The many labours of research students

The many labours of research students

When you start out as a research student, what do you think your main area of work will be? It might be data collection, the many challenges of access to a field, learning new skills to wrangle data, and always writing, writing, writing. It is a surprise when most of the work appears to have nothing to do with that. Instead the several labours of research students are:

  • Finding your place in the field, the institution and the discipline
  • Keeping keen, maintaining your drive and self belief
  • Managing others, especially your supervisor
  • Creating boundaries and reasonable expectations
  • Legitimating – shaping your agenda and bending others to it
  • Recognising your own agency
  • Finding a path between complete and finished
The amount of work spent labouring on others and getting institutions to behave in the way they are meant to might be novel to many students, and not to others. If you are a parent the effort involved in getting others to do what they are supposed to do will not be news.
A high degree of friction is involved in interacting with institutions. If you have to repeatedly remind supervisors to read your draft work, that’s a friction cost which adds to the emotional labour of being a PhD student. Friction is not distributed equitably and it’s long been known that some people find an easier path due to factors such as higher cultural capital, factors related to social class, gender and ethnicity. I find the institution sometimes needs to be trained to recognise you. We benefit from the work of others who have gone before and taken on the labour of making themselves recognisable to the institution.
Recognising our agency is harder when many of the ways of speaking about the self in UK society seem to diminish agency. We are framed as being at the mercy of our past, of structural forces, and manipulative social media platforms. Those factors do matter, but they can end up making life feel rather passive and victim-like. An immediate problem is that the way institutions operate generates a lot of inertia and this reinforces that sensibility. Might was well not bang your head against the brick wall for the umpteenth time. Institutional inertia is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be protecting, when the alternative is moving fast and breaking things. As it stands, mostly inertia benefits those who already benefit and the breaking things breaks those who do not.
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