This guest post comes from a first-year PhD student in the UK who, having travelled several thousand miles to come here – and arguably an even bigger leap from a relatively-stable professional career to the uncertainty of studying for a doctorate – writes from somewhere in-between, and wonders whether it might be possible to have both.
People would usually say you hit young adulthood in your late teens/early twenties, but I disagree. I think it’s the age you are where you’ve stopped your formal education, found a job you’ve been in for a few years and then find yourself sucked into the world that sees you through to retirement. That’s when shit gets real (and I think many of us start to google the term ‘quarter-life crisis’).
In our twenties, we tend to feel like the world is at our feet and we have endless opportunities to do, see, be whatever and whoever we like. There’s a freedom that comes with youth and not being tied down to any responsibilities in particular, only what you choose to be associated with. You come and go between things and people, have new experiences and try to figure out who you are. We do this outside of office hours – the place where we think we are building our future career – or at least, where we are earning the dough that lets us do all the fun stuff.
But what happens when you decide you want something different? When you decide student life was so much more fun than what you are doing now? When office politics, or the dread of doing the same thing…forever, takes hold and you want to run away?
I’ve been there. Making that decision is the biggest relief and injection of confidence into one’s feeling of freedom and self-determination. You’ve made a decision that takes you out of the grind and offers an escape to the ‘responsibility free’ life you remembered as a student. I was stoked when I took that leap forward. I thought – ‘that’s it, I am the controller of my own destiny’. While I still think that’s the case, it’s also the reason I find myself being drawn back to that safe, secure and grounded life I used to have.
I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I think I’ve grown out of being ‘just a student’. At this point, I know society has won and I have succumbed to what many would call ‘normality’ or ‘expectation’.
I’m happy to admit that it feels a bit self-indulgent to be venting about this. Most people could probably argue that this is a somewhat unnecessary and privileged problem to have. I spoke to friends on this recently and they made a fair point. We are always better off than some, but always worse off than others. Their advice was to be real to who I am and where I am in life and work with that – honestly and productively.
I realise I sound a bit down in the mud. But it’s actually been somewhat of a positive awakening. Through this adventure back into Student-dom and by living on the other side of the world, I’ve come to appreciate what I had and what a good life I had back home. You don’t really know the true worth of an experience, a job, family, friends, a lifestyle even- until you transport yourself out of it and have a taste at an alternate future. This has made me appreciate the strength and opportunity in what I had before, and why so many people said ‘Why on earth are you leaving this all behind!?’. I laugh about it now, though it previously made me feel quite indignant at why my life choices were being questioned. I now humbly acknowledge that others were right – well, partially, at least.
These last six months have been a real journey. And I am going to be cheesy and say that I feel like a different, more assured person now. My conclusion, as self-indulgent as ever, is ‘why can’t I just have both?’. Yes, think of the Old el Paso kid (she is my inspiration). I have decided that I am going to challenge myself that bit further and try have the best of both.
I am going to be the good citizen worker bee who is building their life and future, but I am going to keep going on this maze of a PhD as well. I will force myself to be more structured, organised and present. I will push myself intellectually both in my work and my research. I will set up a future life for risk-averse me and live in the now for the social, aspirational academic in me. Keep the wick burning at both ends of the candle. Hopefully my loved ones can be patient with my while I try to do it all. But more importantly, I hope I can be patient with myself while I try to achieve everything. I think it’s the only way I have a shot at finding contentment in life. Let’s see how we go…