New Year

Originally published in the Scotsman.

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I began my PhD. The first phase of my work has come to a close, and the second phase will begin shortly. It’s a strange, in-between space, but it’s exactly where I want to be just now.

Many of the uncertainties I faced a year ago have been resolved. Despite the commute from Edinburgh, I’ve spent enough time in my department to know it’s the right place for me. I’ve now secured funding to cover my tuition fees, and the loans for living expenses are manageable by comparison. My project is clear and focused now, with early drafts of three chapters. Completion seems an achievable goal if I continue my hard work. And perhaps most important of all, the guidance and encouragement of my supervisors has given me confidence in my own ability to finish.

A year ago, I was not so confident. Leaping into the unknown, my PhD began as an act of faith. In the process of understanding what’s expected of me and pushing my own limits, I’ve learned as much about myself as I’ve learned about sociology. This year has given me the space to take a critical look at how I work, and I’ve discovered new reserves of discipline and discernment. For the first time, all the struggle finally feels worth it. I have something of value to offer the world.

This spiritual journey has largely been a solitary one, spent in the company of books. But the phase of solitude is coming to an end: I will be tutoring for the first time this year, and conducting dozens of interviews for my fieldwork.

As if to blast myself back into the world of human contact, last week I attended the European Sociological Association’s conference in Glasgow. With 1600 delegates from 50 countries and a collection of presentation descriptions nearly as thick as a phone book, I could hardly have picked a more overwhelming event. It was my first academic conference, and despite careful preparation, I was still drained at the end of it.

Giving a twenty-minute talk about my project was not particularly nerve-wracking – it was the rest of the four days that proved to be a challenge. Like a return to undergrad, I was rushing from one seminar to the next, listening with full attention for long stretches, and taking careful notes on what I heard. The only difference was being sorely out of practice after my year of quiet contemplation.

The conference also gave me the chance to connect with people working on similar projects in other parts of Europe. After a solitary year, it’s heartening to see myself in a wider academic community. At the same time, though, I’m reminded of the kind of academic I don’t want to be. Many of the conference talks were completely disconnected from reality, and I had a difficult time finding any relevance in them.

Sociology is the study of society, yet many of the speakers seemed blissfully unaware of the kinds of things that are important outside the ivory tower. I know that specialisation is crucial to good research, but with so many pressing social issues in the world, there seem to be plenty of relevant topics to choose from. As David Miller, the head of my department said in a session on Public Sociology, “these are the issues that we should be interested in. Otherwise, what is the point of sociology? There are issues out there that are challenging the whole of humanity.”

It is in this spirit that I embark on my second year.

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