In the fourth edition of Beyond the PhD we welcome Dr Sarah Bell, a Lecturer in Health Geography at the University of Exeter. Sarah’s research “explores the role of everyday ‘nature’ encounters in shaping experiences of health, wellbeing, mobility and disability through the life course”. Sarah completed her PhD at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, based at the University of Exeter. What strikes me (Andy Harrod (Blog Coordinator)) about Sarah’s route to a PhD and beyond to a lectureship is the kindness, compassion, awe and awareness that is integral to her journey. From the early desire to work in conservation and overseas development, to the gratitude towards the people sharing their stories with her, to the offering of ‘compassionate rigour’ to students and colleagues. The last, a truly inspiring approach to supervision and providing feedback. As with Sarah, I too find it a privilege when people give you their time to share their stories, as it is from those stories we can learn so much. I hope you enjoy Sarah’s sharing of her experience.
“The last seven years have given me the skills, confidence and inspiration to fulfil my immediate ambitions. Perhaps the most inspiring teaching for me has been in Geography, particularly over the last two years. The enthusiasm and love for the subject, consistently evident in lessons, combined with numerous opportunities to conduct our own research, has really stimulated my enjoyment of the subject. Biology has also sparked my interest throughout my school life; the way organisms have developed and managed to adapt to such a wide variety of conditions to ensure their survival continues to amaze me! The choice between studying Biology or Geography at degree level was, therefore a very difficult one. I have chosen Biology, but I hope to pursue a career in conservation and overseas development, which will hopefully combine my enthusiasm for Geography, Biology and the charity work that I have started this year!”
A geographer at heart
The extract above was from my UCAS personal statement back in 2003. I can’t help but chuckle reading it now as it reminds me of how difficult I found it to choose a degree subject. My heart said Geography; my mum was a Geography teacher and spent many a holiday enthusing about urban settlement patterns, limestone pavements and coastal erosion! But my head said Biology as I thought it would be better for a career in conservation (how little I knew!) A couple of terms into my Biology undergraduate degree and I tried to switch to Geography. I couldn’t at that stage and so I had to find other ways of keeping my passion for Geography alive. Why is this relevant to my PhD, you may ask! It sets the context of why I valued the PhD so much when I eventually embarked on it.
After my undergraduate degree, I completed an MSc in Sustainable Development, finally in a Geography department! At that stage, I was keen to work in the charity sector so a PhD didn’t really enter my mind. On finishing the MSc, I started to balance various volunteering roles (e.g. with FARM Africa, International Care and Relief, Rare) with paid retail work at the weekends, and working in an off-licence in the evenings (certainly not in the original ‘plan’ but I met some lovely people and there weren’t too many options for paid evening work that would fit around the volunteering).
After many many applications for various third sector, consultancy and graduate research posts, I took an unexpected job with the Environment research group of the former Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster. It wasn’t where I thought I would end up, but I probably learnt more during my four years there than through much of my degree. It was a wonderful team to work with, no egos or hierarchy, and a fully collaborative ethos. The projects were UK-focused rather than international but it spanned all sorts of topics linked to sustainable development, environmental policy and it introduced me to the growing scholarship around nature, health and wellbeing. It also taught me not to panic when sat in front of a blank screen and reminded me of the passion for research which apparently was there all along in my UCAS personal statement! Again, why is this relevant to the PhD? It was my route into a PhD.
The PhD – An immersive experience
After four years of juggling multiple projects at a time at PSI, usually qualitative or review based, I saw an opportunity to do a PhD down in Truro, Cornwall, with the then newly established European Centre for Environment and Human Health. I applied and the three years that followed were brilliant. Hard work but it felt like such a luxury to have three whole years to focus on one project, to have the freedom to develop new qualitative methods, to work with two wonderful supervisors, to spend time with people sharing their experiences and stories, and to be able to immerse myself for weeks on end in reading, fieldwork, and analysis. I realised then that the elusive feeling of ‘flow’ that people so often talk about apparently unfolds for me when lost in transcripts! The writing phase was harder but the time between the MSc and PhD had taught me to just write, and tidy/tighten up the content later, which helped!
At the same time, I was trying to be there for peers who were having a less positive experience, and it made the integral role of supportive supervision very clear to me. With so much critique and rejection throughout academia, it’s essential to foster a safe space through supervision. That doesn’t mean it can’t be critical or challenging, but it should be a place where ideas can be shared safely and developed, where rejection and failures – and strategies for responding to them – can be navigated and worked through together. I continue to feel very grateful, both for the supervisors I had and for the four years of research I’d already done prior to the PhD in preparing me for the process. It also crystallised for me the importance of kindness and ‘compassionate rigour’ in academia; combining compassion – providing students, peers and colleagues with support, encouragement and empathy – with constructive, sensitive and rigorous feedback (be it in the classroom, through formative and summative feedback, in conference settings, or when peer-reviewing academic papers and proposals etc.)
Post Docs – The good
A couple of months before submitting my PhD, I began my first postdoctoral role, and that was the start of just over four years of different postdoc roles, including a two-year ESRC fellowship that I threw myself into fully, knowing how rare an opportunity it was. I loved all these roles. Again, it was the privilege of people taking the time to share their stories, the chance to fully immerse myself in new topics, analysis, writing, and to work with a whole range of third sector and policy organisations to inform and enable practical change – from running training workshops to conferences to co-authoring policy briefs and guidance notes etc.
The bad – Unhealthy precarious practices
What I found difficult during this period was the precarity – not knowing whether there would be a next contract. Never daring to say no to anyone or to any opportunity for fear of closing down windows for future work. Working at least six days a week and evenings much of the time. Always having some of my belongings boxed up because I was convinced that I’d be moving back home to my parents if a contract or proposal didn’t come off. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to have the safety net of being able to do that, but it’s also difficult feeling like your life is constantly on hold.
A permanent post (?)
By the end of the fellowship in November 2018, I was still very much passionate about the work but also completely exhausted. At that point, I transitioned into a Lecturer role in the hope of being able to find a degree of security to put down some roots (though with a three-year probation period with the clock effectively ‘reset’ in terms of meeting funding/publication targets, that sense of security was still somewhat in question). I led/co-led and did much of the teaching across three modules in my first year, and the exhaustion deepened. After all the momentum and partnerships built up during the fellowship, it was frustrating to have no funding to continue the activities we had started, and no conference funding to raise awareness of the work. More significantly, there was no time to do so with the pressures of developing new teaching materials, completing the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PCAP), and engaging in all the administrative and pastoral roles that come with lecturing.
I thought things might settle in Year 2 of lecturing but with Covid-19, that year was spent overhauling all my teaching for online delivery, making lecture videos, writing captions and transcripts, and juggling the daily Teams/Zoomathons … in Year 3, another overhaul for hybrid delivery and new teaching as well. Let’s see what Year 4 brings! At the same time, I have been trying to write proposals to maintain some kind of research profile, to sustain the collaborations outside of academia that make the work feel worthwhile, and to get up to speed and feed into the various new research projects I have been brought into. Getting used to working at an arms-length in these projects has been a difficult transition. I miss the fieldwork, the active listening with participants and the immersion in analysis. But I know it’s not exactly been a ‘typical’ two years and maybe opportunities for some of those activities will come back.
At the same time, I do really enjoy working with students, in lectures, seminars and especially dissertation supervision. It’s so rewarding to be part of those ‘light bulb’ moments of understanding and critical analysis. I try to bring a structured yet flexible and learner-centred approach to teaching and supervision, and to design learning activities that enable students to question and ‘reimagine’ society. I’m also grateful to have been able to be there for students and colleagues through the challenges and upheaval of the last two years, weathering the pandemic together in the best ways we can.
Boundaries, patterns and breaks as self-care
In the brief for this blog, I was asked if I have any advice or tips for PGR researchers. I’m certainly no expert and I suspect I still need to follow some of this advice myself, but I think the first thing would be to find and hold onto your boundaries. Don’t be afraid to say no. It’s very easy to burn out in academia. It’s the perfect storm of being passionate about your work and working in an environment that, whether intentional or not, takes advantage of that passion to demand ever more from you, in ways that feel difficult to resist because of the underlying precarity of it all. Find the people who respect your boundaries, the people who would never dream of dropping something on you on a Friday afternoon with the expectation of a substantive response by Monday. We may work over the weekend but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Find your patterns of working and try to protect the time you need to follow those. I know my best thinking and writing happens in the morning. So when I’m up against a lot of deadlines, I will try to limit meetings to the afternoons, and squeeze the admin in around them! It doesn’t always work but it helps to recognise your own working patterns as much as you can. Take breaks. Book holiday (even if you don’t go anywhere), and don’t feel guilty for stepping away. Your work and thinking will be clearer further down the line as a result.
Finally, never close the door to new careers beyond academia if they will open up opportunities for you to pursue interests and skills in ways that academia closes down. I still check Environment Jobs every Monday evening, just in case – not for 18-year old me who was so excited about pursuing a career in conservation and overseas development – but just as a reminder that there are other options out there, and it’s never too late to learn new things!