Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The final nail.

This week I put the final nail in my coffin for following my ambition to get a PhD and start on a career in academia - I withdrew my last pending paper from my university's journal - and it feels good!

It shouldn't feel good. But it does. I think.

Basically, in my final weeks at university as a mature student back in 2006, my supervisor casually mentioned that if I didn't feel I was done, they were taking applications for students to do a 1+3 studentship (which is basically a recognised masters degree, followed by a three-year PhD programme, all fully funded). To be honest, I wasn't done with studying. I'd gone back to university as a 26-year old, sought-after print professional to do something completely random and I'd loved it. When I graduated I was an almost 30-year old mother of a toddler with a first-class honours degree, being only one of two students to get a first on my degree programme. Studying suited me. It didn't suit my bank balance, but as a woman with a young child, and a husband in a full-time job, studying was challenging with enough flexibility to make things work.

I made some casual enquiries with a post-grad student I knew to talk to, and she, as a fellow mother herself, convinced me that it was a good move. With full funding and a tax-free stipend equivalent to a full-time job, it was a no-brainer, even if I didn't know what I wanted to do afterwards. I gave up studying for finals, and started pulling together a research proposal. I got my supervisor to sign it, convinced a lecturer who knew my face to second it, and sent it off.

With finals done, and results in, I got down to the last three for the department's studentship, and completely bombed the interview. Again. I hate interviews. By the time the preferred student hadn't shown up, and they gave me a second chance to bid for the position, I was pregnant with T2. I turned them down. I didn't have time for this now.

In the meantime, I'd applied for studentships at two other Yorkshire universities and came close on both occasions - one rang to tell me I was the panel's second choice on a 3-2 split! I had looked into selling our house and moving us all lock, stock, and barrel to a city 70 miles away. I was so convinced I was going.

After the birth of T2, I got a job with the local authority but I continued to look into studentships. None seemed to suit, especially now I had two children to worry about and pay childcare for. I needed something close to home, and that meant looking at opportunities at my local university only. I knew it would be tough and competitive but I was determined. Had I the option of being able to uproot at a week's notice and take a position at the other end of the country, or abroad even, then who knows? Bit I didn't, so its, well, academic. 

Then I spotted an interesting project with funding for one year, leading to a masters degree at Durham University, which is at least a two hour drive away. But Durham! As a child from a very working class background where any university wasn't an option, here I was suddenly eligible to go to one considered third only to Oxford and Cambridge. I applied. I got it. I quit my stable job and embarked on an academic path once more.

Working mainly from home, and commuting to Durham for supervisory visits, I carried out the research, and my new supervisors helped me look into extending the 1 into a 1 + 3. Nothing seemed to work out, but my supervisors and I kept a look out for any opportunities. At the end of the twelve months, and pregnant with the twins, I handed in my thesis and waited for graduation. Then nothing. I had nothing to go to. No job. No academic position. I was now a stay-at-home mum to my family which had now doubled in size.

But I kept in touch with my supervisors. I spoke at a postgraduate conference at Durham University on my specialist subject. I started writing a paper for the journal that would be produced from the conference. This was in 2011, the year the twins were born.

I also started co-authoring a paper with my supervisors. They were a brilliant support and with their weight behind it, it had a good chance of getting published. We finished it after weeks of to-ing and fro-ing by email, and submitted it to my supervisors' first choice journal. It took weeks, months even. It got rejected because the topic wasn't suitable for the journal. We chose a more suitable journal, edited the paper, sent it for approval. It got a lot of criticism. Criticism that we couldn't address because my research didn't fit their questions. I knew I was right on my findings but because the subject is new and specialist, the journal had too many questions and we weren't giving what it considered to be the right answers. Sounds like excuses now, but they aren't. I stand by everything that I did. I know I'm not wrong, but I'm not in the business of trying to convince those who think they know better. That's their problem, and with four children to care for and a house to run, I certainly didn't have time to waste doing it.

We submitted the paper to a journal of my suggestion. It took months to come back, and only after we chased them. This is now 2013, three years after I did the initial research. To say things drag on in academia is an understatement. The main criticism of my research was that it was out of date. Go figure! We withdrew the paper. The last email I sent to my supervisor was me saying I haven't got time for any more re-writes, as well she hasn't. We're in touch but not much.

Before Christmas, I received an email from the university journal with some questions about the paper I submitted after the 2011 conference. Two years later. I answered them as best I could and resubmitted. They sent it back with more questions. I returned saying I couldn't answer them as my research showed what it showed, and I couldn't re-do it or re-visit it to make my research fit what they wanted it to say.

They gave me some 'friendly' advice which was basically a nice way of saying that if I wanted to succeed in academia, I had to toe the line. And that was it. I knew there and then what I think I had known all along - I didn't want to succeed in academia. So I did what I do when something in my life is proving problematic. I got rid. 

I had pursued it because the practical side of me knew it could be a good lifestyle choice at the time, and I felt I had something to prove. I now know that I don't have to prove anything to anyone, and certainly not to people who only like to hear what fits their thinking. 

I know I don't have the personality to last very long in an academic world. I am too much of a lone-ranger, and quickly lose respect for those who eke stupid. I have little respect for authority, preferring to judge others on their actions rather than an arbitrary title. Academia is as full of stupids as it is of intellects. While I may crave the approval of the proven eggheads, I haven't got the patience to work through the stupids to get there. In any case, I may turn out to be one of the stupids I detest so much. I will end up throat-punching someone before the end of the first semester. I lasted less than a year at the council. I don't see why an academic institution would fare much better. 

And at almost 40 years old, do I really want to be starting my new career as a junior researcher? I'll only have 20 or so years left in me after that. A lot of academics take this long even to get to junior lecturer level. I should have taken the decision long ago - a PhD is not a good investment for me, mentally, or as a career booster. The degrees were, in a lot of respects, a waste of time. As a development tool, they were amazing and I'd do it all over again. As a career tool, I should have stayed in printing. I haven't earned as much as I did when I was 25 years old, childfree and without any letters after my name whatsoever.

Career-wise, I have all the professional flexibility I need right now. I have taken up freelancing and can turn down work as much as I need to. I can concentrate on my family while having something to challenge me mentally at times when I am ready for those challenges. I have my clients - happy clients who pay.

Most of all, I have my girls. While a big part of me wanted to succeed to show them that women can do just as well as men in academia, I can't justify bringing us all down to prove a point. 

I'm a bit sad about it all. I'm happy too. The word I think I'm looking for is relief. It is, yes. Relief. 


  1. Oh sweetheart. I'm so glad you've come to an understanding for yourself, but I am so sorry you've had such a difficult journey. I too would love to work in academia, I just lack commitment, it sounds as though you've all the skills and abilities but just came across a bunch of numpties.
    Really happy you've found something now that works for you and you can be the master of your own destiny! xx

    1. It has been a difficult journey and one I sometimes wish I hadn't started, but then I'd be sat here wondering 'what if' instead, so it's one that was necessary. Thank you, your comment made me cry a little bit.

  2. Oh blimey. I can't believe that happened! It sounds like you've made the right decision for you and the family though.

  3. Crikey, that is quite some journey you've been on! It is always great to be able to breathe a sigh of relief when you have made a decision :)

    1. A decision made is a good decision as far as I'm concerned. Onward!

  4. Well Congratulations you on not toe ing the line and sticking to your guns. They're, perhaps the kind of people who will come back to your work one day with something akin to - she was right, the world isn't flat after all! I know what you mean about them wanting to put your name to what they want to say -I've had it with my healing work in TV and the media. I got rid too. You're an amazing woman and will go far in any direction your choose. Their loss is your family's gain (and thereby yours too!) XXX


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