Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here: https://thephdliferaft.libsyn.com/

Emma  

Hello, Amy. Hi, Emma, it is so lovely to meet you. And we’re already talking about meeting again. So that’s good. That’s a good sign. So, thank you so much for your time. And for being here. I know you are super busy. And I also know that you have got a great story to share. So I’m excited to explore that with you. And we’re going to start the way we always start in terms of telling us a little bit about your PhD journey into it and out the other side.

Amy  

Sure. So I mean, my PhD journey probably started many, many years before in Well, my dad did a PhD while I was growing up. So I vividly remember him doing it. And him doing it while he was trying to work full time and have four kids and my mom, diligently and very helpfully, she was an English teacher. So she preferred the entire thesis, which was on container, transportation management. But I’m a very different field from mine. And as it turned out, my dad in the end, we were meant to graduate, the same year, because I went to John was my undergraduate where he did his PhD. And unfortunately, he ended up graduating the year after, so we didn’t quite meet up. But to some extent, though, I really felt like he deserved that day to be his own work he had put into it was actually, you know, he deserved to own that day fully. So

Emma  

you want it out for him you want at the state? Yeah.

Amy  

So I was, I was very fortunate that I was aware source of of what a PhD is. And I had that contact with it. But I had a very different career trajectory. I was freelance this director for a very long time, and I qualified as a teacher, so I don’t sort of, I’d have my own career route. And then I was doing a lot of intercultural theatre work. And I realised that when people were criticising my work, I actually didn’t have the tools or framework to really intellectually deconstruct their argument and justify the worth of what I was doing, even though I knew it was worthy. And on that basis, that was what really drove me to want to actually undertake a PhD study, because I was to an extent doing quite complicated work that was sort of contributing to knowledge, I suppose contributing to the US and I wanted, I thought, well, you know, if I’m doing this work anyway, actually, I can do it properly, if I undertake structure PhD with it, and it will make me better, and it’ll help me to publish and everything. So that was why in the end, I decided to, to undertake a PhD. That all sounds very straightforward. It actually wasn’t at all because they’re so into it, that I’m severely dyslexic. I wasn’t invited back to my school to do a levels. You know, I’ve always had an incredibly difficult relationship with writing. And so going back to doing that was not an easy thing for me to do by any stretch of the imagination. Also, my second daughter was six months old when I started. Yeah, I was breast I was breastfeeding in my first supervision meeting. So yeah, and then I, I had very, I sort of did it slightly the wrong way round. And I didn’t know what the practical project was going to be because my PhD was 50% Plus, practice led research. So it was practice led research, but 50% of my thesis was practice based. And so I knew the construction, which is unusual for a PhD. Normally you go into it, you don’t really have a clue, you look for the gap, and then fill it I came to it slightly differently. But I, I suppose in that basis, because I had a clear structure relatively early on, that was kind of beneficial because I had a very, very clear direction with it. And I did know what the expectation was, in terms of what the outcome might be, and which was helpful, especially because when I was just about it was the day before. So I spent I remember I spent Christmas 2014 15 desperately trying trying to write up my upgrade 10,000 word upgrade chapter over Christmas. That was a nightmare because then note kept crashing and scrambling all of the hundreds of citations. So my takeaway uses zero Am I allowed to do product placement?

Emma  

I feel like I need to do a BBC moment. products are

Amy  

available they are but they’re all rubbish. That would be my personal opinion is my husband who bless him three times had to unscramble it all it was it was held. And so we got that we loaded that. And that was because at that time, there was no facility for me to upload the practice elements of it. So even though most of my fieldwork at that point had been practice led, I, the way the upgrade works is it had to be a 10,000 word written section. Even though the research I’ve done wasn’t written it was practice. So I had to sort of really use scramble together to get that done over that Christmas. Did that was due to have my the the accompanying vibe, I think in February, two days before I started feel a little bit unwell. And people may remember that I think it was that time where the the bird flu pandemic is. It got to me having a chat with my supervisor the day before. I to this day, have no idea what I said to her because by the time I came off that call my husband at my temperature, my temperature was 42 degrees, utterly delirious. I was saying to my friend, I’m not sure I can drive to Leeds for my exam, could somebody give me a lift to leaves and they’re like, Amy, you can’t lift your head off the desk, I’m not sure you’re going to be going to leave. I’m like, I’ve got my Viber I have to go to leave like Okay, so in the end, yes, I was taped duly taken to hospital. My poor husband had to ring my supervisor the next morning, go, Amy’s got flu way and she’s been hospitalised she’s not going to be able to make it today. And I was really poorly and because of how ill I was ended up spending a week in hospital with flu. And then I did end up having to take a six month break because it took me that long to recover from it. Because I’ve actually recovered from sepsis having had my daughter as well, line a physically I was really poor. And so I didn’t need to take that break. However, because of the structure of my thesis, I had three big chunks of field work. And those big chunks of field work with giving me the vast majority of my data. So what it meant was that because of where my illness fell, whilst I took a break, I was still able to do sort of thinking and reading and that sort of thing, which I did, I’ve recovered as well, I’m not in any way, saying you ought to use your recovery time to carry on working. And also, the other thing to say is that there’s this tendency to say you must be working 24/7 Well, I had two young children, I had to do work and everything, I couldn’t do that I had to be extremely good at managing my time. And I was very good at managing my time, I worked incredibly hard. But that did not mean that I was working all hours every single day, seven days a week for the entire duration of my PhD because it doesn’t always work like that you need gaps and you need thinking time and that time is incredibly valuable downtime is extremely important. And there’s much it’s as much a part of the process of consolidating your work as sitting, reading, getting the new knowledge. So this idea of constant working is neither healthy nor actually very productive. And so, you know, I took my gap, but because of the way my PhD was structured, actually, I still completed within three years. And that was because I was just incredibly good at managing my time i i didn’t hang around the best advice I got from anybody is that they you know, do a PhD quickly. And that the best PhD is a finished PhD. And that is true. You know, no PhD can be perfect because knowledge is by definition, not perfect. And if you’re in sort of the humanities like I am, you’re largely dealing with people and people move people change the world moves on so you can never be perfect for what you have to do is really get to a point where you’ve managed to meet the expectations of the scope of this piece of work as best you can. You’ve been able to answer the questions you were into I sent in to an extent that actually that means that the work is valuable and has something useful to add them to say. But there comes a point when you need to step away from it because the world changes and the research moves on in different direction. And that’s okay.

Emma  

Okay, so we all need Amy on speed dial now, right? Because this is so golden in terms of what you just said there, in terms of the best PhD is a finished PhD. And this sense of what comes through so clearly, and what you’re, where you’re speaking is about the project management, managing of it, okay, I’ve got this work here, this will work this, this is this, I’m going to set this up for that. Okay, that’s in place, I can come back to that. And that sense of me working on the PhD, kind of stepping out and managing, as well as kind of getting in and getting busy with it with the detail I think is so important. And that message of, yeah, get it done is a project to be done. I love it. I love it.

Amy  

It is a project to be done. And I think it’s okay to desire time when you’re not doing it. That doesn’t make you a bad academic that makes you. But also, I would say as well, I was, I was incredibly fortunate in that I have my super, I have my supervisor. But I also had, and this is where it links to the women and academia support network to an extent as well. In that, I also had my team around me, so I had my dad who was able to really, really help with sort of structuring things. I mean, I’ve got a great photograph of my entire, sort of all of the paragraphs of my thesis along our whole hallway. Because I’m dyslexic, I tend to work better in hardcopy. So everything is in this great long line all the way down the hallway. And that is the that was the structure of my written thesis, but I had to see it in order. Yes, yes, yes. And so he helped me do that. And my husband was amazing. And that I find I at that time, went through periods of finding actual writing and typing incredibly difficult. And so he would type and I would dictate, he took me through those very difficult dark patches. That I know I’m not allowed to swear. No, I wrote there’s something cool. That’s well known as the phenomenon and PhD in your write up stage. Cool. That’s called the Valley of sh, aspirin. And I was well and truly in there. And when I was in there, I had my team who were able to just keep me going a little bit. And just keeping going a little bit, even when honestly, I mean, I sound like I breathe through mine. That is not No, true. No, it was, it was hideous. There were times when it was unbearably awful. And it was just soup. And it was a mess. And I didn’t know what I was doing. And I couldn’t make it work. And I couldn’t afford to keep going. And it was taking me completely away from my children. I was just I’ve been through small four times with it. However, I just kept telling myself that I’m this time is going to pass anyway. And either I can push through having got to this stage now and go. I’ve submitted a thesis, it might be the worst thesis in the world. But you know what, I’ve done it, yes, oh, I can walk away. And not work. It’s been, it’s all been for nothing. So I got anyone who gets to the point of going, You know what, I’m just going to hand it in, I don’t care what even if I get major major corrections, if I get an MPhil, it’s fine, I handed it in, that’s huge. But also I do, if you really get to the point where it is so monumentally damaging to an aspect of your life, either financially, or your family or your mental health, to walk away from it, that I really respect people who can do that, too. I really, really do. And it’s about you making sure you retain some control over it because it is very easy to allow it to control you. And it will try and control you and the system will try. But you have to remember that you are at the centre of all of this and to make it work for you. But get this team together. Because they’ll help to keep you grounded, they will help you you don’t write a big PhD thesis you do a little bit at a time and eventually the whole thing comes together to be a great big book but it doesn’t start like that and you don’t write it like that. It’s little achievable goals and that’s true genius

Emma  

little bits at a time little bits at a time. And there’s so much good stuff in there. So So So what what I want to kind of get to now is the bit that you the bit that you mentioned because again what your story is is a lot about is about life happens life doesn’t stop up, because you are doing a PhD, you you still have little people to care for you still get poorly or you know, things around you happen, you know, your washing still needs to be done all of that. And so life happened to you in a big way during that journey, and you did have to take some time out. And then you what happened in there was some magic. And we wanted to kind of focus on that. So the sense of you, you’ve already talked about the way that actually that break allowed you thinking time, as well is getting better time, although they’re getting better, what has to be the priority, as we’ve already said, but also coming out of that time was this women in academia support network. So tell us a little

Amy  

bit about about that. So what I would also say, just to backtrack just a tiny little bit, the thing that also kept me going was that the type of research I was doing was incredibly collaborative. And I was incredibly fortunate in that the people who I created the work with, were enormously generous with their stories, their time and their expertise. And actually, for all of the trials and tribulations that I was going through to write it up, I did feel a strong sense of responsibility towards honouring the time and commitment that they had seen in me to give up their own time to support my this work. And that really did keep me going because it was it? Well, I’ve just almost contradicting what I’ve just said, in terms of the project management, yes, it was about me and I had to control it. But with that comes a responsibility. And my responsibility was to the participants and the colleagues who had worked so hard with me and who believed in the work. And that had to be respected. And I did everything I could to ensure that I kept myself healthy and grounded to be able to honour the work. And that was very important to me.

Emma  

It is really important and to remember that and I think it’s That’s motivation for so many people it’s like this work is for those people, I dedicate it to it. And in fact, some people I don’t know, have a practice that every time they sit down at their computer, they dedicate that working session to whoever or whichever group, so that it was really motivational. And it’s there very much in your in in your consciousness and how gorgeous that helped. That really was a very important part of your story.

Amy  

Well, I think it’s a healthy boundary. Because yes, it’s about you to get the PhD. But also, it is a form of work, and you are working. And so if you define yourself solely by your work, then that’s unhealthy because actually, you’re in a position of responsibility. And you need to behave professionally and to behave professionally means that you need to problem solve the things that come up, you know, in your life and everything you have to problem solve in a professional way. And some things are really awful and really difficult, but you have to deal with it. My dad was diagnosed with them prostate cancer in amongst all of this as well. And I was determined. I was like my dad’s gonna see me graduate. So I need to get on with this. And I quickly I did and he did, and he’s absolutely fine. Now we were very fortunate. But those things I was lucky in that I was able to have, I had a lot of support, family support and bring us on to Weizen I had, I had the support of another network. Fortunately, that other network kind of this other network slightly fell apart, which was what led to the birth of Weizen. I set it up with six other academics just thinking I need some friends to get me through my PhD. So I’m gonna set this up. And I want a place where women are able to speak freely with the absolute assumption. They don’t have to contextualise everything within the framing of not all men. We know that men are wonderful. I have so many amazing men in my life. They’re fabulous. And they are but they do still have the benefits of patriarchy. And I need a space where we can be critical of that without having to bookend everything with but we know not all men we know. Yes. So let’s just free ourselves of that emotional labour, we’re mature enough to know that we need a space where we can talk about the challenges and problems of these things and work out how we can find solutions to create a much more equitable landscape. And so it was really interesting. We started with just six of us and we invited a few other friends who were colleagues. And that turned into about 500 people which turned into about a 2000 people. And while I was writing up my thesis, I was also sat there because at that point, we knew we had to keep it as some sort of safe space. And people were asking to join so we were ending up having to Google them to see if they were really academics. And at one point we had like hundreds of people every weekend that we were having to do this for him like oh my god, it became this thing that we had never envisaged. But part of that was because my philosophy is and always, and has been since I saw this film, there’s a little known Robin Williams film was very underrated. But it’s wonderful that my daughter used to be obsessed with. And it’s called robots. And in that the main character has a catchphrase called see and need filler need. And that was what I did with Weizen. And I saw a need because I had no money I wasn’t associated with an institution knew I was going, as soon as I graduated, I was gonna fall out of the institution. So what did I do then? And so whereas my support network, and I couldn’t afford to pay, and I worked actually, with a lot of communities globally, who didn’t have the money to even to pay monthly subscriptions, or anything like that. And so we were like, well, we could do this and set it up, like the NHS, you know, free at the point of need, what would that look like? And we’ve ended up with nearly 15,000, global members were huge. And it was it was wise in that helped me get through my PhD without any shadow of a doubt. And I know that it has now helped many hundreds, maybe even 1000s of people not only get through PhD, but get into PhD, too. It is such an important. It

Emma  

is such an amazing community, amazing community. And people, as you said, people can reach out for all sorts of things and and there will be some smart person who’s able to answer the question with generosity of spirit and solidarity. And it is it is an amazing space. And so thank you for that. Thank you on behalf of all the members because it is awesome and awesome space that and you can feel that it’s heartfelt in there, and comes from the heart. It’s amazing. But also only me,

Amy  

I just want to say it’s not only me that Kelly Picard Smith, Eleanor Belfiore, who are my co admin, but also our other moderators as well who do a huge amount of work, the conference committee, because when you have the conference, there’s lots of people doing an enormous amount of work to support the network. So just big recognition to all of them.

Emma  

We love a shout out, we love a shout out here. And we will have the date, we will have the details of music in the in the show notes people people would like to join. But I think I think what we wanted to cut to really kind of attend to in this as well as kind of celebrating that community and letting people know that exists is that that came out of an interruption. And I think because interruptions in study can feel like, oh my goodness, this shouldn’t be happening. This isn’t the you know, the actually, magic can happen in that and this sense of having space and to be able to do that thing, seek to fill the need to be able to take time to attend to yourself and therefore others in that. I think there’s a message in that too, in terms of looking for you for your support, then led to support for 1000s and 1000s of other people, I think the kind of attending to the magic of taking time, really.

Amy  

And I think there’s something to be said for trying to really see what is happening in front of you. Because I am not somebody who is naive enough to say, Oh, you can solve anything. Right? Right, you can solve, you can solve a lot of things, you really, really can. And sometimes you can work really hard and solve some really, really hard things. But you know what, there are things in life that are not solvable. And that sometimes you do need to go that is simply not solvable. And I have to walk away and you know what that is okay. And I have immense respect for the people who are able to do that, because it’s really hard. And it’s a very underrated thing. You know, we respect the people who get to the end, but actually, there’s an enormous amount of people who have the courage to not get to the end. And that choice, and that’s important. And, but I think, sorry,

Emma  

I was just gonna say it is that thing of like, really, as you say, attending to your story, what do you need in this moment, what’s important for you? Not in not in a kind of selfish way, but this sense of attending to really what is going on, because if you don’t, that ends up having all sorts of impact. So it’s, as you say, it’s so important to really be very honest with yourself actually.

Amy  

And as well to really recognise what’s happening right now. You know, I didn’t, you know, sort of five six years ago when I was sort of completing my PhD and wise and was in its very early stages. I didn’t plan for All right to be where it is now. I am where I am now, I had an idea of the things that interested me and the things that I thought were valuable and that I wanted to achieve. But I didn’t know or have any guarantees with any of it. But what I was able to do was look at the reality of what I had now, and try and build incrementally on what I had, and then build some more, build some more. And I’ve had to, I’ve taken quite an odd career trajectory, I was an RA, in a school of science and engineering for nearly four years, which is very different from my backgrounds, because the reality of doing a postdoc is that they’re very few and far between and you take what you what you’re able to secure. So it does look a bit weird on my CV, but that’s the reality that I was in because I had children to feed. So you know, I’d love to have a direct career trajectory, but that just isn’t the reality for people anymore. And the more we can normalise that the more we normalise having children the more we normalise illness, chronic illness disability, the fact that actually is the you know, this idea that, you know, quality, diversity inclusion, you know, I see statements a lot saying, Oh, we got more diverse student bodies now more diverse staff, body etc. Actually, to an extent, diversity of different types was always there. It’s just we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t acknowledge it. We didn’t talk about mental illness, we didn’t talk about disability, chronic illness or anything like that. And actually, I’m fully aware that, you know, we have very white, very middle class, very ableist structures, and we still do, but diversity to an extent, was there, but it wasn’t talked about. So now we really need to also understand that what we’re doing now is really trying to give voice and space to new people to bring people in. But also there was an element of diversity there, which was ignored, which was downgraded, which was invisible ized. And so, you know, it’s really, really important to acknowledge that there have always been disabled people working, it’s just we didn’t talk about them or give them space or voice. And so, you know, now it’s fantastically important that we keep having these conversations or be it progresses so slow, with

Emma  

Zack, and it comes back to that sense of seeing what’s in front of you, isn’t it seeing what’s really there working with what’s really there? Ah, I love it. Well,

Amy  

this, this is the thing everybody has needs. And I do so wish that when you fill out those forms when you’re applying for a job, or when you’re new and post, sort of do you have any reasonable adjustments that you need all that sort of stuff, which is okay, it’s important. Everybody has needs, this is the thing. Everybody has needs. What you need is a blank piece of paper, saying everyone has needs, you might be able bodied, but have a really terrible financial situation, you might be caring for somebody else, you might be a cisgendered middle class white man, you might also have a terrible struggle with a mental health need. Everybody has a need everybody. And I really, really hope that one day we will move to that understanding of that everybody has a need to how can we meet that but then that would take away. What so isolating and that you feel like you have lots of needs, and you’re really struggling and nobody else is because it’s not true?

Emma  

Yes, yes, yes. Yes. As I say, we, we do need you on speed dial this is important. But I think that’s what this podcast is all about is like everybody and I love it. Even use it. It’s there. I did my PhD the wrong way round, everybody. Everyone does their PhD in their own way. And, and and lots of people spend their time thinking I’m not doing this properly, because I’m doing it like me. And it’s like you were totally doing it properly if you’re doing it your way. Totally. Right. I’m aware of time now because I am. I’m also very aware that I could talk to you for so much longer and hopefully we’ll have lots of more conversations. And so, I’m going to do my reductive thing in terms of saying Amy there’s just been so much gold in here and now I’m going to ask you for a top tip or a top tips to to just finish up with people to take away

Amy  

Yep, put your own oxygen mask on first and also the tomorrow

Amy  

I will die on that hill.

Emma  

And is it a coincidence that you have zero t shirt? Oh no, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding. No kidding.

Amy  

I happen to be on commission for them though.

Emma  

Well, Amy, thank you so, so much as I say, thank you for being here today. Thank you for all the amazing work that you have done. And I know continue to do and I know you’ve got big plans for for where things are going. And that is exciting. Thank you so much for your time and your generosity of spirit.

Amy  

And that’s a pleasure. And I was just going to say I’m always very happy for people to email me. Okay, playing it forward is so I was helped so much and it is massively fundamental to me that I received help and I took help but that I pay that forward and that to others. Please I’m very happy for anyone to get in touch with me.

Emma  

Amazing and as they will have all the details in the in the show notes. Thank you so much, Amy, and thank you all for listening.