Harriet Harris and Kitty Wheater explain why a PhD book club can offer solace, community and shared understanding during the often lonely and painful journey of doctoral work. This post is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Showcasing the Doctoral College.
By December I was so far behind in my work that, pausing one night to begin a new episode of Breaking Bad, I realized that I might fail my PhD. I laughed maniacally for ten minutes at this irony: that having sacrificed my family to my education, I might lose that, also.
Tara Westover, Educated
It can be a lonely and dispiriting life, working on a PhD. If you didn’t know that other doctoral students also find it lonely and dispiriting, you might think you weren’t cut out for it. You might lose momentum, lose courage, lose your mind, lose your resolve to carry on.
There are at least two remedies that you can apply for PhD loneliness and doubt: talking to other PhD students, who will show you that you are not alone in feeling as you do; and reading authors who capture in biographical, fictional or other literary forms just how it feels when another day goes by of not getting to your research, or how you’ve spent another all-nighter in the lab, or how you are the oddball in your family because they don’t understand why you are still at university, or how you are the imposter in the faculty because everybody else knows what they are doing.
In these two remedies lies the purpose of the PhD Book Club, which Harriet thought up a few years ago and which Kitty brought to life this year. Its purpose: to connect PhD students with one another across disciplines, and to grace our communing with the sympathetic and humane understanding of writers who articulate both the pain and the pull of the academic calling that draws them forward.
Since we launched in February, we have read two novels and two autobiographies. The novelists have been Englishists, and the autobiographers an historian and a paleobiologist/geochemist. Between them, they convey doctoral and post-doctoral trials in surly, heart-achingly honest, humorous, or intimately confessional tones. They also elate in the joy of their findings and breakthrough ideas, which make their research its own sweet reward.
In Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated, we found a journey from home-schooled, rural, Idaho to a PhD in History at Cambridge. The book navigates fundamentalist Mormon parenting, violence, and life-changing injury, along with the wonder, beauty, and personal cost of the truth about past and present. While Westover’s story is extraordinary, its themes – of the complexity of family belonging, the personal challenge of education, and the existential turmoil of new ideas – are universal. And what PhD student does not resonate with the magnetic pull of Buffy over lit reviews?
For our second Club-meet, the novelist Sarah Moss joined us to talk about her novel Night Waking. This was the novel that first put the idea of a book club for postgrads in Harriet’s mind. It is actually about two postdocs, married with young children: Giles, struggling to study seabirds in the short season allowed by their migration habits, and Anna, who is trying to get her foot on the academic ladder and attempt historical research whilst being lumbered with most of the childcare by her oblivious, preoccupied husband.
In Night Waking, both researchers are lonely, despite or because of their marriage and children. They need to find how to let each of their academic lives breathe, and then they can move in directions that feel fulfilling rather than maddening, and can create space for their feelings and for their children. Sarah Moss shared with us her experiences of having a child whilst doing a PhD, and of navigating an academic and creative-writing career whilst being the breadwinner for her young family. In Night Waking, the focus and competitiveness of academic life had not prevented the two young researchers from marrying or having children, as is a theme in another of our books, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. It is also a theme for many young researchers, which a previous Chaplaincy ‘club’ – Babies and Books – explored.
In Lab Girl, Jahren’s prizewinning 2016 memoir about plants, science, and mental illness, paleobiology and geochemistry have never been so human. For a woman who grew up in a small Minnesota town, the glory of a discovery in the lab is ‘accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known’, and the process of research itself is captured in all its adventure, tedium, and hope. When she discovers a new mineral inside the seed of a hackberry tree, ‘I knew instinctively,’ she writes, ‘that if I was worthy of a small secret, I might someday be worthy of a big one.’
In all our books, there is a recurring theme of how we cannot do research alone. In Educated, Westover is helped and mentored. At a key moment of financial crisis, a bishop pulls out his personal chequebook, just to keep her in university. In Night Waking, Anna and Giles must find ways to talk to each other, so that when the key opportunity arises, Anna can leave the children in safe hands and disclose an untold story about the past. In Lab Girl, Jahren and her lab partner Bill work doggedly together to survive exploding laboratories, homelessness, and the exigencies of American science funding. As Jahren says, ‘something so hard can be so easy if we just have a little help.’
To register for PhD Book Club, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the PhD Book club, visit their website: PhD Book Club
Dr Kitty Wheater is the Mindfulness Chaplain, and runs the Mindfulness Programme for students and staff. She has a DPhil in Anthropology from the University of Oxford, where she was a Postdoctoral Associate. Kitty is a firm believer in the power of connections through reading and writing: she is the author of the weekly MindLetter, which has over 500 subscribers across the University, been viewed thousands of times during COVID-19, and been picked up by the BBC. She also founded and hosts Why Don’t You Write Me, a postcard-writing, art and connection project.
Harriet Harris is The University Chaplain and Head of the Chaplaincy Service. She completed her D.Phil in 1994, in the prehistoric age when people could still (with some persuasion on her part) go straight from an undergraduate programme to a doctoral one. She has since supervised and examined many PhDs, and worked alongside numerous PGR students on: ‘to PhD or not to PhD’; mental health in academia; discerning vocation, academic or otherwise; and long-distance relationships and family-planning (!) when embarking on academic careers.