Kalifa Damani, 4th year PhD student from Trinidad and Tobago at Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
I’ve faced many challenges during this PhD journey, some of which were familiar to me, and some that revealed themselves throughout the process. I’ve always been too quiet at times, a bit insecure and prone to comparing myself with others; they’re familiar challenges which I’m now even better at working around because of the PhD journey. I haven’t always been this anxious though, haven’t ever needed to draw so strongly on my own motivation to achieve an academic goal and neither have I been this financially incapable in my adult life. They’re unfamiliar challenges which have forced me to develop in ways that I did not imagine I would, prior to the PhD. The common necessity of deciding how to evaluate my capability and ambition, in light of my reality, unites both the familiar and unfamiliar. Productively evaluating myself has been a constant challenge during the PhD process, and the realm within which I’ve matured the most. Perhaps more than an intellectual challenge, the PhD challenge has involved learning how to feel secure in myself given my reality.
Achieving the level of security I have now though has been difficult. I faced questions that often gave no clear solutions.
What does it say about my capability as a person if I blame my anxiety, introversion and black, Caribbean ‘otherness’ for not always being great at socialising, or feeling uncomfortable doing so?
What does it say about my ambition if I blame the uncertainty of my funding situation for not having attended many conferences, not participating in peripheral activities and being fatigued?
Is it reasonable to accept that I face challenges that justify my insufficiencies and lack of accomplishment, or am I simply lazy?
There seemed to be no clarity, no full stops. … only question marks, suppositions, ellipses, commas, and the occasional: !? When no solutions were internally apparent, I often looked for references, and in doing so I noticed:
Sarah, who presented her work at that conference in Texas!
Sujit, who published a paper during the second year of his PhD!
John, who constantly managed to travel around the world whilst being on track to submit at the end of his third year!
Lisa, who everyone seemed to be eager to work with!
…all of whom faced challenges themselves, and were succeeding in various realms despite…
…and, well, then there was me:
who wasn’t able to get a scholarship to do her PhD and so had to rely on a combination of donations, the hardship fund and random jobs throughout the process (illustrating, marking, designing, invigilating, researching, teaching), who has no published academic work, who only attended few conferences, and who sometimes gets painfully anxious around and in front of people.
There was me who I didn’t think easily compared in terms of achievements; importantly though, I needed to remind myself that I also didn’t compare in terms of realities.
Sarah, Sujit, John and Lisa had challenges, but they weren’t comparable to mine, and so their successes could not be compared with mine either
I found no full stops when referencing them either, but rather a path toward engaging in my own weaknesses: unfair comparison…
If there was to be a full stop, I had to fight to find it within me
The fight has not been easy, and though I’ve won some battles, it is far from over. That is not in the least because both alternatives, to every conflicting question posed, has some truth in them. Deciding which alternative to choose as guidance remains difficult. Not comparing myself with others remains difficult. However, I have gotten better at it because I’m now much more sharply attuned to my body, my mind, to aspects of myself that I am secure about, to my reality. I have a clearer grasp now on how to most effectively relax: illustrate for my own pleasure, run, walk and take pictures in the early morning when I can be alone with nature, God and myself, be ‘invisible’ in different crowds occasionally, cook a Caribbean meal, dwell in my introversion and run from it less.
I also know when my body needs that relaxation: it’s when the point comes that social media starts to aggravate me, when I get light headed and start going blank when I meet people, when I feel physically ill with multiple unrelated symptoms, when I can’t concentrate, when I’m on the brink of either tears or a stormy outburst. I know when I am being lazy: when I’ve been feeling physically fine and mentally at peace for over a week but haven’t done any work :p. I know when I’ve accomplished something noteworthy: when it’s something I feared I’d fail, but somehow managed to pull through- despite it seeming difficult or impossible in the past. I better appreciate the aspects about my reality, that unlike academics/academia, I feel secure in: my creativity, my family, my
boyfhusband, my friends, my curiosity, my ability to be wowed by the seemingly mundane. I’m at a place now where I’m much more in the know about myself, and because of that I’m much more secure about myself within the reality that I’ve been dealt and have created.
There remain victories to be won though.
They will be won…in my time.
Other people still accomplish much more than I do in academic spheres.
However, I also accomplish as much as, or more, in other spheres…sometimes in academic spheres too (I passed my final viva! ^_^).
This PhD journey is not a race or fight with anyone external, it’s the challenge to find security and success in one’s current and future self, against the competition of past selves.
The PhD journey is also not always fair or objective.
Some people have money, some people have creativity, some have great social support, some have romance, some have their family around, some have familiarity with British society, some don’t look like outsiders, some never have problems with their supervisors, some have charisma, some have native English, some have peace, and some have good health.
It is not fair, but everyone has something valuable.
Everyone has a unique combination of valuables and problems (and things that can be both).
Everyone is justified in being kind to themselves on this journey (drinking water, sleeping, watching cartoons, crushing candy: relaxing) and then getting work done once recuperated.
I’m grateful that I’m much closer to properly appreciating and finding what I have, closer to treating myself with kindness, closer to competing with myself alone, closer to loving my quirks and me-ness, closer to feeling secure in myself within my reality.
Kalifa Damani recently passed her final viva and is in the process of making corrections to her thesis. Her thesis explored adolescent students’ self-confidence and how it related to technology use and aspects of their identity. She is interested in research on self -beliefs and concepts, technology and social media, and infuses much of what she does with art.