Desk stress

One of the key features of this year, the first of my PhD study, has been the inability to secure a comfortable place to study and write. Not a struggle I anticipated. Not something I had even given much thought to prior to starting at the University of Sydney earlier this year. I remember vaguely assuming that things would work like they did at my previous university, where as an undergrad I remember seeing small groups of PhD students sharing offices with their own permanent desks. I now understand that this is not at all a standard arrangement, and that postgraduate students at different institutions around the country work in many different settings.

A first year USyd PhD in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences wishing to study in a designated postgraduate space on campus has two locations to choose from. One is a fitted-out basement – no windows, harsh lighting, often many desks free. The other is also a basement of sorts, but above-ground (has windows) and often a reasonably pleasant place to work, and thus not so many free desks to be found. Both are “hot desk” spaces, which means that no desk is permanently allocated and students need to remove all their things from a desk after finishing work for the day. (Spaces with assigned desks are available to students in the later stages of their PhD. Details of all spaces here).

Simply finding out about these spaces did not happen easily, but poking around the university website led me to information eventually. I had a clearer idea of where to find the windowless spot than the other, so that has been home base for the year to date. I have been productive there through sheer force of will. Many people don’t mind that kind of space and can work there well, but in the past few months I have finally admitted to myself that I am not one of these people.

Having no point of permanence for study combined with a poor working environment has had a strong psychological impact on me. My already-existing anxiety is at a constant hum well above normal levels. I take a remarkably long time to settle down enough to concentrate and do meaningful reading and writing. No windows in my study space means a bizarre relationship with time of day, and regulating my work into productive sections becomes difficult.

I find stoicism an admirable trait and seek to cultivate it in myself where possible, but these efforts sometimes become misplaced. Directing myself to stop being so precious and just do some fucking work is not a sustainable strategy for the three-plus years that this PhD will take me. I find nothing admirable in me forcing myself to put up with a situation that is detrimental to my mental health, to my will to learn, to my passion for writing, and, moreover, that has been imposed on me by a university that has severely mismanaged its intake and provision of facilities for postgraduate students.

I am providing a short personal account of my difficulties here, but I wish to be absolutely clear: this is a structural issue and one that the University of Sydney has created and must solve.

USyd has over 900 arts postgraduate research students and provides about 300 desks for them – I don’t have exact numbers to hand. Some students study at home, others are often away on research trips, some study at uni only on certain days of the week. There are lots of cases of students not requiring permanent desks. This does not explain or mitigate the fact that USyd has enrolled far, far more postgraduate arts students than it can provide facilities for – facilities that it is obliged to provide under its own guidelines and that of the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association.*

I fail to see what can produce this set of circumstances other than the university blindly pursuing a path that is profitable and ignoring the pressure-cooker conditions intensifying as, I can only presume, more and more students have been enrolled and the number of desks has stayed the same. There is a new building on the way with more spaces, due to open in 2019, and while I have heard varying reports about the number of desks this will house, all reports are under 100. A little larger than a drop in the ocean, but not by much.

I have been working with a group of other postgraduate students to try and tackle this issue through collective action. This has been important in bringing together people with similar concerns, and in showing me that there is a history of student action around postgrad study space issues and that many current students share my concerns. Until I made contact with these students I felt like I was shouting into the void. Thankfully I have also had invaluable support from particular staff members who have gone above and beyond in responding to this issue, and I believe that some extremely good news will be delivered shortly about some new spaces.

I don’t and can’t regret coming to Sydney to pursue a PhD. I have found many wonderful welcoming people at USyd, including my excellent supervisor and some great new friends in the postgrad cohort. I am able to pursue my interests easily in the rich cultural and sporting life of the city and in its beautiful natural environment. This said, I can’t help but wonder what life would be like at a university that took its postgraduate research students seriously as valuable members of its academic community and showed this through actions, not just words. I moved to Sydney, and away from family and friends and places I love, to be a part of the academic life of this university. I want to work at uni every day in an environment where I can be comfortable and productive. I live in a small shared flat and have no luxuries like space for a home study, and I carefully live on the federal government “research training programme” scholarship of about $27,000 per year in Australia’s most expensive city. I rely on my university to be a calm and pleasant place to work – nothing outside the bounds of reasonable expectations in my position as a PhD student.

The situation I’ve briefly outlined indicates that there is something extremely wrong with the University of Sydney’s approach to long-term management of its postgraduate student body. It is clear that the university does not take seriously its need to provide decent facilities for these students and in adequate volume, and this in turn means that it does not – it cannot – truly value its postgraduate students. I know that the many passionate supervisors and all members of staff who work with postgraduate students across many areas of the uni absolutely do care about us and have our best interests at heart. It is the university-run-as-corporation and its acolytes that is to blame. This post is a way for me to let out some of my pent-up frustration and to provide a very short overview of this issue for anyone interested. To do the issue justice would require more time than I have right now as my confirmation looms and thousands of archive pictures wait to be sorted through. The battle continues.


* University of Sydney policy – Essential Resources For Higher Degree by Research Students Policy 2016 (link opens a PDF). Also see the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association’s “Space Planning Guidelines” (link opens a PDF).