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Occupational Hazards: experiences of a PhD student

By Martijn Dekker

The following text was presented as a column at the yearly PhD/MSR student conference of the VU Graduate School for Social Sciences, on the 23rd of September 2011.

I would like to use this opportunity to talk to you about the notion of ‘occupational hazards’.  Usually, these two words refer to dangerous situations that might occur at your workplace. Or injuries that can be caused by work-related activities.

 Interestingly enough, ‘Occupational Hazards’ is also the provisional title of my dissertation. But, since my research topic, which deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is all over the news every day already, and even more of late, I don’t want to bore you with that right now.  Instead, I want to briefly talk about occupational hazards in the literal sense:  about the pathologies, be they psychological or physical, a PhD or Research Master student may incur while doing his or her job. And I want to make this a personal story by zooming in on three of such pathologies I more or less suffered from and which I think may also sound familiar to some of you. These are: anxiety, guilt, and, what I would like to call, the “go it alone mentality”.

First anxiety. I want to explain how I apparently got used to working in a region where violent conflict is more likely to occur than, say, Holland, but suddenly got reminded what an intense feeling of fear feels like. And how it influenced my behavior since.

While living in the West Bank, I used to frequent weekly demonstrations against the so-called Separation Barrier or Apartheid Wall. There are many of these demonstrations but I always went to the little village of Bil’in, because a friend of mine lived there. We not only shared our frustration over the Separation Barrier but also had a common interest in soccer club Barcelona, which is why we became friends in the first place. But anyway, I’d attended the demonstration several times before and, while being there, had to seek shelter from tear gas grenades, suffered from light-headedness from tear gas inhalation, and had to run to keep from being hit by rubber-coated bullets. Because the cat-and-mouse game between the young Palestinian protesters and the equally young Israeli soldiers was exactly the same every week, it had become somewhat of a routine, a game even. Accordingly, I allowed myself to let my guard down. Until early May, that is.

As they did sometimes before, the Israeli soldiers used a new kind of weapon, with which they can fire so-called high-velocity tear gas canisters, which are roughly the size of a soda can and made from aluminum. Although they were developed to cover great distances, the soldiers often shoot them straight ahead, at approximately chest height. It’s needless to say that an aluminum canister that can reach several hundreds of yards can do a lot of damage when hitting a person in the chest or even in the head and indeed, people have been seriously injured and even killed. On that sunny afternoon in May I was running downhill with dozens of other protesters, away from the soldiers, in order to not be caught or hit by something, when I suddenly heard a loud scream. I turned around, which in itself is quite dangerous while running, and I saw a young man standing completely still, while blood came gushing out from a huge hole right in the middle of his forehead, roughly the size of a 2-euro coin. I froze, almost in mid-air, turned around, and sprinted back, to see if I could help. While I ran towards the man, I pushed back nausea as I could literally see his brains through the gaping hole. As people kept speeding past us, I grabbed his arm, together with another man, and dragged him to the ambulance, which sped him to the hospital. Moments later, after returning to the village, I stood shaking, looking at the man’s blood on my pants and shoes, and I remember thinking to myself, “this is not a game, this is not a game.” What followed could come from a movie about tough war reporters: a booze-inspired night out with two journalists in one of the more fancy hotels in Ramallah. Very cliché indeed.

From that day onwards, although I did visit the demonstration a couple of times later on, I never quite experienced that feeling of adventure or excitement I had before. The thrills had faded. I don’t want to say that I lost my innocence or something like that, but I’d certainly become more serious, which ultimately, and regrettably, transformed into a nasty form of cynicism. About demonstrations but also about the whole conflict in general.

The second injury or pathology deals with guilt. I’ve met many friendly people while doing fieldwork and often I’ve asked a lot of them. While being there, I called them my friends. Because, why else would they be so hospitable and open? Or why did they want to be a translator during interviews, free of charge. Yes, I called them friends and rightly so. But now, being back in Holland, I hardly have contact with them. Why? I’m actually not sure. But I simply seem to be unable to just send them an e-mail or even ‘like’ a picture they’ve uploaded on Facebook.

In the end, I think it’s because of guilt. I’m here, living my luxurious life, and practically the only thing I have to worry about is whether I charged the battery of my iPad, so I can listen to my favorite songs on the bus. Alright, true, I also have a PhD dissertation to write but all in all, it’s nothing compared to the living circumstances of my Palestinian friends, who often have to face checkpoints, random arrests, shootings, Kafka-style bureaucracy and a whole range of other nasty stuff that comes with a belligerent occupation. Also, and this sounds terrible, however true it may be, I simply do not WANT to know about their daily predicaments. We simply live completely different lives, are completely different people and maybe it should stay that way. Or so my unconscious self has decided for me. Of course, as an anthropologist I know that it’s all relative. My suffering may by no means be less but just different, so get over it. And besides that, surely they will appreciate my stories and inquiries. Still, I cannot put myself to contact the people I left behind in Palestine, out of a misplaced feeling of guilt. And the fact that I also feel guilty about that, makes it even worse. It’s a vicious circle, indeed.

The last malady I want to discuss is what I call the “go it alone mentality”. This will probably sound very familiar to many of you: the fact that you all have to do it on your own. Sure, people may tell you that’s not true, because there’s for instance your supervisor, or your peers who are suffering from the same self-imposed loneliness. Yes, we can even have nice conferences together, like this one, but your research project, your dissertation or thesis, remains a struggle you have to fight on your own. In the end it is YOU, who has to write those thousands of words.

Doing fieldwork, especially abroad, doesn’t help much. In fact, it makes the whole experience all the more solitary. I’ll gladly admit that there were times when I felt extremely lonely during the months I was away. But the worst of it all, and that’s something you only find out when you return, was in fact coming back home. The feeling that you can’t really share what you’ve experienced, despite the pictures, the e-mails, the weblog or the late-night phone calls, is quite difficult to explain.

When I came back, everything that used to seem so familiar, my home, the food, my friends, they actually appeared rather strange and alien. In fact, everything I longed for while being away, turned out to be quite a disappointment. And what about finding out that the distance between me and my girlfriend turned out to be not just of a geographical nature.


Obviously, such experiences also have other consequences. Physical ones, for example. I picked up smoking only two years ago; and my habit of having a couple of drinks during the weekend has now basically been extended to the whole week. Or what about the roughly 20 pounds I’ve lost abroad…they’re still gone. And probably the strangest thing, I actually came back with a tattoo, much to the surprise of basically everyone who knows me a little.

But, luckily there is a but. In the end, obtaining my PhD entails much more than just reading books and writing papers. The whole process of doing research has taught me valuable things about life. And yes, that includes a lot of difficult and painful things. But, as the cliché goes, what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. In the end, I hope to have not only become a better or smarter scholar but, because of the occupational hazards and life experience, also a better and more sensible person in general.

Martijn Dekker has studied Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam and currently is a PhD Candidate at the Political Science Department.

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