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  • Alexandra Sills

Shrödinger's PhD

As I write this, one thing is happening and one that is supposed to, isn't. Firstly, a recording of my first conference paper is uploading to a drive. Secondly, I have my first MA essay waiting for my eureka moment to rise from the pile of notes and transform into a flurry of typing. Both are, miraculously, well ahead of deadlines so I can relax a bit. Even fairly recently, both were idle dreams. My family have pulled a lot of strings to make this MA financially feasible and to redistribute childcare in order for me to thrive. As for presenting at an academic conference? Truly unbelieveable to me even as I upload. Remembering that I started a BA just to see if I could actually manage to finish one, I'm feeling proud of myself.


But, I am reminded not to become hubristic. I was recently asked if I was applying for the next step. I've had a complicated relationship with the prospect of a PhD. Initially it seemed like an impossible challenge, how on Earth would I of all people manage such a monumental task? And then, when I started getting good marks and eased into the habit of researching, it seemed like an aspiration. But after a while, being exposed to #ClassicsTwitter made undertaking a PhD sound like masochism. Studying for PhDs, from what I can tell, threaten the equilibrium of mental health in a uniquely daunting way. Watching others fight tooth and nail to even get a foot in the door wasn't exactly encouraging, either.


I'd started to feel ambivalent to the idea. Did I need a PhD to do what I want to do? Apparently not, though it might help open doors. Did I want to spend four to seven years putting yet more strain on my family? Their support is enormous but their patience needn't be unnecessarily tested. I've become convinced that academia is a pyramid scheme, or a cult, and when one comes to this realisation the response is to usually try to leave, not ascend to the next tier.


Over the summer, sensible people shared their sage wisdom whenever I asked for it, with the generosity I still refuse to take for granted. "If you don't absolutely need one, you probably shouldn't bother." A few stark realisations regarding MA logistics helped me come to the same conclusion. I have my current fees paid for by a government loan, but as a postgrad the maintenance loans are a thing of the past and all of a sudden the safety net is gone. This year is a financial challenge, and a risk. As a family we are staking our hopes on me working my arse off this year for as good a result as possible because as soon as I graduate I need to start earning. The pressure is turned up. I can't imagine turning one stressful year into five, with each year our chances of destitution growing. Particularly now.


I'd made my peace with it. I have a love-hate relationship with academia anyway, and planned to carve my own path after this year away from it. That is, until a number of people, with varying degrees of nonchalance, explained what a stipend was. Remember, I'm a first gen BA graduand. I have no clue how any if this postgrad stuff works and what little I do know was picked up anecdotally. All I thought I knew was that stipends were paltry. But then I saw what amount on scholarship was offering, and it was more than I'd been earning part time before my Covid redundancy. Not enough to live on if I were single, but comfortable enough supplementing our household income. All of a sudden, in my naïveté, a PhD suddenly started to seem like a viable option.


It only takes a moment to get caught up in an idea. If, for instance, you admit to friends that you're going to throw caution to the wind and apply first for a place and then for funding, you will will receive a wave of enthusiasm and support. I know, because I did this week. Within twentyfour hours, reality brought my nascent aspirations firmly down a rung or six. I'd have to form a proposal, find a supervisor, be accepted, apply for funding and cross my fingers, and by this point I had six weeks or so to do it. I'd have to do this all whilst writing my very first MA assignments. I haven't started thinking about MA dissertation topics. How does this make sense? I have barely gotten used to working at an MA level, with its different expectations and new pressures. I'm supposed to stress about the next level before I've even settled into this one? I also hadn't really grasped how rare funding is, nor how competitive it is. But hey, if I really want one I can study something I have no interest in whatsoever, because that's the project that got funding.


Optimism thus snuffed out pretty quickly, I'm loathe to put myself through yet more trials and tribulations. Best to focus on the MA at hand, which was the initial plan anyway. The hoops are getting higher and smaller, and I haven't learned how to jump through the ones immediately in front of me yet. I tell myself 'next year,' but realistically even then I'm setting myself up for disappointment. I'd love nothing more than to get some money for delving into my pet project (which is criminally understudied and ripe for me to exploit, sadly enough,) but I have to manage my expectations. The PhD system was not built for people like me. It is what it is.


Why AM I so tempted by a title, anyway? Is it to prove something? And to who, exactly? Is it because finally getting one would be a massive middle finger to the establishment who made it so difficult to achieve in the first place? Getting a PhD out of spite hardly seems like a healthy way to spend half a decade. To redress the balance a little? One more working class doctor breaking the barriers down? A pointless endeavour unless I manage to work out how to help others do the same. Will a title help me feel accepted in an exclusionary discipline? I think we all know the answer to that. So for now at least, I'm trying to be philosophical about it. I do not need one. Getting one will not assauge the chip on my shoulder. A rollover lottery jackpot to fund 10 PhDs could not alleviate that, the damage is done.


It is enough, because it has to be, that people who know me, who have taught me, believe that I could do it if I wanted to and could afford to. It is enough that they will commiserate with me if I decide that I can't. No-one will think any less of me if I don't get one, and better, more resilient people than I have jumped off of the academic conveyor belt of stress without one. I'm not sure it's easier to accept that it is the restrictions of being working class with dependants that makes this decision for me and not that I wasn't intellectually up for the challenge. Neither, to a point, are factors within my control after all, but accept it I must. The box remains closed, with no way of knowing whether I'd have thrived or floundered.


Enough navel gazing, I have essays to write. If this is my last year, I intend to go out on a high.

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