Eleanor Malbon is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales and an aborted PhD candidate. She researches social policy and public administration, which can be as dry as it sounds, but the people she works with are consistently interesting. You can find her research profile here and most of her published work is available on academia.com
In February I was made one of those offers that you can’t refuse, a true gift for an early career academic; I was offered a PhD place and a scholarship for work that I am already paid to do.
This would essentially mean that I could get a PhD the easy way. I could take the journal articles that I’m already writing and publishing (as a Level A academic) and wrap them into a PhD by publication, with a bit of extra writing to tie it all together. Plus I would get both a salary and a scholarship to do it. This is like getting a really big cake. My supervisor said to me “I wish someone had offered me an opportunity like this”.
I felt that I should take the opportunity because it was rare and good. I applied. I prepared my partner and my sister by saying “I need you to support me in this”. I told some other friends that I was excited. I pinned the proposal to my wall.
Then I freaked the fuck out.
I have a history of anxiety. That’s a nice way of saying that I currently have crippling anxiety and I have done for years. My anxiety episodes can last for weeks or months, and I can find it pretty hard to do anything except get myself fed, showered, and show up at the doorstep of my job. But some days, not even that.
In the days after I applied for the PhD I crashed. The main issue is that my work and the proposed PhD is in the discipline of social policy, and while I don’t yet know what my academic direction is, I know that it isn’t social policy. I was going to end up with a PhD in an area that I don’t even want to work in for the long term, while simultaneously not even knowing what I do want to research for the long term!
It was clear to me that I was acting out of fear. I applied because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to keep my research position without enrolling in a PhD. I was scared that the Australian government would start charging students for PhDs. I was scared that I would look back at my work and wish that I had done a PhD (so I could go on to do a post-doc and keep running up the academic ladder).
I applied because it seemed like an easy way to get a PhD and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to finish one otherwise.
But when I thought of not doing the PhD I had applied for I had a double loop of fear. Then I was scared that my anxiety was holding me back from achieving the things that I might be able to achieve if I were more confident, more decisive, more diligent and generally more ‘correct’ in the world of universities. Academia doesn’t make a lot of space for people who aren’t sure of themselves, it tends to eat them alive.
It was months before I made the obvious decision: I declined the offer. By this time at least, most of my closest colleagues and friends knew that I didn’t want to do this PhD. They helped me decline it.
This experience opened up something else in me. I started to try to tell the truth to my friends and to my colleagues. I started to tell them that my current work is only my job, it’s not my passion, and I don’t yet know what my ‘passion’ is and that I’m even starting to suspect that I don’t have one.
It’s an interesting experience to look my academic colleagues in the eye and tell them that ‘this is just a job for me’ and ‘I don’t want to be a Professor by the age of 35, and maybe never at all’. It’s not something that we often hear in academia. I don’t want to be defined by my job, by my relationship to cultural or economic capital, I’d rather be defined by my relationship to the people and ecosystems around me. I’d rather be able to be flexible in my work and listen to myself when I think I might need to leave.
This makes me different in academia, because an overwhelming narrative is that we are working to our passions and strengths, that we are giving social commentary in the hope that someone listens and it helps to solve some of the biggest questions we that face like climate change and global migration and how to act respectfully towards each other. But for me, for now, it’s just a job that offers me stability and kind colleagues while I try to look after my mental health.
I know that my reluctance to put my career first might mean that I don’t progress, or that eventually I stop getting work in academia.
Is there a place for me in academia? Is there a place for someone who insists on treating it as ‘just a job’? Are millenials even allowed to admit that they do something that is hard, challenging and time consuming just for the money, security and stability?
I want to keep making academia work for me. There are systemic problems that could mean that it might not always work for me, and at that time I will leave. But the key factor to remember is that my job needs to work for me and for my life, not the other way around. I’m going to keep researching, writing and giving conference presentations, not because it is my passion, but because it is my job and I’m good at it.
But when I do a PhD, that will be for me.
Thanks for honestly sharing this experience Eleanor – and for raising some pretty interesting questions about the nature of academic work. What about you? Do you think academia can just be a job, or does it have to be a passion? Do you sometimes wish you had refused the offer of a PhD? Love to hear your responses in the comments.