Using Multiple Identities to Your Advantage
As a PGR student, you may occupy a number of different identities at the same time, including student, researcher, collaborator, lecturer and employee, not to mention the identities you may hold outside of university (friend, parent etc.).
Within our lives overall, we are generally quite comfortable holding different identities in different places. The person you are to your mother, is probably different to the person you are as a best friend and different again from the person you are when talking to your supervisor.
This is perfectly normal and helpful. Occasionally students worry that being different in different environments means that they are somehow being ‘inauthentic’ or false. But actually being able to adapt to circumstance is simply an adaptive trait that helps you and the people around you. If you were unable to behave appropriately in a seminar, for instance, because you had to be the ‘authentic you’ as you are when out for an evening with your friends, this would disrupt the seminar for all of the other people in the room.
Adapting to circumstances and the environment is actually a skill that can be very helpful throughout life.
The difficulty many PGR students have is that they sometimes feel they have multiple identities at the same time and in the same place. This can be a maximised version of the experience you may have had when people from different parts of your life meet for the first time. Very often when friends from home and university meet or friends and family meet, we can find the experience odd, even off-putting and not be sure how to behave.
PGR students can often have this experience of not being sure who they are supposed to be in the moment. For instance, if they meet undergraduate students from their course socially, should they behave as another student or as a potential lecturer to that student? This confusion can also be seen by the number of names used to refer to those working towards a PhD – student, candidate, researcher, scholar etc.
There are no hard and fast rules about how to decide this and as a result the uncertainty this causes can give rise to anxiety, imposter syndrome and make you feel less like you belong .
However, because there are no clear rules, this means that you can take control of this issue for yourself. Students in our panels, who successfully managed this challenge, were clear that they had made a decision to decide for themselves when they would step into each identity. When they felt it benefited them to appear as a student, they were a student. When it benefited them to appear as a researcher or member of staff, they adopted that persona. They also found that when they did this confidently and clearly communicated which role they were in – others usually accepted and adapted to this. This gave them stronger feelings of certainty and control and also meant that they could maximise their multiple identities to their advantage.
One students suggested that PGR students should think of their status as like a portfolio career in and of itself. That way rather than trying to find one right way to be all of the time, their mindset would allow them to adapt to each circumstance and role, as needed.