The Postgraduate Identity Crisis

This isn’t another piece on impostor syndrome (though that’s certainly a relevant concept), but rather a reflection on the odd semi-staff/semi-student role played by many PhD students.

As with many (psychology, at least) departments, PhD students at my university are required to teach up to 8 hours per week on undergraduate modules. Within the first week of arriving at the university, myself and my 3 cohort-mates were issued with both a student ID card and IT account and a staff ID card and IT account. The introduction of the two roles to play, if you will.

It should be the best of both worlds, with the benefit of being a student (no council tax, learning and personal development opportunities, feedback, access to student support, disability support, student union activities) and staff (regular income, longer library loans, evening and weekend office/lab access, relevant work experience and working with other academics).

I certainly emphasised myself as staff quite early on – as a 21 year old recent graduate, I wanted to be recognised and respected by my students and colleagues as someone who was qualified to do the teaching role I was assigned (although I’m not comfortable admitting that I really felt that I wasn’t qualified!). In doing so, however, I neglected some of the student aspects of my identity. On reflection I think that if I had embraced the ‘still a student’, I could have been more involved in student-led societies and activities on campus, as well as national postgraduate student groups such as PsyPAG. This comes to mind as I recently attended the PsyPAG conference (more on that later) and saw what a fantastic job the committee had done in putting it together – and how a lot of the post-PhD members were so much more ‘sorted’ in their careers already.

The problem is that I never felt 100% a part of either ‘category’. In staff-led meetings there would be instances of “oh the PhD students don’t need to be involved in this”. When I eventually joined student-led groups there was an emphasis on the typical undergraduate schedule (and often, stereotype) – often meaning that the activities ceased completely for 6 months over the summer whilst I was still on campus craving company and some form of routine to my week. This was even the case with disability services, where support was granted for about 25-30 weeks per year and it was incredibly difficult to even get email responses for 2-3 months over summer.

My advice to new postgrads? Definitely engage with both if you have the chance – don’t worry about staff seeing you engaging with a student activity or vice versa. Don’t try to push your image either way. Attend whatever events interest you and get involved in things that can help develop your skills.

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