Grad on the Island
Every year in May, the researcher development support team organises a PhD trip called Grad on the Island. The course is free and students usually register on a first come, first served basis - so keep an eye on Moodle or check the course link here. The trip is described as: “Based in a remote corner of the Isle of Mull, this course gives you the chance to take a step back from your research and consider your own skills, strengths, motivations and career aspirations. Over the four days, you will take part in group activities, find space for fresh thinking and new ideas as well as having time to soak up the atmosphere of the island, while keeping an eye out for the sea eagles.” This year I was lucky enough to be part of the twenty something students that formed Grad on the Island. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had heard great things from students who attended in past years. Mostly, I was prepared for the semi-formal, tiring but useful conference setting where we kind of just passively listen to a lot of people talk about different things.
Being on the Island
First of all, the experience of being on the Island and in the cottage was definitely not your standard conference or training trip! The location for the trip is stunning. The accommodation is very minimal - a long, old cottage type house (like 200 years old) called Camas that has bunk bed bedrooms, a communal gathering room with candles everywhere and an attic which holds the dining room and the activity rooms in. Camas is part of the Iona community and it offers outdoor and community experiences for young people and adults, as part of a group or individually. (Although the website mentions a religious element of the community, this was not something explicitly mentioned or imposed during our stay - I didn’t realise it until I actually looked up the place when I came back, so it’s not something that’s part of the Grad on the Island experience). The cottage is set on the shoreline, on the west of the Isle of Mull, overlooking an old quarry that is now used for abseiling. The little bay at the front of the house is used for kayaking and the house has its own food growing garden and woodland. We got to take part in all of these incredibly fun activities over the course of three days and we were so lucky to have incredible weather, which in itself made the trip amazing. Over the past week I have been thinking about how I would sum up my experience and these are the things that were most important for me.
A big part of the experience of being on Camas was the reflections, which took place every morning after breakfast and every evening at around 9. Reflections, the way I understood them, are a practice somewhere in between mindfulness and a group activity. Over the course of the four days, we participated in different mindfulness exercises to encourage open discussion about our thoughts, feelings, expectations and fears. Although we were all present, the focus was on whatever was comfortable, so some were happy to voice their thoughts while some choose to just take part in the exercises without voicing them. I’ll admit I was skeptical of reflections at first as I was finding it difficult to be comfortable with being open in front of strangers - it’s one thing when you’re talking about your PhD in a semi-formal way and another when you’re talking about your thoughts, fears and aspirations as an individual but the collective element of it was reassuring and I feel like I gained a lot from them.
This trip happened quite soon after my APR and around many other PGR’s APRs(more on APRs here, here and here). It had been a month long, not-so-smooth process and I came from it feeling drained and cynical about the value of my own PhD, the quality of my work and the Social Sciences in general. At the start of the week, as we went through talks about our PhDs, I found myself comparing my own work to everyone else’s and having intense Impostor Syndrome feelings. Throughout the week, however, other people started voicing their own insecurities and anxieties about their work and that created a solidarity that you don’t get from your friends or family or even other PhD students in my own office because we don’t really talk openly about our hopes and fears. We heard different stories about PGRs struggling with similar issues and negotiating them in different ways. (This was greatly helped by the fact that there was a bonfire between us.)
Lastly, being out of town for four days was a good way to get physical distance from my PhD, which is sometimes useful. I’m in my third year and I have a lot of guilt about not doing enough, so whenever I leave for a holiday (and yes I still take holidays) I feel guilty about not working. The fact that this was a PhD related trip in principle helped to alleviate that guilt. In reality, I didn’t feel like I was thinking about my work per se but more just processing a lot of my thoughts and feelings about work, data, writing and whatnot. There is something incredibly calming about waking up to see the ocean in the morning especially on a sunny day. A lot of us reflected on wanting to slow down over the course of the trip and the fact that there was no electricity and very little signal meant that our daily rhythm was not imposed by our phones and work emails anymore but by meal times and group activities. All in all, I felt the experience had a restorative effect on my energy and mood levels and I suspect the lack of technology had a lot to do with it, which is something another blogger has reflected on already here.
What part of your PGR experience has helped you get some perspective and left you feeling recharged? Do you think you would apply for Grad on the Island?