My Journey as a PhD- Starting Point and Background

Alright, I planned to start a blog a year ago…when I actually started my PhD, but it took my nearly one year to create one. Nevertheless, I want to talk about my experiences and feelings about different stages during my PhD so far. It might help others to see that they are not alone but is also thought to help me reflect on my path during this experience.

First off; how I experience my PhD highly depends on my background and the context I am in. I have recently listened to an interesting podcast about identity which raised many questions and also got me thinking. Let’s get started!

Last week marked 1 ½ year into my PhD, and I thought I would write a bit about my experiences during the first year, specifically about the start of my PhD. I know, kind of late, but yeah…time flies right? So, this is more of a personal blogpost…maybe also for me to read in a couple of years to see and reflect on what has happened since then. Well, I hope things have happened, especially with me feeling like an imposter (SPOILER!).

I think I have to start with yet another spoiler, I am not kind to myself, and that has proven to be incredibly difficult during my PhD so far. While it has helped me to push myself previously it has now become an obstacle, but I am getting ahead of myself here, so let’s start kind of at the beginning to give you some context.

I come from a non-academic, working-class family. No one in my family speaks a foreign language or has finished the Gymnasium*, attended university or graduated from one. My parents luckily were interested in education and we went to museums and libraries and watched tons of documentaries.

I do not want to blow my own trumpet (yeah maybe a bit) but I started school a year early and was always the youngest in school, but that was ok. I always felt good and had loads of friends. Things however changed a bit when I started the Gymnasium in 7th grade. The majority of my classmates now had parents with an academic background, who could help them, at least to a certain extent, whereas I kind of had to struggle through the subjects myself. I had one particular teacher, kind of old school, traditional, and she absolutely detested the thought of having working –class children at the Gymnasium, which she openly said on several occasions. One example was during a literature class; we talked about a book that we were supposed to read. She just went through the names of and to the students with an academic background she said, “Ah your parents will have it at home, no worries”. Then, she turned to me and said with a derogatory voice “Well, I guess you have to buy it then”…She also disturbed newspaper articles about the decline of the Gymnasium since more and more working class students are accepted. Well, one outcome was that I was very aware of my background…

So fast forward; I finished school with excellent grades and started studying, but there was always this nagging in the back of my head about me not belonging. This is basically where problems started. I had no idea where to go, what certain terms meant (what the HELL is an immatrikulation?! I had to practice that word a couple of times..), how to behave or whatever…It took me a LONG time to get used to the new environment….I think that my whole undergrad was just me feeling LOST…but somehow I also made it with good grades.

I never really reflected on HOW difficult that was, how much energy it costs to adapt and learn certain things, skills and competencies that might be normal for others, that come from a more academic background…

However, I always kind of felt like an outcast, as if I did not truly belong. I could handle the feeling during my bachelor and my master degrees. Yeah, I have two…probably also some kind of compensation, a proof to the world… that I am worth SOMETHING? (Well, this thought about worthiness/outside approval is a different topic I might talk about another time…).

When I learned Swedish, we read a book by Theodor Kallifatides, called “Ett nytt land utanför mitt fönster”. In the book, the author explores his origins and who he has become after thirty-six years in a new country. It is a thoughtful and deeply personal book about language and belonging, about memory, love and identity and depicts the conditions and possibilities of alienation. While the book certainly touched me concerning my feelings living in a foreign country, it also resembles my feelings of “in-betweenness” of my working-class family background and my academic career as well. I never truly feel as if I belong anywhere anymore. Sometimes I do not get what my family is worried about, what they talk about at academic reading seminars, I do not get some cultural references that Swedes share that grew up in the same social context, and I do not get things that my friends refer to when they talk about current things when they talk about in Germany.

I know, when I write this now it sounds like an absolute crisis…but I do not want to talk about that here. I am not even sure I view it as a crisis…anyway, what I really wanted to talk about was this feeling of alienation in both areas, my background and the academic area, and my struggle to reach that in a way. If I only study harder, if I only know more, if I wear the specific clothes, if I learned the discourses…if only…that was basically my motto, but whenever I felt I reached it, it was not really that, it was something else that I needed to improve to finally reach the feeling of belonging. (When I started listening to Linkin Park, Somewhere I belong was definitely NOT one of my favorites, but I can tell you I listen to it regularly now :D)

You know how the majority of people say that education is the way forward, also to “escape” or move between social “classes” (if you want to you that word)…or…well….are made to BELIEVE that it is the way to go. I think I’ve also always thought that way, study harder and you will get a good job, you have a better, easier life, you’ll be an academic. Therefore, I kind of studied like a maniac, not sure for whom.

At some point, I came across Bourdieu and his theory of capital, theory of field and habitus. Well, long story short, digging into this (structuralist) theory was kind of a revelation for me.

Based on this it became quite obvious, that it is so much more than education- but it also became obvious how difficult it is to change “one’s social class”. I also realized, how much energy all this costs, and this is something I have underestimated for a really long time, well forever. I mean it is not JUST your cultural capital (such as education), but also the social aspects, economic and finally the symbolic aspects which together stand in kind of co-evolution of the habitus, the norms rules and dispositions. The habitus includes e.g. lifestyle and taste and the individual’s habitus is characterized by the predominant habitus in the group to which the individual belongs. Habitus creates common ways of looking at the outside world and oneself. It is also a means of differentiating oneself from other groups, by the denial/rejection of other groups’ taste or lifestyle. This is all quite deeply ingrained and somewhere I heard (in a pod I think) that according to Bourdieu it is incredibly difficult to change one’s social class, given the given dimensions that it takes. So, it is not just education…I think I always knew it but I still put in so much energy into it, not thinking about the other parts that ALSO cost energy…Now I am not longer surprised that I am constantly tired and exhausted 😉

I am not sure if it is the same for other (PhD-) students coming from a non-academic background, but DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE the EXTRA work that you have had to put into to reach this point. All the extra stress, self-doubt and energy…be more proud of yourself and cut yourself some slack. I am trying to do that too!


*When I was a kid the German school system was organised like this:

  1. Elementary school (obligatory, age 6-10) –> everyone proceeded to –>
  2. “Orientierungsstufe” (orientation stage 10-12) –> teachers decided on–>
  3. One of the three options: Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium

Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium could be translated with “secondary” school, however Hauptschule is the lowest level, Realschule is the middle level and Gymnasium the highest level in the educational system. Finishing Haupt and Realschule would allow an apprenticeship, while Gymnasium would certify the student to proceed to study at a university.

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