I’m moving (once again) and this time it’s back to Birmingham. After just over a year of living away from my institution and from the city I had lived in for 4 years, I cannot wait to get back there. This got me thinking about the question of location for the PhD student, or indeed, anyone working in academia.
Undertaking a PhD, particularly in the humanities where no laboratory time is required, can seem to be a very transient experience. Positioned on the boundaries of the student world and the professional, the PhDer does not just inhabit this potentially difficult temporality; we must also navigate questions of place and space. In distinguishing between these two concepts, Marc Augé cites the work of Michel de Certeau, who argues that whilst place refers to physical locations, it is space that describes the experience of subjects’ inhabitation of place, or specified locations (Augé, 1995: 79).
But what of the PhD space?
Faced with work outside the classroom, it seems that we can study anywhere. All we need are our books, notes, and the horrific blank page; increasingly these can all be stored on one device, the size of a slim A4 notebook. We can grab our technological devices or papers and files and head to the local library, the coffee shop, the sofa, and even the park. Yes, this variety is great, providing as it does that often-needed change of scenery, but it does also pose issues of space and belonging. On campus there is a similar range of locations: the library, the research room, campus cafes, and shared work-spaces. During coursework deadlines and examinations, these spaces are filled with anxious-looking students who queue to bag their daily seat. Often there are dedicated post-graduate working areas, but even these enclaves fail to provide the individual researcher with a dedicated space, despite the adorning piles of books, blue-tacked postcards, and scribbled notes. And as for working from home, well, we all know the difficulties of that: moving between bed, sofa, and desk, shuffling between distractions, and just feeling like you’re not really doing anything. Dedicated and professional space is important to belonging and to our sense of selves.
What all of these working areas share is the lack of permanence. Indeed, it would seem that the PhD study zone is one of inherent transience. This is especially magnified during the hours spent travelling to universities and libraries for research, conferences, talks and presentations. All too often I find myself cosing down on a train seat and working away. These hours spent in waiting rooms and on public transport exemplify the experience of the PhD as spatially spectral. It seems to ‘reside’ in what Augé terms a ‘non-place’. He describes the world of ‘non-places’ as ‘a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral’ (Ibid: 78). Non-places are ‘never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten’, and are a ‘measure of our time’ which could be ‘quantified’ by the many modes of transport that mobilize space (Ibid: 79).
This question of the non-place is particularly pertinent for the PhDer. For me, the description of the ‘non-place’ aboard transports constitutes a very metaphor for the PhD experience. With imposterism and self-doubt, the lack of visibility and spatiality caused by not inhabiting or belonging within a specific space can render the entire experience yet more intangible. Trying to find our way in the coded world of academia, between student and lecturer, does feel like being in the train carriage of Auge’s ‘non-place’ and jostling to find a seat. Amidst intellectual, emotional, and professional insecurities, space for the Phd researcher constitutes a vital and tangible position for belonging. Without this we really are treading water, just trying to find out feet.
The little need to physically be in any one space means that the researcher is also often able to live in a different town, city, county, or even country from their institution. At first I was thrilled by this possibility to get away and start in a new place, afresh, whilst still ‘being’ at my institution. To experience distance between my work life and home life. To try and set up a better working practice. And so we moved, away from the concrete city and into the green countryside of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Although we did not move very far, less than 50 miles, as a (former!) non-driver, this move meant a frequently torturous series of train journeys, bound by an hourly timetable only running until the very early hours of the evening. My ability to get anywhere first required an hour journey to the city, before I could begin the rest of my travels. I missed out on seminars and events, networking and being around, but most of all I missed out on the social aspects of what is already a very lonely experience. Alone in a touristy town where the average population is nearing retirement or already enjoying the golf course, I struggled to meet people. Our lives became increasingly insular: in my case my time alternated between my home office and the rest of the house. I enjoyed sport and music, and kept up my work. But loneliness began to take its toll.
I know many people who live and work in separate locations and do so with great success. However, in order for this to be successful I have found that two things are required: firstly, ease of travel. If you’re going to commute to get anywhere, you need it to be relatively easy, or, at the very least, you need to not mind about waiting. Unfortunately, I’m not that person. I forget things, nip back home, like having the freedom and the option of going out or coming back early, etc. And the second requirement is a support network where you live. This is so important at all points of life, but most especially during a PhD, which is intellectually and emotionally challenging and, at times, soul destroying. Moving away from friends, peers, and colleagues, as well as professional support meant I lost all of this. And without belonging anywhere in this new location, it was really hard to try and build this up. (Although I’m willing to accept, that was most probably down to my own struggles).
Seeing the experiences of others, it seems that I’m not the only one who has felt afloat in my time living away from my institution (and also my friends and my – although not exactly flourishing – social life). I know several students who began studying apart from their universities, only to move once they got the chance. After all, it not only means ease of access to supervisions and libraries, but offers a whole host of opportunities including teaching, conferences and seminars, and networking, as well as building up that all-too-important peer group network of support. Additionally, those few I’ve spoken to have commented how hard it is, or would be, to be apart from this location and the opportunities it affords. But that’s not to say it’s the best, right, or only option for PhD studying. In fact, being apart from your institution can offer many great experiences, such as getting know other places, use more resources, share libraries, support, and peer groups across institutions.
Augé, M., 1995. Non-lieux. London: Verso.