Guest Post: Standing Up for Myself

My PhD experience has been marked by a difficult supervision experience, and the proactivity and self-confidence needed to overcome it. It started small, with a lack of communication and some peers reaching out to me about things they (my ex-supervisor) had said about me. It continued with shifting goals, insults, and refusing to let me speak in supervision sessions. I reached out to administrators for help, and was met with advice about improving communication that, when attempted, was too-little too-late. It was at that point that I reached out to my union and started down the path that has led me to immense personal growth and a far greater understanding of what people mean when they tell you to ‘treat your PhD like a job’.

My union flagged the behavior I was describing as bullying and harassment immediately, and once I looked at the university code of conduct I saw it too. It was hard for me to see it as bullying at the time, but now in hindsight I do not know how I saw it as anything else. It left me in a difficult position, worried about my visa and my finances. I was overwhelmed with anxiety. Fortunately for me, my response to anxiety is to plan. If I can get proactive and try to prepare myself as best I can for something that worries me, it lessens my anxiety.

Not everyone responds to anxiety with proactivity. For those who do not, institutional support should be available to help them along the difficult process of dealing with supervisory bullying/harassment and changing supervisors. My big takeaway from this whole process was that, when people say to ‘treat your PhD like a job’ and discuss the heightened independence of your work, they are not just referring to reading literature, collecting and analysing data, and writing the thesis. They are also referring to the lack of institutional support for PhD students when they are struggling. They are referring to the need to understand your rights as a student and stand up for them when the institution is ignoring them. They are referring to joining with your peers in solidarity and unionization to access assistance and collectivize your individual power. Dealing with my experience took immense proactivity and energy in a time where those were rare. I was continually surprised – and continually disappointed – in both how much I needed to poke and prod at the administration to move my case along, and how much I had to remind the university of my rights as a student and a worker. Without my union to help teach me those rights, and my own willingness to confront the administration and assert my rights, I doubt whether I would be where I am today.

I was continually surprised – and continually disappointed – in both how much I needed to poke and prod at the administration to move my case along, and how much I had to remind the university of my rights as a student and a worker.

For those pushing through institutional difficulties in their PhD (Photo by Craig Hellier on Unsplash).

Today I am on intermission, with my future as a PhD candidate at Sussex still in question. I am still working out the potential for changing supervision, and on what exactly my altered topic will focus. I am still figuring out exactly how to finance my PhD. I still feel anxious. Yet I am far more confident in my capabilities as a candidate today, having defended myself against the harassment I faced. I know my rights as a student and a worker. I know the bureaucracy of PhD administration in far more depth than I ever expected. I find my topic far more interesting, rigorous, and critical than what I was working on initially. In short, I have grown, and am more prepared than ever before to pursue my PhD. I am excited for all that I will learn in my candidacy, but know that much of the intangible learning of how to shift from the mindset of a student to the mindset of a research professional has been accomplished, condensed in my first year.

Robert Dickinson
School of Global Studies

Unfortunately, for some readers this experience might sound familiar. If you are a Sussex Doctoral Researcher and need support and advice during your PhD, the services listed below have been particularly helpful for the author and other students in similar situations. The Student Life Centre and the Student Union Support Team specifically are there to support and advise all students about any aspect of life at University and can be a useful first step.


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