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The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Emer Emily Neenan is about to finish her PhD at the School of Education, where she is studying Earth Science education in Irish schools



Word by Word

Emer Emily Neenan

July 2020



How does a research student

trying not to lose the

momentum, precarious

in a scary rush to finish up,

during a global catastrophe,

trying to catch some sleep,

find the time to rhyme a line

about her process? 




When I was maybe four years old

I thought about it hard, and told

my mother that one day I’d be

Professor Emer, listen to me!


She said I’d need a PhD.


A winding path; from Physics to Geology,

a half-turn back, Seismology,

then sideways, to where I’m meant to be

a Science Education degree


Begun in the summer of 2016,

That year everything seemed to split

Into before and after, remember it?

Pokémon GO on every phone screen

EU’s crisis of refugees to admit

And Britain and the US going to--

make historically questionable decisions. But,


I started this.

This journey, this learning,

this fire I set burning.

For all or for naught.

At 26, unmarried, childless, 

And neurotypical (I thought)

Ready for four years or a while less.


A first paper, intentions,

A wedding and honeymoon,

Opportunities, summer schools

Forgetting, remembering,

Delays and fits and starts and slog, 

Tears and laughter, the odd blog,

Finding a place in the Arts & Humanities,

Finding a way to deal with a pregnancy,

Meanwhile I get diagnoses by degrees,

And clutter myself with stress and anxieties, but


I started this

As a positivist, positively passionately restricted

Certain, stiff but brittle, but I learned to stick with this

Discomfort, little by little, the seduction of the dutile,

Constructing a conversation and exploring philosophy--

Turns out I’m a philosopher!

A whole new world of ontological puzzles

I love it.

I defined myself within pragmatism

As I find my self-created baggage isn’t a failing

Ignoring it is

I can bring my whole person to this

And I did.


And I’m a perfectionist, but I know

That flaws are inevitable, in research doubly so

All we can do is note and learn

Go with the flow

And try our best to earn

Wisdom to bring with us where next we go




Here I am.


See, they noticed I was “gifted”

When I was pretty small

They noticed lots about me

But they didn’t notice all

I am

a girl become a woman whose








What is it to be 

thirty, third degree, 

interrogating, waiting,

third generation, lucky, looking,

weighing downs and ups

and oops and luck?


Getting stuck.


And look, the path between the trees

The seeking weeds, the thawing freeze

That eases very soft and slow

Releases all at once, and no

I will not come this way again

A sharp spring day, a breath of air

A prying disbeliever’s prayer

I cannot come this way again

I walk back home, I raise my pen


or touch the keys




                        by word





but sometimes at once all too many come flooding too fast to 






How does a writer--

Am I a writer?

Who is a writer?
A night or two of panicked queries,

Half-remembered theories,


But listen. This is how it goes.


Everything changes us. 

Sometimes a lot.

I don’t know what I am

Till I see what I wrote.




How does an all-or-nothing

young wan

pale and sickly, all go

too-fast, too-slow, bimodal

researcher queer as any folk,

Feminist, fed up of this, 

obsessed with the poetry of prose,

now a mammy on top of it,

keep going?



by word.



Emer Emily Neenan

Emer Emily Neenan is about to finish her PhD at the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, where she is studying Earth Science education in Irish schools. Her project was funded by an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Geology from Trinity College Dublin, and a MSc in Geology (Seismology) undertaken at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Geophysics Section. She enjoys exploring alternative ways of expressing science and research, including poetry, creative non-fiction, graphic design, and painting.