I often reflect back on how I came to be a PhD student (gosh, I still get a thrill writing that). Being an Open University addict meant that was always going to be the most desired, and easiest, route to getting the PhD I had wanted for years. I thought about an EdD and even went as far as approaching an academic in a different faculty about a thesis looking at support for transgender children in secondary school.
I thought about a political philosophy PhD following the MA in Philosophy I had managed to get with a second-year thesis on the failure of the Arab Spring. I emailed the philosophy academic just a week before he was leaving the OU. So, in a sense, that wasn’t meant to be. Whilst not believing in fate, when I look back, there is a bit of me that feels I am now doing the PhD that definitely was meant to be.
If I think about what led to the thesis I am now working on, it started with Brexit, or at least with the heart-breaking outcome of the 2016 UK-EU referendum (yes, I am a Remainer, but not living in Islington). I became obsessed, reading everything about why it all went wrong for Remain, and what had influenced the outcome. Trying to ignore, and largely failing, the consequence of the vote with increasing xenophobia, division, and destruction of relationships in families, and lost friendships, I felt I needed to find a way to make some sense of what had happened. And what better way than to engage with ‘proper’ directed research that would answer some of the questions.
I say ‘directed research’ but that wasn’t quite how it was. I knew I wanted to do a PhD but just saying ‘something to do with Brexit’ as a proposal wasn’t going to get me anywhere. But the combination of social media and my longstanding role as an Associate Lecturer at the university suddenly opened the door. I worked with one of my now-supervisors at the university in my previous role as an Associate Lecturer, teaching on the module of which she was Chair, and interacting with her as I moderated the student forum. I followed her on Twitter, read avidly the articles she wrote and tweeted about. One day, I picked up through Twitter a chapter she had written with colleagues on European citizenship and ‘the dialogical citizen’ (Mahendran, Jackson and Kapoor, 2015) and I was hooked. I hadn’t come across a dialogical anything before then, but once I started to read, I knew that it was the approach I wanted to pursue. An email about the chapter, with the ‘I don’t suppose you take PhD students, do you?’ led to a conversation that ended several months later with a PhD proposal and a place at the OU. And that still feels like a dream, something I wanted so much yet never believed I could achieve, and something that I will always be grateful for.
Without my supervisor’s input, I could not have put together the proposal that secured me the place. As an older citizen myself, I couldn’t understand why older people were being accused of securing the leave outcome, and why they would have voted leave with memory of the UK outside of Europe and how impoverished it was compared to now. My supervisor’s suggestion that maybe we needed to look at the much older citizen and how they voted planted the seed.
Since then I have looked at ageism, the role of nostalgia, populist rhetoric drawing on war metaphors and political decision-making. And I am just at the start. Sometimes I feel I need 10-day weeks and 50-hour days to have enough time to read everything.
Since starting the PhD, both of my supervisors have provided wisdom and encouragement (even when my ethical approval for data collection came in three days before lockdown stopped me recruiting participants). They always have a journal paper that will help with the latest issue or challenge and share links and resources after every supervision meeting. I am part of a research group, co-writing papers on populism, and feel like an academic at last. Without wanting to completely piss off my family, they’ve become almost the two most important people in my life. Well, my academic life perhaps.
I remember a friend saying to me years ago that the hardest thing about doing a PhD was ‘managing and dealing with’ the supervisors. That isn’t my experience at all. To me they are wise and caring colleagues who want me to succeed and work hard to ensure I will. Maybe I am just lucky – but then I check out regularly the Graduate School Network Twitter feed and it often features successful PhD students who are raving about their wonderful supervisors. So maybe it’s an OU thing. Whatever it is, the more I think back to this time last year when the process of getting the place was at its height, the more I feel that it was meant to be.
Mahendran K., Jackson I., Kapoor A. (2015) Public Narratives of European Citizenship—the Dialogical Citizen in the European Public Sphere. In: Korkut U., Mahendran K., Bucken-Knapp G., Cox R.H. (eds) Discursive Governance in Politics, Policy, and the Public Sphere. Palgrave Macmillan, New York