The Tablecloth Trick: The Problem of Moving Universities Mid-PhD


Y’know the old ‘pull the tablecloth from under the plates and glasses on the table’ trick?

That’s kind of how I have felt during these last few months of my PhD.

Just to rewind slightly: I have come into this level of education later in life. I wouldn’t say I was old but previously I had worked in law enforcement for 25 years. I felt like I had enjoyed a whole other fixed life before I quit everything to embark on the PhD. I was lucky enough to be offered a full time scholarship funded by a national charity. But the full time scholarship meant moving to another country to begin the PhD.  At my age I thought: “go for it. It’s a once in a life time thing… What have you got to lose?”

I packed up my life and moved to another country. I started at the new university and began to navigate the system. In my earlier university career I had completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees online, so to be in full time education felt a bit surreal. I made efforts to settle in quickly and make a few friends. I sought out key people within the university and the school in which I was based. I became familiar with the surrounding area.

I started to feel embedded.

As I grew to be more settled in my role, I also began to notice the paradox of how quickly but slowly things move in academia. I received notice that there was this conference on that day soon. That this publication would like a quick piece written for them.  Could I help organise this event? Or be a steward at that event?  Many things needed to be done immediately yet, at the same time, some things seem to take forever. That piece I needed to write at the speed of light would not get reviewed for three months – I shouldn’t expect a response any time soon.  Applying for courses or expenses also seemed to take an age and no one knew who I could chase up about it. The pace was strange and alien to me, but you just go with it I guess… I guess I learnt that flexibility is key in order to be successful in the PhD.

About three months in and I was getting into the swing of things.  My literature review was underway, I had started a systematic review, and I knew what was coming ahead of me. I had a full Gantt chart diagram prepared (in colour and everything!). On an otherwise unremarkable day my lead supervisor asked to speak to me. They were moving universities. I felt like the table cloth had been pulled out from under me. I felt like I was the plates and glasses swaying precariously on the table. I thought they were going to tell me I was getting a new supervisor, but (to my surprise) they asked me to move too. This was potentially a good move as the new university had a better ranking, was more prestigious, and was very heavily research focused. I did have a choice about moving. I knew either way that it wouldn’t be easy but, like before, my instincts told me to go.

And so, just at the point where I had begun to feel settled, I now had to get my head around the implications and practicalities of moving.

I was still getting notified that conferences and workshops should be applied for and attended, articles should still be written, events organising must carry on. It was clear: my research should still continue, regardless of whatever else is going on. But this didn’t take into account the reality I faced: I needed to look for another place to live, move house, and start again.

All this time the plates kept spinning. It made me reflect that in law enforcement people can stay in the same place in the same environment for their whole career (and this is the case in many environments). Academia is the opposite; it is one of those environments where things can be very transitory. Tara Brabazon, dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies at Flinders University, recently referred to academia being part of the ‘gig work environment’. Meaning that we all understand academia is in part very temporary and fast moving. We need to keep up with that. Things can change really quickly and we need to be ok with that. We need to be always ready to respond.

I guess if you follow a standard career path and always remain within academic circles, you may be used to the temporariness and speed of certain things. I can see why it is not for everyone, but for me it has been quite exhilarating. I mean, when I move house I am actually a five minute stroll from the sea. I’m moving into the city where I will be able to enjoy all that the metropolis will offer. There are more students at the new university, so more chances to meet many new people. There are many new academics to meet, who all have their own network of contacts, which could lead to me working with interesting new people.  It could also take the research work in a different direction. And as my research is fundamentally connected to other people, this means I have no idea how varied my future could be. That is quite exciting to think about.

When I graduate and am offered a role (fingers crossed) in, say, another country, it may still feel like that the table cloth had been pulled off the table, but the glasses and plates would be ready for it. They would elegantly remain firmly on the table.

Catherine Hitch is a PhD Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast


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