Infiltration

[Originally written for RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum and was published 14 December 2015 on PhD life blog thanks!]

Infiltrating is a word that I have come to liberally and absolutely embrace. Infiltrating – I openly invite you into my life. Yet in a way, once you start thinking about it, we are all infiltrating, some way or another.

I was infiltrating Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, in 1996, as an Erasmus exchange student on a mission to learn English. After an MSc stint to Rhode Island University, USA, and a few months spent back in Braunschweig, Germany – I have since settled in (and for) Newcastle. Furthermore, as a woman I infiltrated the rather traditional realm of civil engineering. Another infiltrating experience perhaps happened less subversively. After all as a Chartered Environmental Engineer I am designing drainage: my original roots are in modelling infiltration to sewer systems. In 2010, I innocently and accidentally crossed over into campaigning, when co-founding newcycling.org with my co-infiltrator Claire Prospert. I even infiltrated this blog. My PhD is sponsored by Architecture and Built Environment, not Geography. But I understand geography to be a wide-ranging and inclusive field, and you won’t send me away as long as…

As long as I tell you something about my PhD experience.

From the start of my PhD at Northumbria University, February 2015, I was not quite certain to what degree I should use my diversified background of environmental engineer, cycle campaigner now researcher of urban design, policy and its everyday manifestations. Diversity. Is it advantageous? Is it interference? No-one can tell you the answer. Really, it’s for you to fearlessly walk into the fog to see it disappear. For the first few months I wanted to stay away from anything related to campaigning – the policy area felt particular contentious to me. “Too political” I thought, “you would be seen to enforce a certain angle due to your own strong view”. Call me slow, but it is quite true that I have only now – eleven months in – realised that you can mitigate for this by adopting a sound theoretical background. Couple that with a good methodological framework and my worries will go away.

My recent months have been filled with reading, the big, the small and often the irrelevant. It proves a tough one, getting the grain, scale, level and depth of your inquiries right. Oftentimes I found myself drawn down a dark alley way, only to turn around and abandon it again a day or two later. Not because it was too dark or scary, but rather because what I found there was simply unimportant. Yet from that experience I learnt, to make some intellectual progress you often have to over-rule your initial fear; and go to the foggy darkness and explore what lies hidden. Knowing when to turn around, that is the important bit. You have to blow your own whistle. There is much anguish in the decision to call it off and abandon the inquiry. But knowing when you know enough and it’s time to go back to base camp is a vital part of laying and cementing your foundations (your research question or thesis title).

And so the PhD feels like infiltrating too. My mind is infiltrated by new thoughts – great, I am learning again and my grey cells are challenged. I love it. Although on the occasion my mind feels like a pre-loaded mincer: not fast enough for things to get processed. That’s when project planning skills are useful (thanks, civil engineering skills). It also feels like I am infiltrating into new occupations and learning about their schools of thought. Shifting views and flexible mind sets are important (so, thanks, advocacy skills).

I hope I will meet some of you at the RGS IBG Mid-term conference in Newcastle. I’ll be there. You should find me talking about “Invading automobility – contesting urban cycle space from above and below”.

I must admit, I am blogging about my thoughts and experiences on a weekly basis. It is one of the many things that keeps a spirit level on sanity. It has shown to be really therapeutic, mediating against the vagaries of the PhD journey. Blogging? I recommend it.

Photo, speaking at a space for cycling rally in Newcastle

space4cyclingRally_credit

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