Category Archives: Geography

Do our foetal experiences help to do a PhD?

I stumbled across this talk by science writer Annie Murphy Paul on the intriguing field of foetal origins research. According to the scientific research, one’s learning begins while in the womb;  information about the environment of a pregnant mother is transmitted to the foetus, primarily through the digestive process and the senses, so that the foetus can develop the right qualities to survive in the outside world. (Unfortunately, the foetus doesn’t know that the mother’s environment is subject to change.)

I have been thinking  about the origin of phd topics and how they are influenced by the environment of the PhD student. There may be no connection but this talk made me wonder whether the skills required to do a PhD or experience that led to a PhD topic are the result in part or indirectly of any foetal learning.

It is interesting that Paul’s book on foetal origin research was written while she herself was pregnant. Did her experience as an expectant mother make her look more favourably on doing the research?  

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Hanging out with the oldies

By Anna Tarrant

Heidi and grandfather

Like Heidi, Anna close relationship with her grandfathers triggered her research interests

The title for this post reflects a common question I have been asked consistently throughout the process of conducting my PhD and subsequently since it was awarded in July 2011. I am a human/social geographer by discipline (although I find this restricting and have drawn upon a range disciplines to conduct my work). When I am asked “So what did you do your research in?”, people are often surprised by my response: “It is/was about grandfathers.” I am met with silence followed by “But that’s not geography!” The predominantly non-academic folk I come across think geographers explore volcanoes, aquatic environments, poverty, health and so on – and they do – but I was much more interested in the everyday; why I am who I am, what is important to me, who matters to me and why?

At the time it never occurred to me that in being labelled a geographer, people could no longer see what it was that motivates me as an individual, in my everyday life, as opposed to just my professional life. I was initially stumped by this question on several occasions (because explaining about masculinities theory and absent presences seemed rather inappropriate for the most part). I began to think about the question more; why grandfathers? What is it about me that means I am intrinsically interested in such a topic? There are academic reasons, as I outline below, but the more I ponder it, the more I have come to realise that it is because of my keen desire to maintain strong familial relationships and to enjoy the diversity of people in my everyday life, that I felt it important to explore roles that many people (and in this case men) find so valuable, important and meaningful to them. At the same time, my professional and personal life are not entirely separate; the boundaries between personal and private are blurred (especially as I have now started to use Twitter…a lot) and that is what has prompted me to write this blog post…as a way of reflecting on how the personal becomes political, how my personal interests have made my professional life so much more tolerable, even enjoyable and to understand what motivates me so I know what to pursue next. Given these musings, I realised maybe I do have something to contribute, and here it is.

Academic beginnings

Initially in agreeing to write this post I was concerned I would have little to write because to my mind my PhD topic was very much born out of interests developed in my academic undergraduate life. At this juncture I feel I should explain why I came to think this. I am 25 years old, fairly young for a Dr, even in the UK. Having completed my A-Levels at 18 with reasonable grades, I went to Lancaster University. I was fortunate enough to find a very interesting dissertation topic on older men, for which I interviewed my grandfather and several of his friends. This idea emerged because I sought additional reading about geographies of gender, a topic that inspired my interests and that I had a thirst to learn much more about; at this point unsure why! It was this that led me to realise that, academically at least, older men have received very little critical attention and focus in sociology and the social sciences. Through the support of two male supervisors at Lancaster University, I began to question more about these forgotten people (at least in the academic imagination), noting that in my own world, men have featured very predominantly, and in very supportive capacities. Having secured funding for a doctoral project on intergenerational relations between men, I did the required reading and set out to interview men who were fathers, and men who were grandfathers. I won a funded scholarship to Linkoping University, Sweden to theoretically explore the often contradictory identities of older and ageing men and from there my PhD topic evolved and was officially born.

Personal Reflections        

I cannot say that academic stimulation alone was responsible for my choosing to focus down on my particular project. I had particularly enjoyed interviewing grandfathers. I experienced a sense of pride when the men were pleased that they at last were getting some attention for the roles they play in their families. This reminded my very strongly once again of the men in my family life. I am blessed with a wonderful family and a very loving, caring father and I have always spent lots of time with my mother’s father and to a lesser extent my father’s father. My relationships with the men in my life, I am sure each have been partly responsible for my finding a lovely husband who has been incredibly supportive, particularly of my desire for an academic career. I am fairly sure that actually, what drives me is a desire to use my own positive family experiences as a way in which to really tackle the issues and inequalities many people face in their families and to explore how the positive character of family relationships can be replicated and used as a model for furthering social cohesion in communities and in everyday situations. I know this is a tough task but I am increasingly committed to the idea that everyday practices, the little things are incredibly powerful and meaningful to the quality of a person’s life.

So where am I going next? Just this Christmas I noticed something in my everyday life that I think may inspire further research questions. In talking to my husband’s grandparents it occurred to me that they don’t own a computer and that their local bank and supermarket were closing down, making it harder for them to access basic resources. I am now wondering how older communities cope with these changes and what can be done, in the planning of urban areas to aid in the continued inclusion of elderly residents. Inspired by my personal and familial relationships, this is research relevant to my career and to the lives of those who are (and are becoming) increasingly vulnerable.

Dr Anna Tarrant was awarded her PhD in Human Geography in 2011 from Lancaster University. She is currently Senior Teaching Associate at Lancaster University but has just accepted a Research Associate position with Open University where she intends to develop the research ideas discussed in this post. You can follow her on Twitter @dratarrant or subscribe to her blog, which is a space for her academic musings

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From Dancing to Doctorate

By Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

So the purpose of this blog is to look at where people’s PhD topic ideas came from? I am sure some people had a burning desire to solve certain problems and what they did at the start was very similar to the end product. However, with mine, what it was at the beginning bore no resemblance to what it was at the end. Also, the reason I went looking for a research question was as much because I wanted to be the best, to see if I could pass the ultimate test as I was looking to fill a gap in knowledge.

Why did I want to do a PhD?

I had always wanted to do one, ever since I really knew what one was. According to my mum, that was from a very early age when I had the concept of ‘University’ explained to me. So it was more a personal desire to achieve than a ‘eureka’ type moment. I love ballroom and Latin dancing.

”]Karen HardyI have been lucky enough to watch my idol’s career unfold, and her achievements from World Champion to Strictly Come Dancing champion, and been inspired by her dedication, work ethic and passion for her dancing. I love dancing, but I could never be Karen [Hardy]’s standard. However, I could apply

the lessons I learnt from watching her achieve to something I was good at and, for me, being academically able, it meant scholastic achievements. However, you can’t have a PhD without a subject.

Why Geography?

My mum grew up on a farm, so it was no surprise that with her and my Granddad I spent a lot of time out-of-doors in the countryside developing an interest in my surroundings. I loved all things natural and when considering subjects at school I kept floating between Biology and Geography. As I entered my GCSE years I expected to be a Biologist or Zoologist. I was great at science but not brilliant at Geography and initially had not chosen Geography for GCSE. I changed from History at the last minute. It was, in the end, a life changing one. Just before Christmas in year 10, we were given the results of our first exams. Biology, as usual was a strong area for me, and I sat nervously waiting for my Geography result. We were told the highest result in the year was 34/36, I felt sick, until I was told I had 34/36! woo hoo, goodbye Biology hello Geography.

Once I found my ‘favourite’ subject, or subject I found easiest, my academic path was set. I did my GCSE’s and A Levels and by then knew I was a Human Geographer, one interested in people / environment relations, particularly those from developing countries. So it wasn’t a surprise that I did a BA in Geography & Environmental Studies with Development Studies at Sussex University. Studying in the School of African and Asian Studies, my education focused on understanding human and environment interactions in some of the poorest parts of the world. This was fascinating and thought-provoking as it engaged me with the problems faced by these people and environments and the fragility of the ecosystems involved. At the same time, I could see TV and press coverage of international environmental agreements and how they were they supposed to solve, or at the very least ameliorate, the problems / issues I was studying at the local level. But I could see that the politics was somewhat divorced from the realities of local processes. This led to my MA in Environment, Development and Policy. I wanted to understand the political process and how the physical and political supposedly related. This is where  I began to explore and question the political structures leading to initial research questions that made me think this is where and what my thesis would be on, I felt as I had so many questions that there was an obvious gap to fill.

From Question to Thesis

Well, it wasn’t as simple as it sounds: formulating an idea requires you, some broad ideas and a someone willing to supervise you. I couldn’t stay at Sussex as they couldn’t provide me with a supervisor so I had to look elsewhere. I systematically approached a range of different institutions which were ‘local’ enough to me as I wasn’t able to move to do it and came across King’s College London. I investigated the department and then made initial contact. My 1st supervisor, although from within the same area, had a very different approach to what I was going to do / or should be doing, so my questions evolved. I went from questions of environmental ethics and economics, i.e. how we value the environment (which was slated on the first meeting, in fact I didn’t think I’d even be offered a place at KCL but I was), to the application of the precautionary principle in the regulation of red and green biotechnology in Europe and the US to its application in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the international agreement regulating the trade in GMOs. This is what I started researching.

I was self funded during my first year and we reapplied for ESRC funding for my second year, which required another application. At this point I felt I wasn’t connecting to the US / EU debate. I knew it was important but I was interested in how it would impact upon African nations suffering from food security issues. With that we reformed the application to look at how the EU / US arguments over GMOs would influence the development and regulation of GMOs in Sub-Saharan Africa. I was awarded an ESRC/NERC studentship and off I went on my work. This really wasn’t what my supervisor was interested in so we added a second supervisor, an African specialist. My focus in this area got

Sub Saharan Africa

Sub Saharan Africa: Focus of Sarah's Research

stronger. The more I got into it the more I realised that the reason the local level practices didn’t relate to the international was because of the grey, under researched area known as ‘capacity-development’. Capacity-development is a buzz-word that has been part of international development and environmental politics for several decades without anyone really knowing what it was. In focusing in capacity-development, I could bring together people, environment and development. The thesis I produced at the end was a true reflection of me, my educational experience, and all the people who have inspired me along the way. My examiners stated I had produced a novel way of examining capacity-development and one which should be expanded.

I did at times feel like giving up, when I was at my lowest ebb. What kept me going was my desire to get that PhD, to prove to myself I could do it. To do it you must have a subject you are passionate about but you also need to be passionate about the process and place value, not necessarily monetary value, on what the PhD represents to you and that will always be unique to the individual.

Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained in her PhD in 2010. As well as continuing her research in geography,  she is involved in developing social media training programmes for research students and researchers at Kings College London. She is also managing editor of PhD2Published, the founder of the Networked Researcher blog and avidly tweets at @sarahthesheepu.

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