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Virtual PhD

I read another PhD related blog the other day about the importance of social media to PhD students in combating loneliness. (here: the conversation ) which resonated all to clearly with me.

For me the social media aspect and the loneliness of the PhD are things I relate to. I had come from four years of a busy job in which I was interacting with people all day, the last year of which teaching in a Secondary school is about as far away from the isolation of sitting at home with a PhD as you can get.  I'm also part of a very small research community in my University, and an even smaller one within my department. And while I get on well with the other people in the School it's hard not having the shared language of the same subject area. Particularly when the disciplines and approach of the people I shared space with were so different. Luckily I've managed to make friends with other PhD students from nearby Universities.

Because the thing is no matter how understanding your friends unless they've gone through it or have the misfortune of having someone else they're close to go through it, then it's virtually impossible to understand. And doing a PhD is one of the most isolating experiences. You're locked up for months, years on end with your work and even worse your own thoughts. And thoughts are both a PhD student's only weapon and their enemy.

That's the trouble with PhD students, our thoughts are all over the place. One day it's all calm (I like to call this denial) it's all fine, it's going well. The next day the world is ending and you can't breathe for panicking over the amount of work there is. Because the work never ends. It's always there, this huge mountain. Every time you think you've reached the top there's an avalanche and you're halfway down again (or you know, dead) All the deadlines are relative, goalposts move (and metaphors are mixed) so depending on the time of day a PhD student feels on top of that mountain or buried under that avalanche.

And it's being a bit "different" that makes it hard for non-PhD people to cope with us. I get that. I'm annoying as hell to my friends a lot of the time I'm sure, because they just don't get why I'm so upset, so ditzy so generally strange. It's not me I want to shout it's the PhD. Having a few PhD friends helps, they can see a PhD meltdown for what it is, and know it'll be gone a while later. Having then some other PhD students online to reach out to helps calm that and takes some of the burden off my 'real life' friends.

I've developed some great and meaningful friendships over the internet and social media. From a core group of twitter friends who share in my PhD madness, to my 'academic twin' who after 'meeting' on a theatre message board has helped my PhD in so many ways (and not only puts up with my predilection for long rambling emails but also reciprocates). There are also the friends I have in real life who put up with and are always there via social media and email. My poor friends have never had their lives organised so much via email as in the last 3 years.

Because that's the sheer isolation of a PhD that social media helps to alleviate.  The blog above talks about it well so I won't try and generalise. But I have come to be reliant on social media for connecting with both PhD students elsewhere and for just feeling connected to the world. I used Facebook and Twitter far more than I should, simply as a means of shouting to the world and my friends "Hey I'm still here, I'm still alive" also as a way of having some kind of human interaction. Some days the only humans I talk to are virtual humans, so if I'm bugging you over social media it's probably because I need to feel like there are actual people somewhere and not just the PhD talking back at me. If I'm using social media a lot, it's probably because I'm having a bad day, or a frustrating day.

Or perhaps I just need to flip my brain onto something else for a bit. Because that's the other side, the sheer procrastination side. I'm fairly nerdy (ahem) and the internet is in many ways my playground for that, and I'm partly so grateful that I have my nerdy websites to give me a bit of distraction, but still engage my brain. Many  a day, many a sobbing fit in front of my computer has been saved by some fannish related geekery. That I can disappear into something that interests me over the internet for half an hour is often enough to get me back on track. Sometimes one of a saved list of short youtube videos (musicals, Dr Who, Sherlock) calms me down enough, focuses my brain and I move on. I've talked before about using fanfiction reading and writing to engage my brain, focus and relax. And at the more extreme end of the spectrum, a good old fashioned online geek argument will also do wonders for your focus.

The internet and social media has therefore been vital to both my research itself and my (relative) sanity in completing  it. So I say thank you to my online friends, you do more than you probably know to keep me going. I say sorry to my real life friends for spamming twitter and facebook on my bad days. I also say that although my social media and online life do help they are nothing compared to the help and support my real life friends give me (and maybe next time I'm bothering you all with emails and social media it's probably a sign I need dragging from the house for some real social interaction)


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