When the Stress of the PhD Meet The Anxiety of the Visa: On International Postgraduate Studies, Financial Anxieties, and Everything Else That Scares Me

This week I had scheduled a different blog post to be published, but I felt as though it didn’t seem right to not write about something that has been on my mind lately.

And by “lately”, I mean “for the past few years”.

As many, if not all, of you know by now due to reading this blog and/or following my daily Twitter rants, I’m an international student. Since moving to the U.K. in the autumn of 2015, I have been on two different visas and had spent lots of loaned money to maintain my residence here.

There’s recently been a lot of discourse surrounding the precariousness of early career jobs in academia, and for good reason – the further marketisation of higher education is leaving more and more post-PhDs out in the cold with only poorly paid, short contract jobs to live on. Those of us in the middle of PhD research have extremely bleak futures ahead of us if this continues.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention (at least, as far as I have seen) is the plight of those of us who are battling the dire circumstances of the academic job market and the burden of being international.

Let me first say that despite the difficulties I have faced, I am undoubtedly one of the luckier ones. I’ve had the ability to take out federal student loans to cover my costs, as well as financial help and general support from friends and family from both sides of the Pond. Coming from the US, I most likely had less hoops to jump through to get my visa, in comparison to many others.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a huge burden on my life. Besides worrying about my current PhD work and the near future of having to look for postdocs afterwards, I also constantly have to worry about meeting the conditions for my visa.

Will I have enough money saved up to afford all of the fees for applying for a Tier 2 visa? What if the NHS surcharge continues to double, as it is scheduled to do in the upcoming year? How many days have I spent outside the UK and is it enough to eventually deport me?

International academics are expected to constantly keep track of these ever changing laws and policies, which results in many of us in constant fear of the Home Office, even if we have filled out all the paperwork needed and have everything taken care of. It’s so easy for them to make a small change that will turn out world upside down!

That sounds like an exaggeration but I’ve experienced it myself. Progressing from my MSc to my PhD, I was, at the time, still on my first visa from the Masters programme, which wouldn’t expire for another 6 months. Prior to this, the rule was that you could apply for a new visa within the U.K. as long as your current visa had not expired. Unfortunately for me, this had recently changed, and so I was booking an extremely last minute flight back to the US to apply for a new visa. A couple thousand pounds later, and I was sorted with a new visa – but financially, I have yet to truly recover from that last minute trip.

And, of course, it’s not just about the financial burden, either. Contrary to popular belief, most of us who study and live in the U.K. for several years end up cultivating a life and family here. That the Home Office (and other institutions apparently) believe we can uproot our lives, tear ourself away from the people we love and abandon the places we call home, just because we lack the funds to match the ludicrous fees and financial objectives, is utterly ridiculous at best and outright evil at worst.

I have spent many nights, awake and afraid, obsessively reading the guidelines for visas and immigration laws. As someone who already has depression and anxiety, this has caused my mental health to often dip dangerously low, to levels I haven’t experienced since prior to being diagnosed and medicated. But it’s a real, tangible fear that many academics, who already experience the burdens of a hostile environment in higher education, always have on their minds alongside every other problem.

Unfortunately, I can’t really offer any answers or advice for this sort of thing. It’s an issue that, alongside precariousness of early academic careers, must be talked about more in the public discourse. And I guess that’s all I can do, really – tell my story, remain public about the challenges I face, and hope that I can at least be one voice that won’t shut up about this problem.

To end this rather unfunny and serious blog post (shocking, I know, but I applaud anyone who has made it this far), I just want to point out a few great resources for more information on precarity, mental health issues, and international academic costs:

  • The Mental Illness Factory – A great piece by Mimi Petrakis on the current mental health epidemic in academia, especially for postgraduates
  • The Precarious Postdoc – Some really valuable research by Sophie A. Jones and Catherine Oakley who have been interviewing and surveying the situations of postdocs in the humanities and social sciences.
  • International and Broke– A fairly new Twitter account run by international academics employed in the U.K. that shares stories of the difficulties that other international academics have experienced in trying to stay and work in the country.
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American Stonehenge, or the Time that My Friends Took Me on Holiday to Watch My Head Explode

I’ve lived in England for nearly three years now, and yet I have never been to Stonehenge. I feel like that’s a bit embarrassing as an archaeologist, but I just never made the time for it so far!

That said, I have been to American Stonehenge. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Behold…the 8th Wonder of the World, American Stonehenge!

According to the owners of the site, American Stonehenge is exactly like its English counterpart – built thousands of years ago by ancient seafarers who travelled from Europe…or maybe an unknown Native American culture…one of the two. The site is allegedly over 4,000 years old, based on “Phoenician” and “Ogham” writings found carved in stone.

In actuality, American Stonehenge is a site originally known as “Mystery Hill” that has been a roadside attraction for decades. The “mysterious” stone buildings and structures on the site were most likely originally made for farm storage, with additional ones created once it became a tourist site.

You know its a good “archaeological site” when there’s a sacrificial table!

So why would I be at such a pseudoarchaeological site?

Well, blame my friends. Apparently they thought it was funny to see how increasingly annoyed their archaeologist friend would get at a fake site – and they were right (there’s a great video somewhere of my face getting more and more angry-looking as we watched a presentation about the prehistoric Europeans that sailed to America to erect their Stonehenge).

But I have to admit, it was a bit fun to walk around and correct the signs posted around the site, as well as teach my friends a bit more about my own field. Although as archaeologists we should be combatting pseudoarchaeology when we can…I think sometimes we can also take a short trip to one of the biggest hoax sites there is and enjoy ourselves a little (and for a great crash course in pseudoarchaeology, check out my friend Stephanie Halmhofer’s new series at Bones, Stones, and Books!).

As you can see by my face, I really had a good time.

What is Old is New Again: A New Series

Ever since I finish my BA degree in anthropology, I’ve been really interested in doing research into Wicca and neo-pagan religions and modern day witchcraft, and how they connect to their past roots. As an archaeologist, I’m especially interested in focusing on the material culture – how do they recreate objects and tools from the past to evoke the same experiences in the present?

In this new series, I’ll be looking at popular modern rituals and beliefs in a variety of neo-Pagan and Wiccan-adjacent religions and witchcraft (more on disentangling the definitions in the first post of the project) and examine how they reflect or recreate elements from the past, using archaeological and anthropological examples as comparison. I also want to look at how these elements are changed over time and how that reflects today’s culture, as well as problematic elements of cultural appropriation that has been the focus of intra-community discourse.

I hope you all will enjoy this series starting in early 2018! It’s truly a labour of love and something I’ve wanted to do as research for ages.

This year’s Winter Solstice (Yule) altar

End of the Year Round Up! 2017 Edition.

I think its clear to everyone that 2017 was, collectively, not the best year on record. And even on a personal level, it was very difficult for me..however, this was also the year that I finally met those challenges head on. As someone who has spent most of her life as other people’s doormat, this was an important year for me: the year I put myself first, for once!

It was the year I put emphasis on my work – physically, academically, mentally, and spiritually. This includes this very blog, as well! And I’m thankful that I took the chance and extended my social media presence – there are so many fellow archaeologists and academics that I’ve met through Twitter that have become great friends and inspirations to me.

So despite the small size of options to pick from, here’s a highlight reel from this first year on the blog, as well as some pieces I wrote elsewhere on the Internet.

The Best of Animal Archaeology™: the Blog (and other Alex-Related Writings)

To 2018 – may it be a bit brighter and full of opportunities for us all!

Have a good New Year’s Eve and Day, everyone!

On Imposter Syndrome, or What Are We Even Doing?!

With my transfer report coming up within the next month or so, things have been pretty stressful over here. Unfortunately I find myself not having fun poking around things in the lab, but pouring over drafts and corrections and trying to synthesize my transfer report*. So I figured this might be a good time to talk about imposter syndrome in academia – something that I suffer from a lot lately!

Imposter syndrome, for those who don’t know, is basically the feeling that you’re a fraud, no matter how many achievements you have. It is by no means only restricted to those in academia, of course, but I feel like it is quite common amongst graduate students and early career researchers.

In my opinion, the PhD (specifically the early years) is like academic puberty…you’re transitioning from a taught student to an “expert” of sorts, and the transition can be very awkward and weird! It’s easy to feel as though you’ve somehow cheated your way here at times. After all, I was just a student the other day! And now I’m giving lectures, presenting at conferences, answering questions from people whose work I’ve quoted in undergraduate papers – what the hell is going on?!

One of the best ways I’ve started to combat this feeling is by actually going through my drafts – yes, I am confessing right here that in the past, I’d skim through the comments of my drafts, if I even wrote one at all. Especially in my undergraduate years, I was a big fan of “one and done” papers – to some success.

But in the past year or so I’ve actually looked at the transformation of my drafts and lemme tell you – I can see my progress, clear as day. It’s slow, but I can gradually see myself getting more confident in my writing with each draft. And just having physical  evidence really helps me see that I am, in fact, achieving something.

Obviously imposter syndrome manifests in different ways for different people, but here’s my personal advice: go back to old drafts, old papers, whatever you have. Maybe its your masters dissertation you handed in just last year, maybe its your high school science paper. Compare it to whatever you’re currently working on – how far have you come? What progress have you made? Even if its the tiniest bit of progress, its still progress.

And if you don’t have written work to look at, try simply reflecting. Where were you last year? Three years ago? Five years ago? Even just last year I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I would be presenting my work at conferences across the UK, or establishing myself as a science communicator on social media (although I’m still a baby at that!).

We’re not frauds! We’re learning and progressing and becoming the best we can be! Let’s give ourselves a break, shall we?

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This is basically how I feel at all times…an 11 year old presenting her science project at the middle school science fair.

*For those who don’t know – a transfer report is basically moving from the MPhil to the PhD. In my case, it basically shows off everything I’ve done in this first year: literature reviews, methodology chapters, analysis of bones, and what I plan on doing for the next few years of the PhD.

On Getting Through Bad Days, or How I Almost Set My Flat On Fire

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about mental health in academia. I didn’t really expect to write another post in a similar vein so soon, but I had a bad day today.

As always, if this sort of content makes you feel uncomfortable, please skip! I don’t mind.

I occasionally get hit with bad bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. This morning, I had a little incident (and learned a bit about proper candle safety) that set me off for the rest of the day. My thoughts were racing, my chest was pounding – you get the idea. I decided that today was not going to be very productive and took a mental health day.

Having to deal with bad days, regardless of how they manifest, is not only a major part of your PhD – it’s a part of your everyday life as well. Here are some tips that may help in the event of a bad day in the face of a mountain of work:

  • Take A Break – This is probably the most important advice I can give. If you get hit with a bad day in the office or the lab, take a tea break or a walk around the building, whatever might help you clear your head for a bit. As you take your break, you may want to…
  • Gauge Your Productivity – When you’ve been dealing with anxiety for as long as I have, you get pretty good at recognising how you’ll probably end up feeling for the rest of the day. If you feel as though you won’t be able to keep your mind on task, you might want to think about…
  • Taking a Mental Health Day – Remember that you should never have to put your academic work above your health in any case, so drop your supervisor a note if you need to and take the day off. Do whatever you need to chill out – watch some Netflix, read, whatever you need to do. But also…
  • Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself! – Whenever I need to take a break or a day off, I immediately feels guilty and start beating myself up over it. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but it’s also quite a sad indicator of our society’s standards: it’s much more the status quo to be overworked and tired and stressed out, isn’t it? Again – your health is so important. Remind yourself that you are taking the time to yourself to heal and feel better so you can be focused and productive tomorrow. Now, if you’re still feeling a bit guilty, however…
  • Work Light – Sometimes I can’t shake feeling guilty for taking a mental health day. So, a compromise: find something productive to do that isn’t so strenuous on your brain. Perhaps it’s just reading an article and taking some notes, or proofreading a chapter. Even doing a tiny task may make you feel productive, while keeping yourself more relaxed than you would have been with a full load of work.
  • Just Breathe – Of course, I write this all with my own life in mind – I am lucky to have a very supportive system at my university with some stellar supervisors and mental health resources. Unfortunately, not everyone out there may have that luxury. So if all else fails? Just remember to breathe. I know mindfulness may be a buzz word these days, but taking a few minutes or even seconds to breathe and centre yourself might help for a bit.

Remember, in the very wise words of my supervisor: your PhD is not a race. Take each day at a time; I know it’s tempting to thinking of the future and oh god I have to finish this dissertation in HOW long?! but ultimately that’s not necessarily productive. Just close your eyes, breathe, and think: I will be fine. Things will be okay. And keep moving.

But only when you’re ready.

Research and Wine

On Getting Started in the Field: An Origin Story

After getting asked about hidden treasures and dinosaurs, the next most common question is, “So how did you even decide to become an archaeologist?”

It’s pretty simple, really. After I first saw the Indiana Jones films as a kid, I immediately went into my backyard and dug a 1 foot deep hole. I then proceeded to go to my best friend’s house and also dig a 1 foot deep hole there.

No one was particularly happy about my new obsession with digging holes at the time, if I’m being honest.

In school, I found myself drawn to subjects such as biology and history. I also realized that I’ve got a knack for learning by actively doing things. Combine those three together and next thing I know, I’m trying to explain to my guidance counselor what archaeology is.

I suppose I was lucky – I knew exactly what I wanted to do early in life and was stubborn enough to keep at it. I’ve also been lucky enough to have been in the type of circumstances that allowed for many valuable teaching experiences prior to graduate school (i.e.; easy access to museum/museum jobs, opportunities to get training through school programs, etc.).

But if I learned anything, it’s that with a little luck and a little stubbornness, you too can find yourself in Scotland, far from your hometown in New York, being looked at as a peer in the field that you’ve loved since you were making a mess in the backyard as a kid.

A (good?) photo of me from my first ever excavation during my undergrad

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On Zooarchaeology, or Looking at Dead Animals All the Time

When you’re an archaeologist, you become very aware of how little the general public knows about what archaeologists do. Fair enough, of course…most people conjure up the image of Harrison Ford (at his peak handsomeness) when they think of archaeologists. It’s not uncommon to get the same sort of questions at the annual family gathering: “Do you find lots of gold?” “How many dinosaurs do you dig up?”

Yeah.

So when you decide that archaeology isn’t niche enough, you decide to specialise in a field like zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains in the archaeological record.

One of the most commonly asked questions I get once I mention that I’m a zooarchaeologist is, “well, what’s the point of looking an animal bone?” Oddly enough, that’s not even a question I get just from my friends and family; even some of my archaeologist peers seem to not understand why I do what I do!

I find that animal remains don’t get their due in archaeology, to be honest. Sure, they can be used as economic indicators and evidence of particular diets, but there is much more to it then that!

For example, let’s say you uncover some fish bones at a site. When you identify them, you realise it is a species of fish that are found in deeper waters far from the coast. What does that mean? Well, the people of this site must have had the technology for deep water fishing. You also see that there are no cranial bones in this assemblage. That could imply that processing of the fish (during which the head is cut off) may have occurred elsewhere – perhaps these fish were caught elsewhere as well and then traded to the people of this site. And are there any burnt bone? If so, perhaps these were consumed fish that were cooked!

As someone who came from a background in anthropology, I find that zooarchaeology is a field in which my anthropology training and my archaeological science training can combine. This is especially true for what my current research involves, which is ritual deposits of animal bones.

As we move into an age where analytical science and archaeology are more intertwined than ever before, I believe it will be things that are often overlooked by archaeologists, such as animal bones, that will become more and more important in unlocking the history of sites.

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These cow bones were the first animal bones I ever excavated/handled!

What to learn more? Here’s a book recommendation:

The Archaeology of Animal Bones by Terry O’Conner (2000) is probably the book to read if you’re interested in zooarchaeology. It is very beginner friendly and Terry O’Conner is a fun and engaging writer. Definitely worth a look for anyone who is thinking about getting into the field.