On being too much… (or how I got the PhD finished despite. it. all)
(Preface: I wrote this in my phone’s notes on Saturday night — I haven’t had much of a chance to put to words the full story of what happened in the last few months and years and I don’t think you get to make speeches in the same way as other significant life events. It is a significant life event. I’ve had other things outshine that, I’ve had to play it down, I’ve had to “hurry up and get a job student” — but I haven’t had a chance to mark it the way *I* wanted to mark it.
I’m writing this down as with everything on the internet, there is always somebody else that might read this and spark them into doing something — and you don’t finish 94k document without wanting to add some more words into the mix (and, importantly, if I can finish a PhD, despite myself & how my brain works, then you have totally got this…)
P.S. I detest that west coast of Scotland thing where we have to STFU once we do something good (“tall poppy syndrome”) — but I’m a communicator, if canne speak it out loud, at least I can write it down. Be happy for your accomplishments, whatever they are — and be happy for other people too.
Here we go…
After winning top student prize on my MA in New Media & Society, I got encouraged to apply and accepted onto a PhD to start in January 2009. We’d just had a heavy economical crash, and I kinda loved researching the internet — social media was just becoming a thing (I did my MA thesis on Facebook identity construction) and I felt it would be cool to do more of that rather than settle with a career yet.
Sounds straight forward, right?
After one funding offer, then a withdrawal before I started, a supervisor leaving and another one stating, I was talked into registering part-time and to put my fees onto a credit card, splitting the payments into 3 months portions. Not ideal, but I was convinced I could do this a lot quicker than the 6 years predicted — and this was only until we we worked out the funding.
So I started. I approached the department where I was registered to see if I could get some teaching to help me cover the bills. I managed to pick up 3 classes — at 24. After a half day teacher training, I was flung into the deep end and got to teach people who were months younger than me. And I learn how to teach the university way. Teaching the same people who I would later serve in the student pub after. You make it work.
Obviously, I got quite poor. I was 315 miles from home, living in a shared house. Not eligible for council tax relief on my student gig (part time innit to save fees). I signed on, I was entitled to 85 quid a week housing benefit. I had to phone the job centre each week to let them know exactly how many hours of teaching I had done that week so they could work out what I was entitled to. It was still a labour government then.
In the meantime, I was connecting and working with folk from across the UK about how social media could become a thing and perhaps actually start to make the way we work better.
My early social media use managed to impress a senior university administrator who got me a job as a digital assistant in the university alumni department for the summer. The reality was my job was calling up rich graduates and asking them to sponsor (other) PhD students. It was one of life’s mocking fates — trying to apply for funding for my own phd by working in a job that’s core aim was raising money for the university as a charity. What I did get from that job is access to learning about the 3rd sector and fundraising. I remember getting the opportunity to attend a conference in London called “Digital Leap” where I heard Howard Lake speak about the digital revolution, and explore how technology was going to transform the 3rd sector. That was really early days but has had a core focus on the work I’ve done since. However I worked for 3 months before I chose to not renew my own contract, I couldn’t see any hope in that job — nor the PhD. But in that time I convinced them and set up the twitter account for the university, it now has 20k followers and main source of communications. I also was introduced to Citizen Eye, a community media organisation — at that point ran out of a local library by John Coster, a person who later became a mentor and a long term friend. The story of JC and Citizen Eye makes up most of the first chapter of my PhD.
So, things are ticking along but are a bit shit. I’m good at digital, but digital is for the loser and the rebels, the rest of the university is taking a while to be convinced- and they leave the heavy lifting to the interns and the ones who know how to code.
So, I convinced my Head of Department to give me 1k to run a conference about the uses and abuses of social media. I ran an event, a conference on social media the day Michael Jackson died- it was relatively successful that I ended up in the times higher as being on the first conference on social media in the UK (ikr!) — through this I got funding, finally, as an offer to return to UWS.
The website is still here: https://usesandabuses.wordpress.com/
So between 2009–2012 I blogged the whole damn thing and to be honest I am sick of ruminating about what happened during the fulltime part of my PhD. Everyone is sick of it — so here is some photos of the good times during my PhD data collection in Vancouver. It was fucking cool. The whole thesis talks about it and you can read it here >>> https://www.academia.edu/34581833/PhD_Thesis._Van2010_An_ethnographic_study_of_alternative_media_communities_during_the_Vancouver_2010_Winter_Olympic_Games
But basically, looking back I felt spent 3 years being a poorly paid research assistant for my supervisor (£500 a month), i didn’t get any thesis written but the stuff in-between it was a hell of a journey. I needed to work to survive and in doing I met some amazing people like @jonhickman who we worked together in Birmingham (here is us in Germany) & we became excellent colleagues and critical writing buddies — and @flygirltwo (Prof Farida Vis) who is ultimately my hero and mentor as a woman who has made things happen for her in academia.
And then there was the third university of Leicester (http://thirduniversity.wordpress.com) and the day we beat the governers of DMU in the game of war (croquet) — those were good times. And that’s when I became politicised. It was a tory government.
I started working with @dgmcgillivray who recognised the value of digital and got me to work on projects (like #citizenrelay) that have shaped my career as it stands now- and got me paid (who later became my PhD supervisor and who got me over the line in the end and for that I credit a lot for) and Prof Gayle McPherson (@gmp01) who has kept me on the straight and narrow when I’ve literally wanted to throw it all away for an easier life.
So, ahh — things were going well. And then one day they were. I moved back to Glasgow suddenly in 2012. I was depressed. I was burnt out. I was exhausted. I checked into the Euro hostel for 5 days before anybody knew I was in Scotland. I was writing weird shit on the walls and eating tiny packets of cereal from the buffet. I remember wrapping myself in a duvet and sleeping in the bath so I didn’t need to look at the window. But I was functIoning at work. And I was on social media business as usual. It was crazy. The black dog is always nipping at me. I feel like it’s a constantly companion that’s looking to wipe out everything I have. In October 2012, I publicly gave up the PhD. I know what’s I’m like when I’m manic. I’m passionate. I’m infuriating. I’m a dafty. But I was skint, and I was tired and I was fed up always having to fight for it when it wasn’t moving anywhere.
Instead, I’d stay out all night with new friends and I’m “on a mission.” But nothing prepared me for when I wouldn’t feel anything. There was a period of time when I was booked to speak at events during London 2012 and I see myself in photos but I remember not feeling anything. Nothing. Like you could have stuck a needle through me and I wouldn’t have felt a thing.
Mania and anxiety is a constant for me, and in some ways it’s my reluctance of being an extrovert that I believe makes me good at what I do. I can switch on a performance and I get my energy from other people. But sometimes I feel like I’m too much. And work was both what was my entire identity and everything I thought I hated about myself (reluctant extrovert), and then there really was nothing.When October 2012 came around, I have never felt a depression like I did like that. I felt nothing. And nothing feels like looking at yourself like you are another person. It’s hoovering drugs up your nose when you never though you would and getting on a sleeper train to London out your bin because you can’t remember when you were last happy and being a little high or adrenaline from doing things that you shouldn’t is close to that. I wasn’t getting the feelings I used to get from speaking or speaking to people. I look at Instagram and I was shell.
So, I spent 5 years in Glasgow. It was an accident. It felt normal because I’d lived there before. But it stunted me. Like I hit pause on my passion or who I was. And it was ok. I had a life. I met somebody who I loved. I had friends. I had jobs that paid the bills. But I also had lost control of my boundaries. With people. With my own self esteem. And when I decided to go back to give the PhD another go, it took my parents to sit me and my bf down and say that they’d help me with money to get it done.
My dad took control of the business. I quit my job that I hated and focused on self-employed work. My mum knew if I didn’t do this I would go crazy. My bf said he’d support me.
So I wrote. I got up everyday and I wrote. And then talked about writing on Snapchat/Instagram. And I wrote. And I got sick. Then I wrote. And for 9 full months I wrote. And I talked to myself because it was the only person who would listen. I had an out of office on, and I wrote. Nothing sexy about it. I had the guy at the gym and the guy at subway on my street listen to my tales of word count (which was pretty dull) And after 9 full months and 4 more extensions it got done. And I thought, my deep down aim, was to put this PhD to bed and get with mine. Our. Lives.
And I didn’t just write it, I fucking got the PhD with 11 corrections. 11. It took me an hour in the library to fix. After 8 years and a manic depression & all the demons that stopped me just getting it donr. I did it. And I wanted to desperately be normal. To be back in my relationship bubble. To earn money. To take myself seriously.
And 2 days after it all. My life as I thought it was. In Glasgow. Collapsed. And I had another 12 hours to make a decision about what I needed to do next.
9 months, 8 years to get to this stage to lose all I thought I had in a day. The things that would keep me focused at night when I was writing didn’t even exist. I’d been telling myself a lie to protect myself from the truth throwing off the PhD and getting it finished.
And tbh, I don’t think Glasgow was ever for me. It’s never been an easy fit — where I’ve had to take a detour around the edges and through places that weren’t for me, I wasn’t suppose to be there.
So here I am now.
When it all unravelled. I went to the shop and bought a new notebook, and I wrote in a brand new book this visualisation. I will move to Dundee, I will get a job in service design, I will be living in my new flat in a nice part of town. And that’s what I focused on.
In 12 weeks. I got a job, I got a flat, (I got the flat before I got the job because I just had this feeling) I moved out of Glasgow deliberately and whole heartedly and the only person who made it happen was me. However, not in a single moment did I stop to celebrate the achievement of the PhD. Every bit of me was wrapped up in survival. And now, at 10 past midnight 2 days before I graduate, lying in bed after 3 amazing days speaking at a global service design conference — I can stop, breath. And write this story down.
I still get upset every day about taking the line out my draft acknowledgements about looking forward to getting on with our lives. In a way, my aims for finishing the PhD was really low (get it finished so I can go back to living the life we’d made in Glasgow) — when actually, although I’m naturally sad that realities change, I’m also completely aware that I’ve managed to recharge my career and reconnect to that person who graduated in 2008 so eager and so up for changing the world.
I reflect on this now and I might just chalk up the Glasgow chronicles to life lessons but also being in limbo. Next week we launch a brand new course in Service Design. I also turn 33. Last year I got the gift of Donald Trump on my birthday, lying in bed with a shite hangover like a hopeless gremlin already crippled from Brexit vote.
This year, riding off the high of being something new. Fully immersed in a new job. A new community. Learning more about myself and my boundaries everyday. I’m 100% in on things. And although, as I said, depression and anxiety and mania are my frequent and daily bedfellows- I did this stuff, despite all that. And I think for one, the PhD represents far more than a document or a piece of paper but instead the Dr prefix is showing me, and me alone, what I am capable of even when I don’t believe it myself. It’s fucking tangible. Like, to the day I die. And that’s amazing. Deep down, no matter what happens now, I know I can make things happen for myself and for myself alone. So right now, I don’t really know what the future will look like. Who it will be with. Where I will be. What even will happen but I know I just managed to pull myself out of my own sink hole and that’s something that no one can take away.
That’s all. x