Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG – The End of the Line

By Nathan Ritchie

So, this is my final blog for SSN. I have appreciated using this vehicle to get my word out over the past two years, so it’s only fitting I say my final words as Doctoral Researcher President on this platform. In this blog the incoming Presidential Team and the Lead Reps have asked questions to me, which I have answered in the most honest way possible. I hope you enjoy my final blog.  Before it starts, I just want to say a massive thank you to PhD Social & Support Network. It is such an amazing network, and I believe it will continue to go from strength to strength! Okay, now on to the questions.

Has your perception of how the University sees PGRs been challenged, if so how? Do you think the President has much authority; did you feel listened to?

I have written about my views on the University and their treatment to PGRs, so it’s no secret I have been openly critical of the University treatment to PGRs in some respects. I think as part of the role, when you actually work with staff members, your opinions inevitably have to adjust because you want to maintain a solid working relationship. You are only a custodian of the role (as they are of theirs), and this has to be respected. I have at times been impressed with senior managements willingness to listen to PGRs on specific issues. But at other times, I have been frustrated with their aloofness on other issues. So in some ways, my perception has changed, but there were times I was concerned by the lack of urgency on certain matters. It’s a non-committal answer because I have learned that things are not as black and white as I had perceived earlier, but I wouldn’t say my core beliefs about the state of higher education have been shaken either, but that’s the critical analyst in me.

In terms of the ‘authority’ of the role. I think that as President you are in a prime position to mobilise collective action. You have networks of reps that can help support your cause. You are not just a single voice in the wilderness. How seriously you are taken by senior management? I simply don’t know, that would be for them to answer. I was approached several times for my opinion, and I believe they took that under consideration, so that’s all I can say with confidence. The big challenge in the role and representation more generally is breaking through the performativity of it all and actually making a material change to PGR’s lives.  Having PGR representation on committees and having a dialogue with senior management is not an end in itself.  Issues that are raised must be acted on, and work must be done before and after the meetings to make them worthwhile. But I don’t think I answered your question there really did I?

Have you experienced difficulty with something that you did not foresee as being difficult?

This is an interesting question. I’d say loneliness. I didn’t expect to feel on my own throughout the year. I consider myself pretty strong emotionally, but there were periods of the year, where I felt a bit isolated. When you are spending weekends stuck inside working on initiatives or communications, and you can see on Instagram everyone having an amazing time, it can be pretty rough. To succeed this year in the role, and still stay on track with my PhD, and to publish, I had to make some sacrifices, and my social life was definitely one.  I think I actually became more detached from PGR experience during my time in the role. The amount I spent talking with PGRs about PGR stuff drastically increased, and the number of real conversations I had about life, politics, philosophy, all the real stimulating stuff, somewhat dwindled. These are two things I had not anticipated when entering the role and both are personal. On a more professional notes, I came into the role prepared as I knew I wanted to do it a year before I applied, so I generally understood the problems I would run into.

Describe your time as President in three words?

Raised. The. Bar.

What has been your favourite project to work on? In contrast, what is a project you wished you would have had more time for?

There have been many initiatives I have enjoyed working on this year. My favourite ones have been when I have worked alongside other PGRs. For example, in the work I did for parents & carers this year, meeting with and learning more about parental experiences was a particular highlight. When the University agreed with the case of parents & carers, it felt like a team effort, and I love that feeling of sharing that moment with others.  Related to this, project ‘Lead Rep Team’ i.e. fostering a cohesive team of lead representatives, was really enjoyable. The team really supported me and each other and interacting with them never felt like work. In general, and what makes representation so appealing to me, the most enjoyment I have got from this work is making others happy. Of course, its great to enjoy yourself, but to contribute to the happiness of others is a really satisfying experience. I am not saying I achieved this for a majority, but for a small number of PGRs, I think I used my position to better their PGR experience. Insofar as the projects I wish I could have done more with. There are several unfortunately. I had initially planned to setup a Quantitative Network akin to the LiQuiD Lab, but this has been stalled for various reasons throughout the year.  I had also hoped to do more around PGR wellbeing whilst in post, as this was my main focus whilst a Lead Representative in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities. But again for various reasons progress has been slow. These are two major gaps in what I have managed to achieve this year and relate to two essential elements of the PGR experience, research culture and PGR wellbeing. I can only apologise for my shortcomings on these fronts.

What was the proudest moment of your time as President?

There are two things I am most proud of. The first one is most obvious. Making the case for parents & carers to receive additional funds to help with the pressures of home-schooling and extra caring support. This required so much work behind the scenes, consulting with parents, a survey, meetings with DCO, worry and anxiety, so when it all came together, I was really pleased. Thanks of course to all parents that helped, there’s no way we would have achieved this without Demi, Penny, Yasmin, Mia and others. This was a special moment for me because I knew this would have a positive impact on their children. Yes, I’m up there with Santa Claus! Of course, I’m joking, and in all seriousness, the Doctoral College deserve a lot of credit for acting on this and steering the funds in the appropriate direction.

I think some people presumed I cared so much on this issue because I became a father this year. I think that would be an understandable conclusion to reach, but it’s not reality. The reason I was so dedicated to this is because I lived with a single parent (my Mum) whilst she was completing her degree and understand the strains that university can cause a family, especially a single mother. If the work the parents and I did helped alleviate some of those strains, then I am very proud of that.

The second thing may seem rather insignificant, but actually to me, sentimentally, is something I am proud of. As Lead Representative, I asked for the Unsung Hero Award at the PhD Awards to be named after Peter Beaman, who sadly passed in 2019. As President I could make the executive decision to keep the award named after him. And I have been reassured that when/if the PhD awards 2022 are organised, the award will be continued to be named after him. It’s the least I can do for a man who made me feel at home in my department, at a time when I was struggling to adapt to the PGR experience. Pete also won the award in 2018, so its apt that the award is forever named after him. Good man Pete was, and I am proud to keep his memory alive in PhD circles. 

The pandemic brought out the reality of the disparity felt by DRs with parental duties. Going forward, as schools and nurseries are once again available, do you think more can be done to support parents and if so, what are you hoping to see?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak on this. I think how serious parts of this institution take the concerns of parents and carers has changed.  When I was Lead Rep I raised the issue of parenting in a meeting with key stakeholders and was told to speak to PhD Social and Support Network about this. I love SSN, but the responsibility for this stretches far beyond their remit.  I think now the approach has altered, at least in the short term, the University has since committed to a statement of intent to provide better support for parents, and there are, with commitment on their side, other considerations around support. So we have made progress, but we are nowhere close to what is needed.

I am of the belief that this institution should take progressive steps towards ensuring the conditions are comfortable for, in particular, mothers, by giving them and their children the best opportunity to thrive. So what does this mean in practical terms? Allowing children to attend seminars, events and if appropriate meetings. Providing dedicated space for mothers to comfortably breast feed their babies. Providing discounts at the on-campus nurseries for PGRs. And additional funds for childcare to incentivise parents to go on training courses or attend conferences. The LSU should be organising more child-friendly events, this was done when there was a Postgrad Executive Officer. None of these are unreasonable demands and well within the reach of the institution, lets make it happen!

To a lot of Doctoral Researchers in their first or second year, Loughborough Campus will be a new place to explore after more than a year of pandemic, if you had to mention three things that they can look forward to experiencing, what would they be? What would you say to someone who is now nervous or anxious to become part of the Loughborough community?

I think this is an important question. Firstly, in terms of being nervous or anxious to ‘become part of the Loughborough community’. I’d say firstly, it’s very possible, as we have proven, to maintain a sense of community online. I am sure many PGRs feel a part of a community online and feel most safe and comfortable in this environment currently. Returning to a ‘new normal’ as the buzz phrase has it, is a very personal decision and will take time. People should not feel pushed to coming back on campus, nor should they feel bad for not wanting to or vice versa. The university needs to make the case that 1) it’s safe to return and 2) that there are reasons to return to campus. A flexible approach is needed in these times to ensure people are feeling comfortable to conduct their research, which is ultimately what the gig is all about. My personal preference is to come on campus every day, attend events with limited capacity, and live a similar life to how I did previously. But I still wear my mask indoors, do not shake hands or hug, and I know when to say no when I feel uncomfortable. This is how I am navigating through this, and we all have our own thoughts and barriers, and these need to be respected, as long as they fall in line with the law. I cannot allay people’s anxieties and nerves, it’s okay to have them, but I would encourage fellow PGRs to voice concerns if you have them and keep in dialogue with the University. Again, I am not sure I answered your question..

In terms of what fellow PGRs can look forward to experience on campus, I can think of three key elements: networks, people, and facilities.

  1. What stands our PGR community from others, is our fantastic peer-to-peer led networks. These include PhD Social and Support Network, The Writing Gym, Heads Together and LiQuiD Lab, as well as many other reading groups in schools. There was just a fantastic little reading group set up called Lives and Afterlives in the English department, which I presented at, the audience was so attentive and helpful! These have been operating online, but I imagine will eventually be held in person also.
  2. The facilities here are next level. After being here a while you often take for granted that the campus has several cafes’, world-class gyms, swimming pools, football pitches, an athletics track, and a nightclub. The woods surrounding campus are lovely also.
  3. Meet with fellow PGRs. I was speaking with another PGR just today and mentioned how Unis have the potential to bring together people from so many different backgrounds. This can be simulated online, but there is nothing like getting to know someone in-person over a cup of tea, or a pint. Of course, in a Covid safe, vaccinated way. I know this community to be very welcoming and I know that many PGRs form close friendships, and I dare I say it, intimate relationships. So, hey! Get off Tinder and come to Luff! In seriousness, the chance to meet new and different people is for me an amazing affordance of student/PGR life and is the main thing I’ll miss.

You were quite critical of Loughborough Students Union this year, did your attitude change throughout the year?

It did and it didn’t. I supported the campaign against LSU back in 2018 which asked for answers in regard to why the Postgrad Executive Officer role was removed, and how LSU would continue to ensure support for our community. So I was aware of the history, and speaking to the previous President before me, was aware of some of the issues he faced in terms of communication from them. But when in the role there were three factors that accelerated my call for change. 1) LSU marketing wouldn’t even send out my e-mails, so I had to do it independently, this shows the extent to which they are working for PGRs currently 2) Meetings with Exec were tokenistic and not fruitful 3) only one manifesto mentioned PGRs during the elections. At the end of it all, I think LSU need to be honest with themselves about whether they are capable to represent DRs without a paid position with a smaller portfolio that is dedicated to representing PG/R in both East Midlands and London. I mean, look how they failed Loughborough London during the pandemic. Really poor form. Ultimately, PGRs should not be shy to demand more from THEIR Union.

Any advice for the next Presidential Team?

Only advice I can give is to be professional in the role. You don’t need to do everything I did this year, but just keep to your word. People will value your reliability in the long run, even if you share opposing views. I’d also say elevate those around you with the initiatives you do, you don’t have to be first author all the time. I’d also advise them to shorten their blogs, mine are incredibly self-indulgent, I’m sick and tired of myself frankly.

And.. Finally, what’s next for you once you have finished your PhD?

I’m a workhorse, so I want to get to work as soon as possible, preferably by the start of next semester.  I’d love to do some part-time teaching and some research assistant roles whilst getting together a bid for a large-scale research project. But who knows in this economic climate, it’s hard to be picky!  I can only try my best. In terms of representation, I think I have energy and know-how that would be useful to UCU in the future. But I am in no immediate rush and will speak to some contacts before making any steps in this direction.  Ultimately, whether its work or a PhD, I find it pales into insignificance compared to who you are as a person. I’d like to dedicate more time to self-care. I have practiced meditation since the age of 16 but have lost touch with it this year, I’d like to take more guided lessons. I also would like to run that elusive first marathon. Fully convert to vegetarianism. Perhaps a ‘lads’ holiday to celebrate my PhD!  As you can see, there is a list of things I want to do! You’re welcome to join me 😊  

Many thanks for sticking through with it! I wish you all the best and Baba Booey to y’all.

Nathan Ritchie.

Nathan Ritchie

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