Next month will see me out of paid employment, packing a suitcase, picking up my life and leaving my home in the balmy south-east to start a new life in the great unknown…the north of England! What could induce a young professional in her mid-twenties do such a thing? What indeed…
Last week I had a wonderful send-off from my paid job as a Web Editor after handing in my notice the month before. In just a few weeks I’ll be about 200 miles away from my long-term partner and all my family and friends, in York. Once there I’ll only have a finite amount of savings upon which to live. I’ll have to apply my little bottom off for any and all funding I can find, and might get a career development loan or a part-time job. Or start busking.
On paper this sounds like madness, I know. Why would I give up financial stability and a successful career in editing, especially with the economic climate being what it is? Why would I leave everyone I love to move to a city of strangers? The answer is that I’m giving it all up to do a PhD in Medieval Studies…! I’m full of an excited fear that makes the blood in my veins sing. I am alive. I am on a precipice. There is no certainty that this will all work out. This is the unnerving leap into the beyond that makes life an adventure, rather than monotonous apathy.
I’m sure some people must think I’m bonkers (although everyone’s been polite enough to refrain from saying that to my face) but there wasn’t a single moment’s hesitation about what I was going to do when I received my offer of a place at York, which was my university of choice. Although some tough thinking did follow later. But for others out there, the decision may not come so easily, and I hope that this post might speak to you. I’m not going to advise you to make the choice that I did, because that might not necessarily work best for you, but I am going to be honest about the reasons for the choice I made. There is a lot to consider when you make such a huge life-change, especially when you’re in your mid- to late-twenties, everyone around you seems to be getting mortgages and buying houses, marrying and having babies and your mum delicately points out that you might be at your physiological peak (‘your eggs aren’t getting any younger!’). You might find yourself wondering one cold blustery night as I did: Am I doing the right thing? For me the answer was a resounding YES! And this is why.
Financial stability is a myth… especially now.
I was lucky enough to get full-time editorial work in publishing the month after I graduated from my undergraduate degree, which also happened to be the month before the recession hit the UK in full force. I am well aware that I was one of the fortunate ones. Since then I’ve had steady editorial roles with just a few weeks out of work here and there between posts. But… In all that time (about five years) I’ve only been on temporary contracts. Granted, they were long temporary contracts (9 months to a year) and yes, they did all get extended or become ‘permanent’ (I’ll tell you why that word is in inverted commas momentarily), but they still meant I didn’t feel confident about where my money would be coming from in one, two or five years’ time – not the ideal conditions in which to get a mortgage. Plus if I wanted to start a family, I wouldn’t have any access to maternity pay. Luckily I didn’t want either of these things at that point in my life, but you get the picture.
In fact, the only job I had that got made permanent (before the one I just left, which also did… eventually) turned out to be anything but. The company I was in decided to have a huge restructure just a few months later. Most of my department was made redundant, including me. This experience taught me that financial stability is a myth. There are no longer ‘jobs for life’ – the worker of today has to be extremely agile and flexible. One very good friend of mine who was made redundant from the same department as me has just been made redundant from another job less than a year later because they’re restructuring too! It’s no reflection on her abilities whatsoever – she’s incredibly talented and has plenty of excellent experience – it’s a reflection on the mentality that many companies seem to have at the moment. Restructuring is in vogue. So if you forgo your dream because of so-called financial stability, whether that dream is to complete a PhD and start a career in academia like me, or to open a chicken farm in Tasmania, then you might live to regret it. More money can always be made, but a dream once put aside might be hard to pick up again later on in life. This leads me on to my next reason…
Fewer responsibilities means greater liberty.
Some people have asked me why I don’t continue in my editorial career and leave the PhD until a later date, after I’ve done the whole buying a house and having children thing while I’ve got a job. This sounds eminently sensible, non? And so it would be, if these were my priorities. And if jobs were stable, which they don’t seem to be anymore (see point above). Perhaps my priorities will be a house and children, one day. But at the present moment my priority is myself and my own development. Besides, when/if I do eventually get a mortgage or have children, how could I justify spending such a huge amount of time, money and effort on something so arguably selfish as doing a PhD? It would undoubtedly be much harder, if not impossible, to justify. No, the time is now.
Straddling two worlds means that you might not be able to give 100% to either of them.
I worked full-time whilst completing a Masters part-time over the course of two years. I worked because I didn’t want to get out a loan to pay for my Masters and I was making decent money. I enjoyed my job too. Plus I was thinking in practical terms: I’d never done a Masters before – I might hate it. If I found that I did hate it (which quite honestly I didn’t expect to happen, but you never know), then I’d still have my career in publishing to fall back on. This was sensible and definitely the right thing for me to do at the time. However, it did mean that I felt constantly overworked, had little time to spare for leisure activities, including seeing friends and family, and felt guilty every moment I didn’t spend working or studying. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week, and I felt exhausted quite a lot of the time. Plus I got made redundant slap-bang in the middle of my Masters, so had to dedicate quite a lot of time to job-hunting that I definitely would have preferred to spend studying. A lot of the time I felt like I was split down the middle and straddling two worlds: the professional world of publishing and that of medieval academia. I often felt that I couldn’t dedicate 100% of my energies to either one, and I’m sure both must have suffered slightly as a result.
Those two years made me realise that I had to make a choice. I knew I wanted to do a PhD, and yes, I could conceivably do one part-time over a period of around six years while I continued in my editorial career, but what sort of human wreck would I be by the end? Also, how would this division of energies affect the quality of both my PhD and career? I’m sure it wouldn’t be so bad if my professional career was in medieval publishing or something similar, but alas, it was on completely different aspects of education, spanning from the Arden Shakespeare to hair and beauty vocational courses. No. I knew that I had to go whole-hog and do this PhD thing right, or not do it at all. I know that not everyone has the liberty to make this choice, and I’m sure that many people must complete PhDs part-time whilst continuing in their career and do a fantastic job of both. I admire those people more than I can say. But I just know that it isn’t for me.
Life’s too short not to follow your dreams.
Last but by no means least is my most important reason for packing up my life and moving to York to do a PhD. Call me a romantic, call me a dreamer (I can be both at times), but as far as any of us know we only get one life. Wouldn’t it be a terrible shame not to spend it doing something that you love, if you get the opportunity to?
I love studying, and ever since completing my undergraduate degree I have loved all things medieval – especially anything Arthurian. I did a medieval Masters. I’ve spoken at medieval conferences and love attending them purely to listen and learn. I’m a member of the International Arthurian Society. I gobble up modern as well as medieval Arthurian literature. I watch documentaries on medieval topics and read medieval texts in my spare time, as well as doing my own research for my blog and for my own amusement. I visit castles, cathedrals and ruins to immerse myself in medieval places. I’ve found my life’s passion and have the opportunity to embark on the next stage of trying to turn it into a career – how could I not at least try? One more happy person in the world has got to be a good thing, right? Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to pass these wonderful texts and this rich history on to the next generation, and maybe even find out something new about our medieval forebears.
So there we are. I am fortunate enough to have a very supportive family and a partner who also has academic aspirations and understands my reasons for leaving him for the next three years (thank goodness, otherwise that really would take some explaining!). I know I couldn’t do this without them, and owe them so very much. I might not succeed. It could all go horribly wrong, and I could end up back in London within a year, penniless and disillusioned. But at least I would have tried, and wouldn’t be stuck wondering ‘what if?’ for the rest of my life. Fortune favours the brave, so they say. Here’s hoping she does. In the meantime if anyone has any freelance editorial work – please send it my way!
Have you made sacrifices to pursue your academic interests? Are you in a similar position, or have you been in the past? What did you do? I would love to hear from you in the comments below!