Does it matter how I define myself?

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During the last year and a half or so, I’ve noticed differences in how PhD students refer to themselves and the staff they work with. I didn’t think much about it at first, it was perhaps just a cultural (American v British perhaps?) thing but my secondary/pastoral (or which ever word you choose) supervisor pointed a few things out to me about what a PhD actually is. This made me think a lot about how your actual choice of words may effect your attitude towards your studies (or job, or roles in general). I thought a bit of reflection on the matter would be good and as such what follows is what I’ve concluded.

Phd…student..?

When I was really struggling to keep up with my workload, a PhD was described in a very different way to how i’ve thought about it before: as an apprenticeship. Typically the word ‘student’ conjures images of exams, all-nighters, drunken antics until the early hours, and a general sense of being told what to learn and for what reason. It also suggests something quite dissimilar from a job and this is supported by the typical semesterly student year (at least up until undergrad). A PhD is very different. It’s more of a job in that you work full time, hopefully receiving a stipend which is comparable to a decent take home salary from a first job, and in absence of semesters you have time off when you can afford to or are permitted by the work you’re doing. Sound familiar?

Doesn’t sound like being a ‘student’ does it? (As a side note, I frequently have to explain this picture because a ‘PhD student’ isn’t a well-defined idea and most people tend to assume I’m book-learning and taking exams). This all sounds much more like an apprenticeship: you are spending time training to do research with the guidance of somebody who has been doing it longer than you. The distinction may seem trivial but I think it’s an important one. Firstly, shifting to consider yourself an apprentice transfers a lot more of the onus and responsibility of learning onto you. Rather than giving you answers and telling you what to do, you look to your mentor for guidance instead. You really start to look at the work as your own, with support from somebody more experienced, rather than your doing of somebody else’s interests. The focus is on your development and learning which is great because nobody wants you to finish unable to think and drive things for yourself. Secondly, it allows you to go easier on yourself when you struggle. PhD students are renowned for exhaustively working as well as comparing themselves to their colleagues (inevitably concluding their inferiority; the dreaded ‘impostor syndrome’). Considering yourself an apprentice means it’s already more understandable when you struggle because you are learning as you are doing. There is no practice for a PhD because it is the practice time. Now I’m not saying that these points do or will alleviate all of the anxiety and troubles that a PhD can bring but they can at least go somewhere to improving your outlook and resilience across your training and ultimately leave you more confident in your own abilities.

Supervisor or Adviser?

The other word describes that person whom guides you during your training: your ‘supervisor’ or ‘adviser’. I think this distinction is less important because it’s really a case of how you interpret each word but I feel that the latter is more constructive in the same way that considering yourself an apprentice is. To me, ‘supervisor’ carries connotations of somebody who is guiding you through something pre-determined. Much akin to the supervisor role in a retail environment, it sounds like it could be describing somebody there to keep you in check and ultimately take the heat if you mess up. Ultimately this is accurate I suppose as, at least in lab-based research, if you cause any significant issues it is them on whom it will also fall. But I think that considering their role as supervisory, much like considering yourself a student, removes the onus from the one who is learning. Contrary to this the word ‘adviser’ suggests to me, at least, a sense of somebody who is providing support, mentorship, and training for something you want to do. The distinction here again being that the work is yours and not theirs. So whilst their experience and support are integral to your training, it is really in the position of guidance both intellectually and practically that the role brings to you.

Overall I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as you get on with it all, ask for help when needed, and come out better trained and prepared from your future whilst having learned interesting things about your topic. But what’s interesting for me is that I feel a shift in my motivation, self-accountability, and attitude towards my struggles by considering myself an apprentice of the academic process which seems to only be positive for my well being.

Thanks for reading ☺

BCT

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