PhD life at 30, six months in.
I’ve gotten quite a few questions from friends and colleagues about what life as a PhD candidate is like at 30, and how it compares to my previous life in a full-time job with Mozilla. Now that I’m six months into the Big Change (details on what I’m studying here), I thought I’d try to do them justice, because I found the experiences of others to be quite valuable when I was considering the crazy, life-changing decisions that brought me here today, from Canada to the United Kingdom, writing this thing to begin with.
The first big difference is where exactly “here” is — the answer (and the autonomy it connotes) speaks volumes. I’m currently sat in a riad in Fés, Morocco, where I have been hotdesking for the past few days, writing fieldwork proposals for shared machine shop sites in Glasgow and Exeter while preparing slides for a guest lecture on fabrication, critical making and sustainability coming up in London. When not between Brighton, London or Oxford, I am found in cafes around Saigon and Vancouver, Beijing and Turin, Santa Cruz and Ramallah. And during my MSc research on hacking and gender, I lived in London, but was also found in Berlin a lot of the time.
This is because in the life of a fledgling academic, physical environments start to matter much less than mental ones. Traveling to case study sites across the world and then writing and speaking about your findings will become much more important than putting on that blazer and sitting in the same office every day, working on company tasks dictated by your manager.
This means that not only is someone like me trusted to decide where to work from — I am also expected to determine the kinds of experiences I want to gain on my own. I can’t emphasize the importance of this existential shift enough. For the first time in ten years of steady work for a variety of open technology-oriented positions, from curator to community organizer to designer, I have been given a mandate from the University of Sussex and its Humanities Lab to think critically for (and with) myself. Not for someone else’s cause. Not for an organization’s needs. Not for a client’s project. Not for a boss’s demands. My ever-inspiring PhD supervisors are here to mentor and advise — and I am also lucky enough to have a group of brilliant Humanities Lab PhD comrades whose critiques (and gifs!) challenge me daily— but in the end, I am responsible for my own destiny in this space.
There is something both exhilarating and terrifying about this new-fangled academic autonomy. The past few months have taught me that the stakes are infinitely higher in life when you have built them yourself from the ground up. The outlandish seeds of a crazy idea that I planted late into the night last winter while writing PhD applications have come to life. They now define the opportunities I am given, the mind-opening conversations I have, the readings I absorb each week and the things I write late into the night.
Now, I’m certainly no expert, but here are a few things I’ve found along the way. I hope they can be helpful to anyone reading this who has started to plant a few far-fetched mind seeds of their own, and might be wondering whether the gamble is going to be worth it.
The short answer? Yes. It’s worth it. In fact, it’s going to change everything. Now, here’s the longer one…
First, a few of the highlights of PhD life so far.
- The opportunities to exist professionally on your own terms. From publishing an article for the Guardian about my initial research into community makerspaces and sustainability in the UK, to heading to California for a week on a digital media exchange between my school and UCSC, to being invited to give guest lectures and talks like this one at places I respect like the Royal College of Art and the University of Victoria, the potential for interesting collaborations is magnitudes higher when I represent myself than when I represented an organization. This is because in this world, I represent not a brand but a set of emergent ideas — ideas about shared machine shops, UK cultural institutions, spatiality, critical making and material semiotics that I craft myself, piece by piece.
- The mental stimulation. This is a big one. Being paid to take years out of the grind to read, think and write critically about areas of theory and practice that you are passionate about is every bit as esoteric as it sounds — but it is also a ridiculously wonderful way to live. Yes, you’ll have less money for nice clothes than you had before. Yes, you’ll work alone a lot more than you did when you were on a team, finalizing projects assigned to you. But you’ll also be assigning your own mind a series of new, intriguing and challenging projects that will irrevocably change the way it thinks, reasons and understands its world. And that is a real gift.
- The people you’ll meet. The number of interesting thinkers I’ve been able to discuss my ideas with has increased tenfold since entering this world. From the Sussex Humanities Lab and its eclectic researchers, postdocs and professors to the many workshops and events in my area of study, I have already filled many notebooks with advice, ideas, book suggestions, opinions and new thoughts from the symposiums, workshops and lunch meetings I’ve been lucky enough to participate in, thanks to the PhD students I’ve met and the experienced academics who know much more about my topic than I do. And the crazy thing about meeting interesting people is the ways they lead you to other interesting people who are also happy to help, critique, listen and advise.
Second (and more importantly), the lessons.
- While the locations you work from can be diffuse, the spaces and people you spend your time with still matter a great deal. This includes the university you choose to work with, the department you join, the city you situate your home base in and the case studies you decide on. The University of Sussex isn’t in London — it’s in Brighton, a few hours away. Despite this, I accepted their offer instead of those from more convenient schools. This was not only because they gave me an international scholarship, but also because I liked the critical, hands-on reputation of the institution, because I found the work of my primary supervisor, Tim Jordan, to be very inspiring, and because I suspected the school’s new digital humanities lab being built at the time might provide an inspiring network of thinkers and colleagues. Luckily, I was right.
- Your schedule is going to change. I found out the hard way that no matter how much I tried to schedule my plans ahead of time the way I did while working, the work of thinking never really ends — because the mind, no matter how hard we try to shut it down and deter it, never really stops thinking. So when your mind is in a good thinking-place, you may have to say no to social events that you used to say yes to, because you’ll be spending that time writing or reading or just absorbing it all. But don’t let this scare you. Your BFFs, family members and adopted urban families (something we very much need in London) will surprise you with their empathy and understanding. Mine did. Seeing someone work towards something they love is a thing that we all value — and in these moments of change, your best people will show their characters.
- Your mentors will matter more than ever. I can’t say enough how important mine have become — whether they happen to be a new professor, an old work colleague, a gallery curator, parents and brother or the man I love. Being kind and generous souls, each of them have spent serious amounts of time looking over my proposals, reading (and critiquing) my writing, staying up late with me to hash out new ideas, listening while I practice my talks, inviting me to symposiums, giving me opportunities, sending insightful emails full of advice and recommending me new readings on Skype. On the days when I seriously doubt myself (which do occur, unsurprisingly, on a regular basis) their confidence in me lifts me up in ways they may not even see. I can’t thank them enough for this. Don’t forget to thank yours, too, as they emerge along the path.
- Despite the inevitable stresses and pressures, PhD life is both rare and wonderful. Being given the time to think long and deep about a topic you are intrigued by is both a privilege and a gift. You may need to fight for the scholarships, time and support networks necessary to get there, and the life-change from worker to thinker will involve sacrifices. But in the end, the challenge will change your life. It is already changing mine.
So, my last piece of advice for those who still consider: Grab it with all you’ve got. Yes, it will be crazy. But your mind will thank you for it.
PS) That being said, two small warnings: First, I‘ve yet to go through the thesis-writing stage. So let’s not forget to talk again in a few years. Second, I can’t guarantee your life will be any easier after all of this. Point in case: