without really engaging all or even many of these spaces – it could just be you and your supervisor/s and the occasional departmental seminar. But, if you want a career in academia (and most people who undertake a PhD do so because this is exactly what they wants), it is less helpful going forward to have limited yourself to the spaces that felt safest. Academia, thus far, has been all about scary spaces for me, and learning to make them safer, more familiar and easier to work within; at the very least, less scary.
I have an example to share which may illustrate what I mean more clearly: this year I put in two abstracts for conference. One was for a writing in higher education conference and the other for a higher education research conference. The former conference is one I have been two twice before and I knew they would be interested in the paper I was planning to present, and I knew that I would know many people there and it would not be so scary to present the paper or connect with my colleagues there. The latter conference is one I have never been to before – I did not know who would be there, if I would know anyone, and whether people would be interested in my paper (based on my PhD research) or not. That was a very scary space. Both abstracts were accepted, but I could only attend one due to time and funding limitations. In the end, I chose the scary space. I realised that if I did not push myself to build a new network, and to start sharing my PhD research with those who should really be the most interested in it, no one else would. And to stay in the safe spaces would be easier, for sure, but I would be selling myself short and denying myself valuable and stretching learning experiences. I went to the scary conference; it was quite overwhelming in some ways, and I felt a bit small and intimidated, but it was a fantastic experience. I learned so much, I met new people and made a few new colleagues with whom I can keep connecting in the future about my own work and theirs, and I had fun. It was a scary space made a bit safer through my own willingness to go there, and be a bit brave, and believe in myself and what I have to offer such a network or circle.
Doing a PhD is tough, and part of that toughness is that it does ask you to enter into new, and often scary, spaces where you won’t always feel sure-footed, erudite and confident. But if you avoid these spaces and stay only where you do always feel safe you may deny yourself some really important experiences, learning, and personal/professional growth opportunities. You may be making a long-term career in academia a little more difficult to build without the networks you could begin to access and nurture in these spaces. Be brave, believe you have something to offer even if it’s only something small at the stage you are at, and go there. You won’t be sorry.