PhD student launches podcast in campaign for educational equality

Éireann Attridge reflects on the importance of speaking up in widening participation

In her PhD project, Éireann Attridge researches the role of higher education in understandings of social mobility and class. She recently launched a podcast with friend Abigail Agyemang, titled Sisters in Scholarship.

Eireann Headshot

Tell me a bit about your social media channels. What gave you the confidence to share your experiences?

I run The Student Journey channel on YouTube where I share the ups and downs of navigating a PhD (or other journeys in academia). I also recently launched the Sisters in Scholarship podcast with my good friend Abigail Agyemang where we talk about navigating academia.

Sharing that much of yourself online is scary - and scarier when you think of people you know seeing it. I am continuously trying to overcome that worry and just reminding myself that if I am being authentically me then there shouldn't be any hugely negative consequences, and if there are, that is also something to learn from. 

Overall, I think I have weirdly grown comfortable with public speaking. Initiatives such as the Wolfson Research Event are a brilliant introduction to public speaking in an academic setting. However, nothing has helped me develop this skill like working with young people. Working with young people and in school settings before starting my PhD meant I was put in a lot of last-minute situations or group settings where you have to command a crowd. 

I knew that I really honed the skill when, after delivering an assembly on the importance of growth after failure, a student told me, “Miss, in your assembly even my form tutor was smiling - and that's how you know you did good, 'cause he never smiles.”

Can you summarise your educational route to your Cambridge PhD? 

I first joined Cambridge at the age of eighteen from South London, as an undergraduate to study Education and English. I chose the course due to my inability to choose between Sociology and Psychology – subjects I started and really enjoyed at A level. Doing Education Studies enabled me to continue pursuing my interest in both. 

As someone who benefitted a lot from the outreach work conducted by universities local to me (King's College do incredible work in Lambeth) I understood the impact of poverty on access to education, but also the collaborative ways in which this could be addressed. 

Based on that experience, I volunteered frequently during my undergraduate degree and built up a set of skills to work in widening participation and admissions. I did this for a number of years for universities, charities, and schools, interrupting this briefly to do an MSc, and then eventually a PhD.

Tell me about some of your work surrounding educational access and equality. Why is being vocal in this sector so important to you?

There are many fantastic people working in the field of educational access and equality. All are well-meaning and dedicated, but not all have the lived experience to inform their approach – this is the case for a number of charities as can be seen in the Reclaim 'Missing Experts' report

Being put in situations where I share my experience with students from similar backgrounds really helped me develop my confidence in using my voice. I realised that the same skill and 'oversharing' of my experience can be directed up, to those with the power to enforce change at the policy level, as well as down. 

In terms of my methodology, I am very much learning as I go. However, compassion and non-judgement really have to be at the forefront for me. Instead of polishing the individual to make them fit in at the university, I want to ensure we are working to fit around the needs and experiences of the students themselves.

Can you tell me a bit about your own PhD project. Why is your project important to you

My PhD project is a mixed-methods project on how we conceptualise and measure social class and social mobility and the role of higher education in understanding these ideas. It is not exactly what I proposed when I applied, but my supervisor acts as an incredible soundboard and helped me realise that what I was really wanting to look at was these bigger conceptual ideas rather than trends alone.

For my qualitative work within the project, I am using a narrative approach and am really excited to see the ways in which people make sense of their own class identity in relation to education. 

I am hoping to connect with and elevate the voices of my participants. As well as this, I hope I can comment critically on the relevance and importance of the current tools being used to measure or indicate one's class identity or affiliation. Even if I stay in the world of academia, I would really like to contribute something that can be used outside of it.

Have your experiences of the working world changed your approach to PhD life?

Working before a PhD has been an extremely grounding and useful experience. I applied to complete a PhD four years earlier and I was not granted funding. I think I would manage either way, but more work experience will only ever be beneficial. 

Being a programme manager especially means my organisational skills are strong - that isn't to say things don't get overwhelming. The freedom and flexibility of a PhD can sometimes mean you either do nothing or you do everything. I have been in the everything camp for longer than I would like to admit, and I am trying my best to put the boundaries in place to not overexert myself on things that don't serve my PhD, wellbeing, or values. 

What advice would you have for a student considering doing a PhD?

A wonderful staff member from the Accessibility and Disability Resource Centre (ADRC) said, “there's no prize for doing it the hard way,” and I try to remind myself of that every day. 

We joke a lot about the stress of being a graduate student, but if I ever feel that my PhD is hindering my life - that's the day I'll quit! None of this is to say that PhDs cannot be stressful, but it is important to remember that we have agency and can challenge toxic academic culture, as scary as that might be.

Why did you pick Wolfson and how have you found settling into Cambridge life? 

I chose Wolfson as I wanted to be around students of a similar age to me. I have found it challenging at times transitioning back into the role of student and often being assumed to be much younger than I am; I think this is also unique to someone who has been a staff member in most other parts of the university system, but becomes a student in this space. Despite this, I am really happy to be here surrounded by lovely friends and supportive staff. 

Outside my PhD, I am also a member of the University's Powerlifting society, which has been a wonderful group, but also an activity I can do indecently to gain focus and structure. I think as long as you are proactive and look out for these things, there is so much to do, no matter what course you are studying.

What are you most looking forward to for the remainder of your PhD? Do you have any idea where your PhD might take you?

Being able to really sit and mull over my data is something I am really excited about (and then being able to talk about it post viva)! 

Outside academia, I really want to continue to make the most of Cambridge - I have no clear idea where I will be next, so I have to assume my time here is limited. I would love to attend more musical performances across the University, as well as enjoy the access to nature and biodiversity that we are so lucky to have.

As for what's next, I feel that a mix of research and teaching would suit my desire to keep formulating and discussing the big ideas of my PhD project.

Read more

This article is part of the 2024 Postgraduate Student Profile Series.

In April 2024, Éireann took over our Wolfson Instagram stories to show us a day in her PhD life. You can follow Éireann's experience via her own Instagram account @the_student_journeyy and watch her TEDx talk on supporting underrepresented students. 

You can also find out more about Éireann's work on her website and catch up with the first episode of her podcast.

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