Rachel Eager PGR Intern (Comms) in the Research Culture & Researcher Development Team.
Navigating into a new space and finding how you fit in can be daunting. Myself, I am at the same time a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature, a Graduate Teaching Assistant and the Communications Intern working in the Research Services Directorate. This naturally means I cover a few different spaces and identities across the university, like many of my PGR colleagues.
I’ve recently been considering where I fit best, and what it means to fit. Is there a best fit for me? How do I reconcile the spaces I fit into? And what benefits can I gain, from asking myself about where I fit, and why?
Where do we belong?
The idea of belonging to something brings me a lot of comfort. The idea of belonging can bring us the confidence to ask for help, a boost to access the resources we need and follow the path for success (Zhang et al, 2022). PhD students, typically, feel we are alone due to our level of specialisation, yet this can lead to feelings of isolation. One example which struck me is the fact that development courses are about developing ourselves professionally and personally as much as they are about meeting people and building communities (Collins and Brown, 2020).
Many PGRs are in a similar situation to myself: we occupy zones of work and employment without a steady salary or staff status; we teach students and provide professional support and expertise through service roles but on fractional hours. We spend time being students where our supervisors are our guides and teachers, and yet we are the guides and teachers in the seminar rooms down the corridor. We are the ‘supervisors’ to our students. We are constantly flipping back and forth in status and identity, and it can feel fragmented.
I, personally, found occupying different spaces and identities a tricky situation until recently when I had a mindset shift: an integration of my different identities. Identity integration is the ‘process of bringing together various aspects of one’s self into a coherent whole’ and navigating these integrated identities helps adults, overall, follow and lead fulfilling roles in both their professional and personal lives (Mitchell et al, 2021). This is something I experienced first-hand and let me work on processing my conflicting identities.
I spent time living and teaching English in France, I felt like such an outsider. I would never sound like a native speaker, often saying ‘the same things grandmothers say’, and my Scottish accent means I never fitted into the American or English expat groups I found there either. I remember feeling as if I fell between the cracks. I looked too young to be a middle school teacher there, I was often mistaken for a student.
Then, when I returned to Scotland for a holiday it happened again – the Scottish accents were so brash, loud and would grate on me. I would forget words in English and I wasn’t used to speaking the language I grew up with. My personal style never seemed to fit in in either country, and in short, I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere.
Until recently. I went back to France for a short trip: it was fantastic and speaking two languages felt like a superpower! Now, not fitting in seemed cool and unique. Being able to recognise that my style, accent and words are a blend of everything I’ve learned and experienced in both contexts is empowering. I have learned to enjoy never being static in one space but learning to occupy more than one space at once.
And now it’s upon me to apply that new mindset to my PhD experience.
Teacher and student at once
I am both a student and a teacher.
I can use what I’m still learning about my own fit and belonging as a postgraduate student, within my classes, to create a welcoming and open space for my students. I want them to succeed of course, but also I want them to reflect, develop and flourish, and so I offer an empathetic space for them. This empathy is fresh, because I am still so close to remembering what it’s like to transition to, and fit into, a new space. What I’ve learned about teaching and practised throughout my time as a middle school teacher, a tutor, and a GTA is enhanced by my recent experiences as a student.
With my mind open to this concept, I am able to take in new knowledge of how to demonstrate care and kindness to my own students, something I learn in each of my own supervision meetings. While my supervisors think they’re just being polite as they listen to how much I love my dog, for me they’re showing care, kindness and taking interest in things that are important to me. They’re cultivating a research culture that is open to kindness, empathy and the sharing of interests outside of the thesis. I am more able to be my whole self with them, which is important for cultivating a sense of belonging, and also for driving cultures of positive mental health, where colleagues feel included and safe.
When I ask my students to zip round the class with ‘one nice thing that they’ve done for themselves this week’, I’m genuinely interested. More than this, I’m interested in their interests, I care about their work-life balance and their wellbeing. I also want them to feel comfortable and safe in class and in this way they’re also more likely to engage in the academic parts of the class. Comprehending the strain and struggle students may be under is one thing, to be occupying that space yourself gives you the opportunity to work in alliance with your students to change the culture.
Bridging the gap at the strategic level
One of the most rewarding aspects of navigating the student-staff boundary is being able to actively bridge the gap between staff and PGRs as a PGR Intern in the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team. In the Research Services Directorate, we aren’t guessing what PGRs want or like, we know from first-hand experience, from including people like me in the design of supportive development programmes.
It also brings the added benefit of being able to cultivate PGR-only spaces which are intern-led, enjoying the added benefits of facilitated staff input, organisation, and resources, but still allow PGRs the freedom and space to share their thoughts openly.
There are real benefits to spanning staff-student roles which might not seem evident at first. Being both a member of staff and PGR is a superpower. Being able to occupy more than one space at the same time holds real power which can be used for the best interests of our students, PGRs and to enhance our own learning experience. I think there are benefits to be gained, from asking ourselves where we fit, and why. And from being patient with ourselves as we find and our own integrated super-identities within the spaces we occupy.
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