A geographical inspiration

Jonathan KershawMy name is Jonathan Kershaw and I’m a PhD research student based at Coventry University, looking at the way we ‘consume’ the car – as status symbol, icon, socio-cultural artefact and experience – and how our relationship with the car might impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles as part of a holistic low carbon automobility. You can read more of my blogs at autohabitus.wordpress.com and connect with me on twitter via @jeckythump

 

 

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet byBangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

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Keeping it simple: Say it as a story

Chandni singh Chandni is a third year PhD researcher in Rural Livelihoods at the University of Reading, UK. Her research explores farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change in southern Rajasthan (India). Within this, she is  trying to understand why some farmers are more vulnerable than others and is assessing whether the current policy landscape is helping build local capacity. She enjoys travelling, writing poetry, and taking long walks to nowhere in particular. She is also disturbingly fond of dogs and new notebooks. Chandni blogs about her research at Village Vignettes and you can follow her on twitter @chandnisingh233

Write your thesis as if you were telling a story 

Brash beginnings

When I started my PhD, I had clear ideas. I was going to explore what made farmers vulnerable to water scarcity and climate change. I was going to unravel why continued policy emphasis on water management in India had yielded scattered, unsatisfactory results. I had a masters degree in Environmental Sciences, I had professional experience in watershed development; surely things couldn’t get too cumbersome. I blustered into my research, reading and absorbing, floundering and finding.

As I made my way from the perplexing to the practical, I decided my research to be all ears.  After a few agonising months of planning and re-planning, I set forth on a 10-month long journey listening to farmer stories of how water shapes their lives and how they cope with its ever-changing availability. Traversing the semi-arid landscape of northwest India, I spoke to farmers and government officials, local development workers and researchers, trying to uncover the complex constructions of water scarcity and climate change.

That sinking feeling

When I returned from ten months of gruelling fieldwork, I was bursting with stories both alarming and inspiring. I was charged with enthusiasm, things looked promising. But over the months that followed, I sat at my desk, far removed from the country my research was placed in, wallowing in a heap of data. In spite of organising it as I went along collecting it, I was overwhelmed. How would I ever weave together a narrative that captured the enormous breath and rich depth of the stories I had uncovered? I found myself sinking. I heard fellow PhD students groan; either about the humungous word counts one had to cover or their data being just too much to fit into a single thesis. I felt daunted by the data and frustrated at my inability to capture in words, what I had so clearly observed in the field. I fumbled along a personal trajectory of frustration until I realised: my research would be best communicated as I had approached it – a journey like no other, narrated as a stimulating story!

Mapping my road

After the fireworks of this brainwave, I admit, nothing happened for a while. And then I charted out the plot, and the main ideas (characters) I wanted to build. I started with what I, the clueless traveller, had set out to look for. During my first year, I had sifted through tomes of literature, winnowing my way through roadblocks and blind alleys till I understood where I really wanted to go. That needed brushing up, and served well as an entry into the story I wanted to tell. In the methodology chapter, I walked the reader through my quest for finding the tools I needed on my journey – as a visitor to a new land, I had to equip myself well. I toiled till I had the appropriate tools to embark on this bizarre journey and then discussed the pitfalls of the way I had travelled. As I moved on to the results chapters, I discussed what I found on my travels, weaving narratives to draw a bigger picture.

This may come across as a romanticised version of thesis writing, potentially conveying that my journey has been a honeymoon of sorts. Contrarily, it has, and continues to, wring me dry, but isn’t that what makes a story poignant and inspiring? My PhD journey has been challenging and invigorating, a story of personal growth and learning. As an avid listener over the past year, the one thing I am sure of is that, no one can resist a well-told tale. My thesis aspires to be that.

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