Doctoral Journeys: Kathleen Fincham (DPhil in Education)

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This is the second in a series of audio recordings and accompanying transcriptions, that provide insight into the doctoral journeys of other researchers at Sussex.  The recordings were taking during Profolio workshops, where the researchers talked to new doctoral researchers from the perspective of being further along in their doctorates, providing advice and tips along the way.

In this recording, Kathleen Fincham (DPhil in Eduation) talked to Profolio 2007 participants.


It’s nice to meet you, my name is Kathleen, and I’m in my second year. I’m doing a DPhil in the Department of International Education in the Sussex Institute. My research is focusing on how Palestinian refugees can try to negotiate and contest their identities in the context of refugee camps in South Lebanon. So it’s maybe quite an interesting, different topic, maybe not for the anthropologists who are doing something similar. I finished my field work, I think, just before Christmas, then I had a bit of a holiday at home in Canada. Then I came back here, and was busy transcribing my interviews, analysing my data, and now I’m in the process of writing up.

Catherine asked me to speak a bit about how I came to be here, to be doing the PhD. You can probably tell I’m a mature student, a bit older than most of you are. I actually did not do a PhD for career reasons – well in a way I did and in a way I didn’t. I decided to do a PhD actually when I was young – it had always been a personal goal of mine, I’d always wanted to achieve it, and I’ve always loved school, I’ve loved studying, I’ve always just loved learning, essentially. But I had an established career, so I wasn’t taking the PhD in order to build a career, I already had one. I had quite a good one, and I quit that to come here, and I really don’t regret it all because I think I’d reached a stage professionally where I was really not fulfilled any more. I felt that there was nothing more to really do or achieve where I was. Yet I felt that there was this glass ceiling, that I couldn’t do any more with a Masters degree. For example, if you want to be a consultant or teach in university or something like that, it’s very difficult to do with only a Masters degree. Or if you are able to do that, for example if you teach in university you usually get the classes that nobody wants, or you get the hours nobody wants. If you are a consultant you get paid considerably less, that sort of thing. So to give myself options and choices and to fulfill a goal, a dream that I had always had, that’s why I decided to embark on a PhD.

I particularly came to Sussex because of its reputation in international development and related fields. What I enjoy about what I do: well this is only probably the only time in my life I’ve been able to do what I want, to study what I want, to read what I want, to write what I want, to have the luxury of being selfish, I guess you would say. What I love about doing the PhD is the creativity, because there isn’t really a set pattern for doing one. Of course you have to follow certain academic conventions, you can’t just say “I don’t feel like referencing so I’m not going to do that”, you have to do certain things. But how you carry it out is pretty much up to you, so there’s a lot of flexibility and choice. I also like the flexibility of schedule. For the first time in my life since I was young, I’m able to plan my day as I want. I’m not a morning person, I hate mornings, and always when I was working I was forced to go out into the cold when it was still dark, and I just hated that. And now if I feel like sleeping in I can, because I’m master of my own schedule. If I feel like working at 2 o’clock in the morning, I can. If I feel like watching a movie, or eating while I work, I can do all those things.

I also really appreciate working with people, the personal interaction, having colleagues, because when you work in the business environment – I’m sure some of you have this experience – usually businesses or NGOs or schools or universities are hierarchically constructed. So always there’s somebody above you and somebody below you. But here it’s very democratic, and it’s nice to have colleagues who you’re on the same level with and you can talk about things with, so I really appreciate that. Then of course, in some fields you get to do international fieldwork, which is really exciting: travel, meeting new people, learning new things. That’s really a special part of doing your PhD. I don’t know how many of you do international fieldwork, but perhaps experiments in the lab make up for that in some way.

So those are the things I enjoy, but there have been definite challenges doing a PhD as well. In my first year, I think I had different challenges than I do now. When I first started, I was used to making good money, to having a certain amount of prestige and status. I don’t have any of that any more now, I have no money at all, and I’m a student, I have no status whatsoever. So that’s a bit difficult to deal with, if you’re used to that sort of thing, to having a career of sorts. Also when I first started I had a lot of guilt, about quitting my job, about spending all this money for something that I didn’t know would bring any return necessarily. I’m married, my husband has to be working to pay for my PhD, so I sometimes feel guilty about that. Spending the time, you know I sometimes think I should be doing something else, I should be supporting my family, I should be developing my career, I should be doing something else instead of focusing on myself. So sometimes I’ve had to deal with those feelings, and sometimes honestly I still have those feelings now.

In the second year I think the challenges have been quite different. For one thing I did my fieldwork, and the fieldwork is both exciting but it’s also very challenging. So, for example, I’m sure you all know, especially those of you who have done fieldwork or have worked internationally, you have to deal with culture shock and loneliness and frustration and things not going according to plan, and just essentially the proposal that you spent a whole year writing is totally irrelevant to the context you find yourself in. You can’t get access to the people you thought you would, people are not interested in what you’re doing, they don’t want to help you. In the case of Lebanon, political assassinations, bombs going off, all kinds of interesting times when you’re on your fieldwork. So that’s very challenging in itself. I think when you come back from fieldwork it feels very disconnected. Because many of my classmates are still on fieldwork. So you come back here and everyone that you knew is no longer here, so you don’t know anybody any more. The only person that you really have any continuity with is your adviser, and then you only see them maybe once a month. So that’s quite difficult.

And then you move, because you have relocate. I think I’ve moved like five times in the last two years. I’ve lived in Lewes, I’ve lived on campus, I’ve lived two places in London, I’ve lived in Lebanon, so you feel very disconnected. You come back, everyone you knew is gone, or people are coming and going at different times, and people live in different places, so it’s very hard to deal with that. I think also probably the biggest thing in the second year is the loneliness that people talk about – they always say doing a PhD is lonely. Last year I really didn’t know what they were talking about because I was really enjoying myself: I had classes, I had classmates, I had seminars, I had lectures, I had conferences. I had a whole bunch of things to do, and I was very socially and engaged with campus life. I joined the choir, I took belly-dancing, I too pilates, I was just all over the place doing everything there was to do. But in your second year, really all of that pretty much is gone, unless you construct it for yourself. Because you don’t have classes any more, you don’t have classmates any more, you don’t have a routine any more, you don’t have deadlines, you don’t have a schedule, you don’t have anything really. It’s quite challenging from that perspective.

The skills that I’ve had to learn, especially this year, are how to be independent. Because as I said, in the second year in particular, nobody really tells you what to do, you don’t have deadlines, you don’t have a schedule, you just have to produce this document at the end of four years, that’s pretty much it. So you’re on your own as to what you do with your time and how you organise yourself. So learning time management skills has been extremely important as well. Tips I’ve learned along the way: I would definitely say to take ownership of your learning. Because nobody does anything for you, you need to do it for yourself. So I found it really helpful to make a schedule for myself, to set goals for myself, to set timelines, to set deadlines, and to make myself accountable to my adviser. Because otherwise you can just not do anything: “Oh that’s interesting, maybe I’ll go to that film”, or “Oh I can do this tomorrow, I’ll go and do this”. So if you treat it like a job where you have a specific time you start work, you work all day, you finish at five or whatever time you choose. It’s really helpful to have that structure.

Another thing would be to manage your adviser. I actually have a very good relationship with my adviser but I know many people who don’t. Your adviser is really the most important person that you’ll deal with here, because as I said, in the second year you no longer have the support system that you do now – your classmates are who knows where, they’re not here. So your adviser and your relationship with your adviser are extremely important. It’s really helpful if you speak friendly with them and set expectations for them. I know some people feel they can’t really do that; I feel shy asking my adviser to do things for me, or to treat me in a certain way, but really when you think about it, you’re paying your adviser to do this. You are hiring your adviser for their guidance and their support. I don’t think you should be obnoxious and you know “do what I say”, or anything like that, but it’s really important that  you do have that communication. So I’ve worked out with my adviser that I need deadlines, I’ve asked her to give me deadlines, we’ve worked on them together. I’ve set specific times that I need to see her, the length of time that I need to see her, the support that I need from her, what I would like her to help me with, advising me on certain things like networking or helping me to meet people, things like that.

Another thing that I think is really helpful, especially in the second year, is to keep attending lectures and seminars, even though you don’t have to. Because that way you really keep in the university community, you still have classmates of sorts, and you keep learning from other people. It’s really important. Actually I met her – I was auditing an anthropology course, I’m not in anthropology – I also audited a gender studies course, and I’m going to audit an international relations course. Because it’s really helpful also to get other disciplinary perspectives on your work, it really helps to inform what you read and what you write, if you see it from many different perspectives. This is both within Sussex and outside. I’m very promiscuous in this way, I attend seminars wherever they are. I’m currently living in London: I attend seminars at Sussex, I attend seminars at LSE, where I met her, I attend seminars at IOE, at SOAS, wherever they may be held.

Along those lines, to network is extremely important, and I see Catherine’s working with you on that. I found that to be extremely important. What I’ve done is I’ve actually gone on websites both at Sussex University and other universities, and I’ve looked for scholars that are working in my area, I’ve just sent them an email: “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m working in this field. I’d really like to meet with you and talk with you”. And I’ve never had anybody turn me down. I’ve had great meetings with these people, and it’s been extremely helpful, particularly in relation to fieldwork. For example, there’s one professor, at the University of Westminster in London, who had done work with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. She really got me hooked up well in the field. I went to a conference at Oxford on International Law and the Palestinians, and the person who gave that conference, the same thing: she was very well connected, she really helped me a lot with my fieldwork. It’s helpful to join research networks as well, so that you have other colleagues and students to share with, to get feedback on your work.

So I guess those are my tips that I’ve learnt along the way in the last couple of years. Right now my goal is just to try to produce, theoretically speaking, a chapter every month or two months, and now I’m starting to enter the world of making presentations at conferences and publishing.


2 thoughts on “Doctoral Journeys: Kathleen Fincham (DPhil in Education)

    Mavis Tan said:
    February 3, 2012 at 09:04

    Well done, my dear friend & sister. Mavis

    Catherine Reynolds said:
    June 16, 2011 at 15:16

    It’s good to be able to add to this a short post script: Kathleen achieved her goal! She completed her DPhil, graduated at the last Ceremony and is now employed as a University lecturer. Take your inspiration from her!
    Careers support is available to you – make the most if it.

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