By Sam Grinsell  |

‘Sitting in a park in Paris, France
Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won’t give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had’

Joni Mitchell

If you maintain the unhealthy but hard to shake habit of watching the news (or reading twitter), it can be a challenge to get on with your day. In the US and UK, insurgent far-right political groups have shifted politics in dangerous, unforeseen directions. Wars, famine and civil strife in the Middle East, Africa and beyond drive large numbers of refugees to seek safe harbour where they can. The fear of terrorism haunts much of the world, and natural disasters now take place within a broadly understood framework of human-made climate change.*

The news from academia provides little comfort: the oversupply of PhD graduates limits job opportunities; commentators attack universities as hotbeds of snowflake leftism; Oxford’s Vice Chancellor assumes it’s up to students to combat academics’ homophobia; and national audit frameworks like REF and TEF are (at least at times) misused to bring unhealthy levels of pressure on academic staff. Sometimes it seems all there is to do is say ‘oh dear.

That’s before you even get to your own changing personal life and adapting to the fact that none of your non-academic friends understand what you do anymore.

What’s an individual to do? By way of a welcome to new PhD students about to embark on their projects, here are some brief thoughts on our place in these chaotic times. Plus some songs, because if there’s anything we all need to help us through, it’s the arts.

‘twas ever thus

Marc Bloch wrote The Historian’s Craft while fighting for the French Resistance in World War Two. Most of us are not quite in such straights yet. So try to maintain some perspective, and if you must follow the news then focus on things that are happening rather than getting drawn into the void of terrifying speculation about what could. As Aglaja pointed out in January, the heroism of previous generations can be a powerful inspiration. Perhaps maintaining these narratives is itself part of the role of researchers in society.

Get involved

Of course, there is infinitely more bad news than you yourself can help to stop. Much of the anxiety of twenty-four hour news lies in the sense of powerlessness it creates. It’s all very well for Bloch to take up a gun against invading Nazis, but you can’t shoot climate change or terrorism. What you can do, however, is be a voice for the causes you believe in. This could mean anything from joining a union, to volunteering, to writing to your MP, to participating in committees or public meetings. It is these acts that make up a healthy political culture, and while you will not have a lot of time to give to them, giving a little of your skills will help you feel engaged. Choose something you care about, and try to do some small thing in the name of that cause.

Don’t get involved

At the same time, it is vital to remember your own well-being. Go and walk up a mountain, or read a novel, sail a boat, knit a jumper, whatever it is that makes you feel comfortable and safe. A healthy version of you will be better prepared for research and activism than an overworked, terrified version.

‘There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground’

Bob Dylan

Attend to your craft

One of the things that sets PhD study apart from your earlier years as a student is that you will become an expert in one topic. You will, by the end, know more about your specific area than anyone else in the world. At times this can feel like you are marching away from normality towards the obscure and baffling. This can make engagement with ‘the real world’ seem all the more shocking.

A good way to mitigate this shock is to take advantage of any training opportunities offered by your university. You could take a class in anything from public speaking to coding to writing for different audiences. There is nothing so invigorating as being a novice again, learning new things rather than incrementally improving your existing skills. You’ll also meet people from across your institution rather than only from your department or research group. It might even distract you from scrolling through twitter every five minutes.

Keep asking questions

Who speaks for them and then again
Who speaks for me?
My vote was never counted, so who upon this earth knows what it is that I believe?
We’re all looking for answers where no answers can be found
Or is that a concern of mine
Because I have the time
To question my ground?

Laura Marling

One thing researchers have in common is the ability to ask good questions. You will find this skill honed and tested throughout your PhD, not only in clarifying your own project but in discussions at conferences, seminars, and through teaching. The right questions, and the ability to analyse and dissect the answers, will make you a valuable member of society. In times when simple lies can defeat complex truths, it is the role of scholars of all levels to insist on the value of questions and doubt. We should be working for a public sphere in which such questioning is the norm. This is not for our individual good, but for the benefit of the society in which we all live.



*I wrote this post while Hurricane Irma was devastating lives across the Caribbean. My thoughts are with the victims, and I encourage you to help in whatever ways you can.

Sam Grinsell is a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, studying British Imperial Architecture in the Nile valley. He is the chair of Pubs and Publications, and spends too much time on twitter @samgrinsell

Image Donald Trump at Laconia Rally, 2015 by Michael Vadon