Jennifer Hoolachan, University of St Andrews.
I am not a geographer. Or at least I didn’t plan to be. Let me explain.
As with most PhD students, I have been in academia for a long time – 12 years in fact – gathering qualifications and moving from discipline to discipline. I have qualifications in Psychology, Alcohol & Drug Studies, Applied Social Research and in December 2015 I submitted my PhD thesis which spans the subjects of sociology, social policy and social work. On the plus side, I can tick the ‘interdisciplinary’ box when applying for jobs. But my academic journey has left me with a disconcerting feeling that I don’t belong anywhere.
Cutting a long story short, I am currently a qualitative Research Assistant in the Centre for Housing Research (CHR) situated within the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St Andrews. CHR comprises a relatively small subsection of the School which is dominated by environmental geographers and quantitative human geographers. My research interests include qualitatively exploring housing and homelessness issues and CHR is a great fit. For nearly a year, I have been working on projects connected to youth housing and the socio-spatial aspects that underpin this subject (e.g. urban/rural divisions).
However, being in a geography department, I am invited to attend lunchtime seminars about sustainable development, population change, glaciers, coastal regions, the Earth’s evolution and archaeology. I try my best to follow along while eating my sandwich but with the monster of Imposter Syndrome weighing me down. I cannot contribute to the Q&A session because I have barely followed the presentation and do not want to appear ignorant. When I find myself standing at the coffee machine making small talk with a geography professor we are confronted with the awkwardness of not being able to find a common subject to discuss (inevitably the conversation turns to the weather!). While I sit at my computer surrounded by books and papers, my office mate (wearing a lab coat) sits at his desk examining rock samples with a microscope. I receive departmental emails scolding staff members and PhD students for leaving their soil samples in the food fridge!
Within this alien environment are my CHR colleagues who I now consider to be my friends. They are my comfort zone – people that I feel a sense of belonging with and with whom I can discuss and debate issues within my areas of expertise. Recently (and much to my surprise and amusement), upon reading my latest outline for a paper about rural housing, my line manager commented: ‘you’re becoming a real geographer’! I don’t know if I will ever feel that I fully belong in one particular department or if I will ever be free from Imposter Syndrome. But what I have learned is that sometimes when we think we do not belong somewhere, it turns out that this is exactly where we should be.
 For anyone interested in the topic of belonging see May, V., (2013) Connecting Self to Society: Belonging in a Changing World. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.