A Tale of Two (PhD) Sisters

Katie Newstead passed her PhD in Film Studies at the University of Exeter last November, and now teaches there in the English and Film departments. Her thesis was on contemporary Hollywood female stars, archetypes of ageing femininity, and the cinematic fairy tale reboot. Katie is a wheelchair user and keen disability and mental health activist; running @everydayableism on twitter under her own username of @whatktdoes_now. She is also a trustee for the charity Magic Carpet (@EX1MagicCarpet). 

Gemma Edney recently completed her PhD in Film Studies, researching the relationship between music and adolescent girlhood in contemporary French cinema. During her PhD she taught on Undergraduate modules in French and Film studies, and as a PhD tutor for The Brilliant Club Scholars’ Programme. She currently works as the Graduation lead for the University of Exeter. 

The relationships you make within the PGR community can be a vital lifeline: Dr Katie Newstead and Dr Gemma Edney reflect on the importance of peer support and friendship in their PhD experiences.

Doing a PhD can be a lonely and isolating experience: this is the warning issued to most new PGRs. There are pages and pages of articles, blog posts, and websites devoted to the problem of PhD student loneliness, and the issue is only made harder if, like Gemma, you work while studying, or, like Katie, you do most of your work at home rather than on campus.

The PGR community in Humanities at Exeter is a great antidote for this: the conferences, coffee mornings, lunches, and shared office spaces for students on campus, are great for making friends, and it’s possible to make amazing, life-long friendships this way. But this post is about one friendship in particular, in a tale of PhD sisterhood…

Annoyingly, neither of us remember exactly when we first met, but we were both always aware that the other existed. Being in the same department, with the same supervisor, we “knew of” each other from the beginning. We probably met in person at a conference buffet – because free food is a brilliant way of bringing people together – and the rest, as they say, is history.

We had the exact same supervisory team during our PhDs, which led Katie to dub us “PhD sisters,” and there was never a better way of describing our relationship (though how our supervisor feels about being the notional “mother” in this relationship is yet to be determined!). As we went through our PhD journeys, we often experienced the same highs, lows, frustrations, disappointments, and celebrations. Thankfully, we were usually on opposite trajectories with these experiences: when one of us was struggling, the other would be on an upwards curve. As one of us had usually already been through what the other was battling, we were able to lend sisterly support and advice. The only way out of the dark times is to get through them (this pearl of wisdom is stolen from our PhD supervisor), but sometimes you need someone to help light the way (this wisdom is all Katie’s). Who better than someone who knows exactly what you’re going through

No PhD experience is exactly the same: everyone goes through different personal and academic struggles, but knowing that we were at around the same stage in terms of submission was such a big help and provided a real boost, especially in the final few months. We were able to swap chapters and conclusions, share funny (or frustrating) supervision stories, vent about problems, and talk through worries and fears. Whenever one of us thought we couldn’t or wouldn’t, the other was there to say we could and would. Well, it turns out we both could and did: we passed our vivas within months of each other, and will be graduating together in July. We both agree that those last few months would have been hell without the other’s sisterly support: the checking-in, the reassurance, the humour, and the knowledge that someone had our back.

The PhD is an experience like no other, and can be a lonely process that makes you doubt yourself on a near-hourly basis. Then, you finish; and you feel like a superhero (according to Katie, anyway. All Gemma felt like was a nap). But, like all the best female superheroes – Buffy, Captain Marvel, Supergirl, etc – you need your girls by your side, and we had each other.

Written By: Katie Newstead and Gemma Edney. Find more about their research by following them on Twitter @whatktdoes_now and @GemmaEdney.