Rethinking Remote: PhD communities in the Highlands & Islands

Research in the Highlands & Islands

What do you think of when (if?) you hear about PhD research in the Highlands & Islands? Perhaps you think of the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI), with its 13 campuses across the region. It’s possible that images of desolate, unpeopled and beautiful landscapes spring to mind: miles of bens, glens and lochs. It’s unlikely that Newcastle University, the University of Dundee, or Glasgow School of Art enter the picture at all. Yet PhD students from these institutions, as well as the Universities of Stirling, Heriot-Watt, and UHI all have a research presence in the H&Is. In December, I was involved in organising an event which brought PhD students from each of these Universities to a residential retreat outside Inverness. As both organisers and participants, we wanted to find out more about the experience and needs of other doctoral researchers in the Highlands & Islands, and to challenge some of the common misconceptions about research in the region.

Simply put, very little is known about PhD students in the Highlands & Islands. No one knows how many doctoral researchers are based here, or the total number of Universities represented. It’s not clear how wide-ranging the areas of specialism are, or what attracts (or keeps) researchers in the region.

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Discussing the experience of conducting research in the Highlands & Islands (Picture: Stephanie Weir)

It’s important to address these gaps in knowledge for a number of reasons. Not least – how can PhD researchers in the H&Is be supported by institutions like SGSAH, if so little is known about our particular situation and the issues we face? How can negative perceptions about the ‘remote’ nature of research here be challenged, thus encouraging more students to move the area and enjoy the benefits of living here, whilst contributing to the re-population of the region? With so little known about the range of PhD experiences here, how can organisations such as Highlands & Islands Enterprise decide how best to support a small but vital section of the H&I economy?

The most significant question for me personally, however is this: How can we develop a strong, supportive and visible cohort of early career researchers in the Highlands & Islands to the benefit of both communities and PhD students?

An emerging cohort

All of these questions have been in the minds of a small group of us over the past year or more. Early in my PhD I met a handful of other doctoral students based in, or with a research focus on the H&Is. Although not based near each other, we quite naturally formed a supportive community of interest, with a small Facebook group to share our experiences with each other and provide support. Later, we began meeting regularly for ‘coffee breaks’ and writing sessions on Skype. We share reading tips, discuss methodological questions and support each other through difficult periods. I cannot imagine my PhD without this group. I’ve never once felt isolated from the ‘PhD community’, even though there is only one other UHI PhD student at my campus.

Intermittently over the first few months of my PhD we discussed the particularities of research in the H&Is. We shared the challenges of being based here: travel distances to essential training, supervisory meetings & conferences are often enormous. Some of us commute over a hundred miles to our campus library or office, which eats into vital research time and energy. During the recent spate of bad weather, some of us were snowed in, or ferries didn’t run – leaving people stranded for days. There are substantial costs attached to living in the H&Is: public transport can be extortionate (or non-existent), the long distances are expensive for car owners and there are serious shortages of affordable housing in many areas.

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Being part of an emerging cohort of PhD students in the H&Is has been a great source of support during my PhD (Picture: Stephanie Weir)

Yet, in our small cohort, we also spent a great deal of time sharing our joy at being afforded the opportunity to stay in, return to, or move to the H&Is. We frequently discussed how rewarding it is, both intellectually and personally, to be based so close to the communities we are researching. Each of us feels attached to the places we live and research in, and deeply invested in the future of the area. We recognise the value of local knowledge and memory to our research, and seek to incorporate these insights into our projects. Many of us have family here, and are grateful for the opportunity to fulfil our academic ambitions whilst staying close to the people and places we love.

A ‘Rethinking Remote’ Gathering

Within our small group, we knew of some other PhD students researching or living in the H&Is, and we were inspired to apply for funding for a residential gathering to bring a small group of PhD researchers together to reflect together and write about our experiences, focusing particularly on the concept of remoteness. Highlands & Islands Enterprise provided the funding for a gathering of 14 PhD students from 5 different Universities as well as 6 of the autonomous UHI Centres and institutions. This event took place in December at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre.

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Moniack Mhor was the perfect setting for our gathering (Picture: Stephanie Weir)

I can honestly say that this was one of the most rewarding and stimulating events I’ve attended during my PhD. Alongside our discussions about the specificities of our projects and situations, I learned a lot about methodology from the other participants.

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During the event, we had a pop-up library to share articles & books (Picture: Matt Sillars)

We also had the opportunity to meet with HIE’s University Engagement Officer, and discuss in person how early career researchers and students can be supported across the region. Most importantly, in a very short space of time we developed a real sense of being part of a supportive community of researchers, despite the variety of institutions and fields represented in the group. As one participant exclaimed on the last evening: ‘This can’t be the last time we all meet!’

It’s been such an exciting thing to be part of, and I can’t wait to see how this new community of PhD students grows and evolves.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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