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Crossing Disciplines – From Fashion Undergrad to Geography PhD by Emma Waight

Bronze_bowl_pink_flowersEmma Waight (@EmsWaight) is a third year PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Southampton. She blogs at emmawaight.co.uk.

If there’s one thing I do a lot of, it’s write. Everything from my diary (which only I read), to my PhD thesis (which if I’m lucky three people will read) to my blog (which is open to all). I’ve always rather enjoyed writing; a helpful quality in a social scientist.

I haven’t always wanted to be a social scientist though. Growing up, I was dedicated to a career in fashion and planned my subject choices and work experience around being a fashion journalist. In my sixth form leaver’s book my English teacher wrote that he looked forward to seeing me as a future editor of Vogue. Now my main ambition is to publish a social theory text on consumption or material culture. Sometimes people find it difficult to comprehend the path I’ve taken to date, but actually, is a fashion journalist all that different to a scholar of material culture?

I recently attended a career and leadership development course and completed a MBTI psychometric questionnaire. The report suited me perfectly (apparently I come across as mysterious, which I like, so I won’t spoil it by saying which type I was) and matched me up to jobs such as writer, sociologist, teacher, artist, counsellor. I’m a conceptual thinker, creative and value driven. Being a fashion journalist would have suited the creative part, but perhaps didn’t fit with my values. This is clearly the case, as I directed my undergraduate dissertation to ethical fashion, followed by an MPhil on the same topic, leading to a PhD on consumption and its social role. I am very fortunate to have had the space to explore this; I doubt fashion could have ever fulfilled my inquisitive nature and desire to make a difference.

So now I’m able to do the two main things that I enjoy—I’m writing up my PhD in human geography and planning an academic career in the social sciences, whilst I continue to blog about ethical fashion for my own blog and others. Both roles stem from a desire to investigate the wider world, to find out about stuff that interests me. Both involve desk-based research as well as getting into the field for interviews and observation. Both involve writing up that research in order to communicate on a broader platform. And both allow others to engage with my ideas, provide feedback and become part of a wider conversation. Clearly, there are huge differences too and I’m sure many academics would be livid to hear me comparing academia to journalism, but I do believe many of the processes are the same.

Starting a PhD in human geography was a steep learning curve, simply due to the change in subject matter, not in the way I approached writing. Yes, I had to learn some new lingo but now I’m nearing the end of my PhD, I can see that an interdisciplinary background has helped rather than hindered in the long term. It allows me to draw on a broad range of literature, using them as I see fit to build up my argument. One thing I did struggle with at the start was the use of first person. I had been trained before to take a more report-like, business style approach to writing which becomes difficult when you need to discuss and highlight reflexivity as a researcher. My cultural/social geography PhD research draws strongly on ethnographic techniques; hence I had to learn to adopt a narrative approach to my writing and not be afraid to situate myself within my topic.

The fact that I was blogging in a fashion role before my PhD meant that blogging about academia was a natural progression. Not only do I write about PhD life for our departmental postgrad blog, but I also use my academic work as a basis for popular writing on consumption and shopping issues. I’ve found a happy medium where I can have two interlinked elements of my life, and both feed into each other. I hope in the long term my broad networks will lead to interesting collaborations both inside and outside of academia, and mean that my research has a use outside the ivory towers (which is happening more and more across academia anyway). Sometimes I still feel like I have a lot of catching up to do in the social sciences, but no academic knows everything and I intend to make the most of my interdisciplinary background as a strength rather than a weakness.