Academic Skills Post: NEVER be “Realistic”

study overload

I was at a workshop for post graduates; where keen masters and PhD students made the effort to come to hear some “gems of wisdom”, perhaps a secret or two about how to publish and get your work out to an interested audience. I sat and listened attentively to all the well meaning talks by people who were “experts” in the field giving very sound and reasonable advice. The result? A heavy spirited audience that I felt was completely discouraged. The only glaring exception to this was an incredibly inspirational talk from an academic who handed out examples of many unconventional publications she had spent the last 20 years engaged with.

This made me go back to all the workshops and seminars on what it would take to do a PhD. I remembered that along with the absolutely useful information I took away with me, there was this huge misconception communicated through repeated phrases such as “doing your PhD is an incredibly lonely pursuit”, “your family and loved ones are very likely to become frustrated and angry at your disappearance out of their lives”, “often, a PhD is an incredibly depressing journey”. I wasn’t sure where this was all coming from and as I took what I was hearing as gospel – it was, after all, coming from the mouths of experts – I prepared for doom, a decease, a journey into darkness… but then, I discovered the most incredible thing!! That doing this PhD, was not walking into a tomb, contrary to expert advice, in fact, quite the contrary. The three years of my PhD so far have been the busiest, most challenging, most stimulating, most sociable years of my life – and this is coming from the loudest girl in the class from nursery to high school!.

I once spoke with someone very dear to me and I told her that I wish someone had told me about mailing lists when I was an undergraduate. I would have gone to conferences, presented papers, networked etc. and I went on to recommend a conference she should attend. She started, “I can’t, because…. ” and she went on to convincingly present a logical list of all the reasons why is was absolutely inconceivable for her to attend, let alone present, at this conference. This made me so angry! I was so frustrated for her and for myself and for the thousands others who are so restricted and limited by what professional, reasonable, experienced people tell them about the limitations of everything! Unwittingly, and I know this is done with no sinister intention, these people have helped generations stifle their curiosity, their hope, their drive for achieving beyond their dreams, or even dreaming itself, for fear of being ridiculous in their over ambition.

It was then that I discovered something new about myself. I was unrealistic. It was perhaps my greatest asset. If I had been realistic, I would have stopped at first year university when I failed. I failed because I did not have the skills and tools to take me through university. I struggled through my entire undergraduate degree – yes, I started over, and through various personal problems and limitations, I passed with a not so great honours degree. Again, if I had been realistic, I would have said, “Well done Nelly, you’ve done well to get this far, now pack your trunk and off to the circus, it’s a miracle you’ve got this far, now go and do something suitable and in line with your achievements and skills”. Did I do that? Not on your Nelly! I went right back to uni, to the one professor who believed in me and signed up to a Master in Laws degree (which meant I would have to sit more exams than I had to if it were a MA or MSc). and guess what, I got a distinction in my Master’s dissertation!

Now I’m doing this PhD, the same thing happened. During the first year, where YES, I admit I had to put my head down and just get on with the literature review, meaning lots of libraries, I made friends there every time, invited and got invited by fellow students, in the same and different fields and even got asked out twice by fellow geeks🙂 – and this was the loneliest part!! Three years on, I am teaching, for the third year, in three different universities, I’ve been asked by a university in Germany to guest lecture. In terms of publishing, I have a paper in a journal and a book chapter in an academic book to be published later this year, putting in a book proposal to publish my literature review and a quite a few other things in the pipeline, including being a guest editor on three special edition journals. Conferences, where I encourage you all to go to as many as you can, have also been important and I’ve been invited to be a key note speaker at a few events, including one for the United Nations, in a panel at the AAG (the Association of American Geographers Conference), presented papers, organising sessions all the way up to the end of the year. I declared this year in my PhD, after coming back from my fieldwork, the Year of Academic UnRealistic Activities. I also write in a blog that has reached the hearts of many (50,000 readers) and I couldn’t be enjoying myself more in this academic sphere.

un tweet

As I listened to experts speak today I wondered whether it was the bitterness of their experiences, rejections, failures over the years that made them feel they were doing a service to others by cautioning them so much. They wanted the students to do well – that’s why they were there. But it was a replica of a situation where parents would try to discourage their children from taking risks. It’s well known that other parents, who do give their children that space to take risks and make choices, support them through the consequences, often grow to achieve great things. This made me think of my incredible supervisor Karen Wells, who guides me from afar, always there to give advice, but allows me the space to explore, make mistakes, take up every opportunity and sternly reminds me of my “practical” deadlines before they swoosh past me. That’s what I’ve needed.

So my advice to you, if you are an academic and you are still reading this, is as follows – the most important thing about doing this PhD is that you enjoy it! It’s an incredible time to research something you are passionate about, in the length of time you have to research it. A PhD is NOT the final stage or destination, it is simply training for a career as a researcher and so this makes it a space where you develop an academic identity and just like other aspects of identity, you can only form one as you make choices, celebrate achievements, feel the agony of things that haven’t gone so well, blur all the different you’s together, etc. If you aren’t enjoying it, then stop. Stop and find something better to spend the valuable heart beats that you’re giving away. It’s not a cliche, our time here is limited, no one has yet been able to trick life and stay alive for ever, and so while you’re in the game, be a happy winner, or be a cheerful loser, but don’t be a bystander waiting to hear what you can and can’t achieve from others.

Just before I leave you, I want to highlight the value of positive thinking. When someone puts forward an opportunity, or a suggestion, don’t start by saying “I can’t” and justifying why. Instead, say “Sure! How can I get it done?” This is what I’ve been doing, and you know what? It’s worked! I noticed the one speaker today that inspired me said she used her students for skills that she did not have the time to develop. Her language was different. She could have easily said “skills I don’t have”. But she respected her ability to do whatever she wanted if she dedicated enough time to it and we should be just the same!

Good luck! If I can do it, you sure as hell can!!

If you need any ideas on giving yourself a push to be unrealistic and want to know some of the things I did to publish, get in touch: nelly.ali@gmail.com

5 Comments

  1. Very interesting and insightful journey. You have not chosen to bypass doors but, instead, to open many doors, doors of opportunity. Therefore your journey has not been wasteful or somewhat irrelevant but opportunistic and hopeful. A multi channel pathway is and will empower you to do much more good works in society today and in the future. Bonne chance, and may God go with you in every step!!

  2. totally agree – you need passion and commitment to do a PhD both of which you have in abundance ! Lets get rid of the academic activist divide – but do finish your studies as doing a PhD gives you the space and time to put all your work into a wider context – and challenge the predominant ideologies that say your writing style is ‘too flowery’ – its emotional, powerful and your work Nelly is giving young excluded children a voice – assume you have read Voice for the Excluded, Putting the Last First, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and People’s Self Development – all from 1990’s and different authors but well worth a read – will be following you and you have inspired me to develop my blogging and tweeting skills !

  3. I’ve just happened upon this post, way out of date but I utterly agree, Nelly! When we sat together in those early PhD days listening to uninspiring ‘experts’ telling us how lonely the PhD wa I kept thinking “uh oh!” But it’s not been like that AT ALL! I’m nearly at the end and I’ve loved (almost) every minute of it and its only the start of the journey. I’ve not achieved as much as you (you are amazing!) but I have achieved a lot and there’s no secret to it. It’s about enjoying what I do and working hard at it. It doesn’t take a genius! x

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