On Growing up in Academia

When I see the friends I met as a schoolchild, at sixth form, or even as an undergraduate, I am struck by a sense that I have put some part of my life – or the life that I might have expected if I had not chosen to do a masters and Ph.D – on hold. This is not necessarily a negative thing at all, but it is noteworthy. There has been some back and forth on various blogs and internet magazines about graduate studies, about whether one should undertake graduate studies or not. Is it worth it? Is the financial risk likely to lead to a sense of disappointment, failure, or resentment if an academic job is not forthcoming? I’m not going to throw my thoughts to the mix, because I have mixed feelings. However, it did make me think about where I am positioned on the timeline of my life.

Over the three-and-a-bit years of my Ph.D. studies, I occasionally revisited thoughts about whether my decision – to pursue further research rather than take a full time job in something else – was the right one. As I have written in previous posts, I took a Marketing and PR Assistant job upon finishing my undergraduate degree, and if I had followed that career path it is likely that by now I would have a decent wage, possibly a mortgage, a good pension plan, two dogs and frequent trips to exotic climes. I might have some job stability and professional qualifications. Several of my friends and family, who did not choose academia, have bought houses and have fully paid off their undergraduate student loans.

The odd one out?

The odd one out?

Me? Well, even as I near my thirties, life is still an exciting question mark. It is hard to conjecture how my life would have panned out up until the present day if I had not chosen academia. For a start, if I had not chosen to do a masters or a Ph.D., the person under consideration would not be me. Though she would be made of the same skin and bones, she would have a different personality, crafted from different experiences and through different relationships. Therefore, what she would want from life might be different from what I want. I know that my basic inclinations would have encouraged me to live my life in a certain way: for example, I have always loved to travel, and have always enjoyed reading, writing, and teaching. However the non-academic me would not have the mingled accent of time spent in York and Oxford and London. She would, doubtless, have more money in her pockets, but she might not have clapped eyes on Melbourne’s laneways, or the Lake Michigan shoreline.  For certain, she would not know what it feels like to pump three years of her life into one piece of work, and have two examiners judge it, and say: ‘yes, it’s good’. But who knows?

As I was writing this blog post, in the cafe of the library, I looked down at the floor because there was a bright yellow piece of paper near to my foot, and it caught my eye. It turns out it was a packet of coffee sweetener, and on the back of the packet was printed: “every journey starts with a small step”. Possibly, the marketing gurus have cleverly designed this to appeal to tired library-bound undergraduates. However, I found it poignant regardless. Sure, I have not taken many steps forward financially over the last five years: in fact, I have taken about three steps back. Despite my stunted development according to the traditional measures of growth (financial security, a stable home, a steady career?), I am happy with how I have fortified myself for the next small step forward in terms of knowledge, experience, and confidence.

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