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Daniella Nayyar
Equality, diversity and inclusion, Teaching and learning, Trainees and training

‘Teaching gave me a source of purpose, structure, and self-efficacy…’

Daniella Nayyar and Naomi Heffer discuss the challenges surrounding identity in the PhD process

03 January 2023

As a British Indian there are few established academics that look like me, who have had experiences like mine and who know how to deal with the clash of values or structures that can arise when two different cultures collide. Academia has a culture of competition and independence: I come from a cultural background of cohesion and interdependence. These sorts of cultural adjustments are not often considered when postgraduate programmes are designed and hence, expectations of higher education and the experiences of it, do not always align.

I was the first in my family to go into higher education. I had very little insight into what higher education would look like and my expectations were not always aligned with my experiences in higher education. Considering this, the PhD process has been a great challenge. I have felt many conflicting feelings about the process. I have longed for greater structure and for more freedom. I have built my confidence, and felt it dissipate. I have gained knowledge, understanding and skills, whilst simultaneously accepting that there is always so much more to learn.

These experiences are common amongst PhD students, but for me, that lack of insight and potential to prepare myself beforehand, was missing. These challenges led me to consider other avenues that I could search for the support, structure, and creativity that I wanted from academia.

One of the best choices I made during my PhD was to work alongside finishing my degree. This role gave me a source of purpose, structure, and self-efficacy that the PhD process did not. Working as a lecturer gave me an insight into what it feels to be on the other side of the PhD. I have supervised students, written modules, taught on a variety of topics. These experiences have helped to develop my skills in a way that is different to the PhD programme. Supervising students taught me how to better express theoretical and empirical understanding and debate. Writing modules helped me to develop my critical and conceptual thinking abilities; it taught me how to link theories to broad concepts, how to discuss these in real world contexts and how to communicate these links with others. Teaching on a variety of topics taught me more about how to address challenges and barriers faced by students who come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Building these competencies supplemented my learning from the PhD programme to help me to develop as an academic in a more holistic way. 

I hope that from sharing my experience, and insight, we can work together to create a more inclusive culture in academia that accounts for variation in views, values, and expectations. I hope the skills I learnt from working during my degree programme will encourage programme development to incorporate the benefits of a well-rounded experience of academia, or at least encourage individuals to search for other sources to gain what they need, to grow in academia.

About the author

Daniella Nayyar is an applied social psychologist with interests in how research and theory can improve our experiences of our social world, with a particular interest in the advantages of higher education, especially for under-represented communities.

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A core part of my identity as an academic

Starting my PhD programme and adapting to a new, independent and unstructured way of working was one of the biggest personal challenges I have faced. Amidst this uncertainty, I found that incorporating some more concrete tasks and activities into my working life really helped me to stay positive and motivated. One of these activities was teaching.

Several challenges and tensions can arise when taking on teaching activities during a PhD. There can be discontentment about the rates of pay, which may not be reflective of the time and effort which new teaching assistants must invest in order to perform their duties. It can also sometimes feel like a rather thankless task, as some undergraduate students may be averse to being taught by postgraduate students instead of “real academics”. I had some of these experiences myself, but ultimately found that working as a graduate teaching assistant during my PhD helped me to structure my time and energy more effectively. It also sparked a passion for communicating science which led me to become more involved in community outreach and public engagement activities. The varied teaching experiences I gained during my PhD were also an invaluable asset to my CV when applying for academic jobs.

A common challenge that PhD students encounter as they approach the end of their studies, is deciding when they should start looking for jobs. The writing-up period can be stressful, and applying for jobs at the same time can increase the pressure. However, many people are not in a position to wait until they have finished their PhD and potentially risk being without income for an indefinite period of time. I was anxious about being in this situation, and so I started to apply for jobs around six months before I intended to submit my thesis. To my surprise, I was successful at securing a permanent position quite near the start of my job search. This meant that I could write up my PhD without the stress of wondering what would happen afterwards, but it also put me in the position of having to start my new job while still finishing off my PhD.

During this period, I had to be highly organised with my time and energy. It sometimes felt difficult to progress with either task, because my attention was constantly divided between the two. However, having teaching activities built into my schedule also provided a much-needed source of structure at a time when I would otherwise have been spending all day, every day writing. Teaching also became an important source of self-agency and assuredness for me in this period. I had moments during the writing-up process when the thesis was not coming together as I’d hoped and doubts about my abilities as an academic began to creep in. During these times, I could reflect on my teaching, and how I had communicated to others about research with confidence and clarity. Though not without challenges, the teaching experiences I had during my PhD have made me a better and more confident researcher, and remain a core part of my identity as an academic. 

About the author

Naomi Heffer is an early career lecturer in psychology at Bath Spa University. Her research focuses on differences in multisensory perception between clinical groups, including those with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.