I’d always been a good student. Always. I was committed, thorough, passionate and organised in my research. I’d built up an impressive list of extra-curricular activities, and I’ve always found it easy to get along with my peers and tutors alike. Three years ago, I finished my undergraduate degree and was unconditionally offered a place on an MPhil in the same department, with a view to moving straight into the Ph.D. on completion. I was living the academic dream … until the day when my application for funding was declined. Then, suddenly, everything got a little bit more difficult. I had absolutely no means of paying for a Ph.D., so I was relying on the idea that my solid academic background and love of my subject would pay off. Alas, it didn’t.
I took out a Career Development Loan and sought out a job to fill the deficit. Unfortunately, in the middle of the recession with a humanities degree, blagging thirty hours a week in the minimum wage job I’d held since I was 14 was the best I could hope for. And so, for the next year, I worked anything between thirty to fifty hours a week on top of my full-time MPhil, fuelled mostly by caffeine and chocolate. My supervisor told me not to worry because I had a great, not-quite-shoo-in-but-close-enough chance of Ph.D. funding, so I continued to scrape a living and spend every waking hour writing, reading, and pouring my heart, soul and sanity into a great AHRC application and MPhil thesis. To cut a long story short: I didn’t get funding. I was devastated.
I couldn’t go full-time on my own, and I’d heard so many horror stories about part-time study that the idea of trying to do it myself filled me with dread. Tales of absent supervisors, a complete lack of respect or concern for part-timers from departments, the disappearance of anything even resembling a social life, and the enormous drain on already tight time and finances were all enough to make me very reluctant to get myself into a part-time study situation. And frankly, I couldn’t afford it now that I was utterly crippled by my Career Development Loan and still on minimum wage. So that September I did not start my Ph.D.
Instead, I started job hunting. Anything would do. And after a year of up to eighty-hour weeks of work and study, at the end of an entire lifetime spent in education, I decided to find some time to claw back my sanity. I joined a gym; I learned to cook; I read bad books for pure pleasure. Six months later, I was a new woman. I’d changed my job, my body, and my outlook, and I felt utterly refreshed. But still, the nagging feeling was there. I still wanted to do my Ph.D., and, notably, in my pursuit of reading for pleasure, I’d stumbled upon a topic that I was really, truly passionate about, in the thrilling, aching, I-need-to-write-this-thesis kind of way. So, I reapplied for funding. And I was declined again. This time, however, it didn’t hurt quite so much. I loved the idea of being a full-time Ph.D. student, and I wanted to get stuck in to my research as deeply and fully as possible, but something strange had happened. It turned out I rather liked my job, too; a job which, I should add, bore absolutely no relation to my academic studies whatsoever.
But … that thesis. I loved that thesis so badly that there was only one thing for it. Self-funded, part-time study. And I can safely say that, in two years of doing that, I’ve been the victim of pretty much every part-time study horror story I’ve mentioned above. Let nobody ever say this is easy. This post is not written to make anyone think that. But what it’s given me is a rather empowering sense of control, a sense that my research is, indeed, mine, and that my study fits around my life, rather than the other way around.
Nowadays, I’d call myself a Ph.D. student. But I’m also forging a pretty good career in marketing. I freelance, too, on projects that excite me, and I have a (generally non-academic) blog, whose readers never cease to amaze me with their kindness. I spend weeks, and even months, without having the time to give my research a second thought, but these will be balanced by equal periods where it is, to all intents and purposes, the absolute love of my life. This is an amazing situation to be in. In contrast, at the time of my first rejection, I was on the edge of a very serious burnout. I was unhealthy, exhausted and frankly, quite depressed. Going into academia on a full-time basis – a career I will be the first to say is amazing, but also challenging and incredibly demanding – would almost certainly have resulted in an eventual breakdown or nervous collapse.
For me, that rejection was the best thing that could’ve happened to me; although if you’d told me that when I first read the letter, I’d have almost certainly thrown a hardback copy of The Arcades Project at the back of your head. But it’s true to say that I enjoy my studies far more now than I ever have before, as something I’m doing for the love of it and as one of many parts of my life. And so I’d say to anyone struggling with applications for funding, or study, or even post-docs and contracts at the other end: rejection hurts, but it’s not the end. At the time it might seem hopeless, or disappointing, or painful, but sometimes, it’s the start of an amazing new journey.