Bold requests


What was your last “bold request”? 

We are PhD students in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada who began our MA theses together in 2015. Both first-in-our-family graduate students, and lovers of learning, we were motivated to make the most of our experiences as graduate students. One way that we’ve attempted this is through “bold requests”. Here, we explain what a bold request is, what might stop one from making a bold request, and some examples of the bold requests we’ve made (and what happened).

What a bold request is

Neither of us can remember exactly how “bold requests” came about, but at some point, we came up with the name and the general idea that we should be bold and ask for things we want—things that may be outside our comfort zones. We both realised the luxury and privilege we had to be in the position of novice researchers. Graduate school is a bit like playing in the sandbox on a huge playground for us. Sometimes it’s a bit rough and tumble, and you encounter bullies (among other obstacles), but there is also a sort of freedom to graduate school. If we don’t dream big now, we mused, when will we?

Sometimes the requests result in us getting what we want (what we really really want), and sometimes they do not. However, although they entail action, bold requests are more than that—they are an ethos. Bold requests have helped us to shift our thinking from “we could never do that” to “let’s try it and see what happens.” They’re like an antidote—or perhaps a multivitamin—for imposter syndrome.

It is all too easy as a graduate student to isolate yourself and quietly despair that you’re not good enough, not smart enough, can’t write well enough, etc. Bold requests can make you feel accomplished and proactive. Additionally, it’s also useful to practice bold requests with other PhD friends. When we make bold requests, we can’t wait to tell each other. We celebrate that request, no matter the outcome. The social aspect of bold requests is one of its key advantages; we could certainly make bold requests alone, but it’s more fun to share. Planning and chatting about bold requests fosters a sense of community and makes us feel we’re not alone in our struggles—one of our core goals as feminist student researchers.

Some examples of the bold requests we’ve made (and what happened)

We’ve both boldly requested scholarships, awards, meetings (we even boldly requested to publish a blog post on the Thesis Whisperer, a site we both admire). Britt co-edited a special issue for a national journal as the result of a bold request. We both have emailed academic rock stars (gasp!). And they’ve responded (double gasp!). Lisa emailed her academic idol, Deborah Cameron (the feminist linguist) to ask if she could work with her at Oxford. Professor Cameron said no (kindly) but offered some advice about Lisa’s research, and some ideas about who she might work with in future. Wow! Rather than being disappointed with her response, Lisa was proud for trying. That’s the thing about bold requests: even when you don’t get what you want, just the act of requesting is empowering somehow.

We’ve won awards, grants, and jobs; met big names in our fields; and created relationships with mentors and colleagues that we had not dreamt would be possible so early in our academic career. The key is in the practice of putting oneself forward. For anyone who has ever questioned their worth, engaging in a bold request is a big deal because it sends the message to ourselves that we matter enough to ask for what we want. Of course, it follows that not all requests will be granted—but some will! All we can say is that bold requests as an ethos has worked for us.

What stops people making bold requests?

So, perhaps by now you are ready to sprinkle the seeds of bold requests far and wide and see what springs up. But, like everything, there are a few caveats that would be remiss of us not to mention.

The first is not to bold request yourself right into a burnout. As you may have gleaned from our stories, bold requests can be simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking, and we tend to choose our requests carefully in order to minimise stress.

Second, don’t be a stalker. While we’ve never had any request-ee respond negatively to us, we also don’t advocate pushiness. We find that generally, the golden rule applies: treat others as you would like to be treated.

Finally, we acknowledge that idea of bold requests comes across as very ‘neoliberal’. It in some ways implies that we suddenly make everything new and shiny in the dreary world of times to completion and increasing pressures to amp up our productivity. Equally, it implies that one merely need to find a way to play the game but don’t change it, as well as well as patriarchal (“just put on your best face”) and white privilege-y (“the only thing standing between you and your success is a lack of bravery”).

These are important criticisms. We see ourselves as implicated in an institution that is at times incommensurable with our desires for liberation. Rather than attempting to wave a majick wand to clear this all away with a grand convenient statement, we like to think of bold requests as a way to engage in “system hacking” (de Oliveira Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew, and Hunt, 2015)

We may sound like sneaky salespeople but all we can say is to try it. Make a few bold requests and share them with a friend (but don’t hold them too tightly—as Britt’s dad says, “plan the plan, but don’t plan the outcome”). We came to academia to think as big as we can, so we encourage you to find some friends you can stick with and hold each other accountable to your best and brightest thinking. We hope this post is of benefit to you.

Author Bios: Brittany Amell and Lisa Armstrong are both PhD students in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University, Canada.