Learning to eat my vegetables: food and the PhD experience

The following post was published on Pubs and Publications, a blog curating musings on the PhD experience. We enjoyed it so much we wanted to share it, thank you to the Pubs and Pubs team and Laura for letting us do so! Based at the University of Edinburgh, they are always looking for contributions from across the UK and beyond.

There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve looked on, often in despair, at other PhD students’ lunches. I look down at my somewhat deflated looking sandwiches whilst they are happily heating up what looks to be something ridiculously healthy. There’s green stuff in it. Green. I try and hide my Wotsits, or whatever other kind of junk I’ve felt like polluting my body with this week. Judging my lunches next to theirs’, I feel like I’m still in secondary school, somehow. When did people ‘grow up’ and start eating so well?

Erich O. Krueger 'So klappt es besser!', Ferienplatz Schloßpark Charlottenburg in Berlin 1947.
Erich O. Krueger
‘So klappt es besser!,
Ferienplatz Schloßpark Charlottenburg’, 1947.

I Google “PhD students eating” because I’m a lazy researcher at heart. Aside from some of the usually surreal stock photos that pop up (there’s pizza, obviously), numerous articles pop up on how to eat healthily as a grad student. There are the usual tips that seem to litter advice articles like this: buy seasonal, check out discounts, cook at home. This isn’t an advice article. I’m not here to tell you how to eat properly, because I don’t. I know plenty of PhD students who find time to cook, eat well, and manage a thousand other things, too. You really should ask them, because I’m only just beginning to learn how to not eat like a devil-may-care teenager who lives on a diet of Doritos and toast.

The fact is that many PhD students suffer from time poverty. Sociologists often talk of the importance of the link between time poverty, income poverty, and poor food choices. I’m not suggesting for a moment that PhD students suffer from the same level of structural inequalities that are forcing many of Britain’s working-class households into foodbanks, though it’s interesting to note that the reality for many American PhD students is not too far off that.

I’m far from being a ‘foodie’, too. In my family, food is fuel. It’s not something to be pondered over, enjoyed, or particularly savoured. Whenever I attend post-conference dinners I’m usually the first to finish because, to me, food isn’t something you talk over, in particular. You grab it, you go, you get on with things. The normal sites of academic sociability – the pub, the restaurant – are preconfigured upon a certain way of doing: of drinking, of eating, of, in a word, savouring.

Then there’s the darker side of food in the PhD. A study of graduate students at Northwestern in 2005 revealed that more than 80% of respondents were dissatisfied with their body image. The normalisation of mental illness within academia makes the matter more difficult. The ways in which socialising in academia is structured around seemingly innocuous acts of consumption – the post-talk nibbles, the conference sandwiches, the bigwig dinner – is a potential minefield for people with eating disorders or any number of food issues. At the same time the irregular working hours and idiosyncratic nature of PhD life in general fosters an environment where erratic eating habits can become the norm. I’m not sure what solutions there are, if any. You’ve probably heard them all before: more funding for on-campus counselling, better pastoral training for academic staff, the list goes on. Meanwhile, we’ll all keep muddling on.

puppy with food

The PhD has been a learning curve for me, in a way. Getting over eating in front of people is one thing. Learning that, yes, even though I’m exhausted, I should cook, is another. I’ve tried to see cooking not as a hindrance or a bother but as a form of self-care. Chopping vegetables is oddly therapeutic. And, unlike your thesis, the result is immediate. It’s a tiny baby of an achievement in a life that feels peppered with half-starts: yes, you have made this curry, and it is delicious, even if that chapter is still giving you a headache.

Conference sandwiches really are awful, though. I think I’ll carry on bringing my own.


Laura Newman is a third year PhD student currently based at the Science Museum, London and King’s College London. Her AHRC funded collaborative doctoral project, ‘Making germs real: creating, performing and learning about a dangerous invisible thing in the public sphere’, looks at occupational histories of knowledge about germ theories in Britain from c.1880-1930. She has a long-standing interest in museums and public history. She tweets mostly nonsense but occasionally history related things @hegelsbagel.

Images 1 and 2 (c) http://www.wikimedia.org

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