So yeah: I might not finish my PhD, but I don’t really care. Here’s why.
My name is José Viera, and I am a 25-year-old, early researcher currently specialising in Victorian and Neo-Victorian studies. As an academic, I’m enthusiastic and always willing to collaborate with other fellow colleagues; however, this mini-essay is meant to serve a more theapeutic purpose. I’m coming clean and, for once, I’m about to do something many other PhD candidates would never even consider: I’m officially going to admit that, maybe -even probably-, I won’t get to finish my dissertation. And the mere fact of saying it publicly feels relieving, refreshing. You’ll soon begin to understand why.
Being a young academic has never been easy: often forced to reconcile work and research, recent graduates are very likely to end up feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work bestowed on their shoulders… and unfortunately, I’m no exception. As early researchers, we are expected to go to unprecedented lengths to maintain a -relatively profitable- career or find crappy jobs while also struggling to find time to research, compile sources and, if time allows, write a paragraph or two. Stress gradually becomes a staple of our lives; lives that eventually develop into a mere succession of tasks to fulfil; lives in which the concepts of rest and fun end up becoming as elusive as an oasis in the middle of the driest desert. To make matters even worse, we simply cannot overlook the limited -and dwindling- number of opportunities existing in the current academic scene, a fact that often leads us to wonder whether we’re doing the right thing or not. Who exactly are we living for?
After reading the first two paragraphs, you may have a clear question in mind: “if you’re so fed up with the world of academia, why don’t you just quit?” Early researchers are enthusiastic and idealistic by nature; that’s why I continue to strive to achieve my ambitions as an academic. Upon entering the advanced stages of my degree in Modern Languages, the idea of becoming a university teacher somehow began to attract my attention: seduced by the wide array of possibilities that would unfold before me (going to conferences, getting to share ideas in the classroom, writing and getting articles published), I instantly decided to set my eyes on that goal. And even though I haven’t quite wavered from that viewpoint, the truth is that I’ve gradually come to adopt a more holistic stance: in the end, I may not finish my Ph.D.; I may not even get to write it, but it’s not an experience I would erase from my life. ‘Why did you change your mind?’ you may ask. That’s a very interesting question! Read on.
Still having the firm idea of becoming a uni teacher in mind, I finished my degree and decided to enrol in a master’s in Advanced English Studies with a clear focus on research. Such was my determination at the time that I even left my -still very much beloved- island -Gran Canaria, Spain- behind and moved to Barcelona, where I hoped to broaden my horizons both personally and academically. Even though I don’t regret my decision (and it has actually reshaped my life on countless levels), the academic year proved exasperatingly tough, a result of the pressure of academic life and the fact that, all of a sudden, I had become a fully-fledged adult. Throughout the year, I learned a lot about English literature and social studies, becoming a more sophisticated reader and developing a critical stance in which I will always take great pride. The master’s, in short, changed my life and widened my knowledge of literature, yet I also came to realise that, maybe -and only maybe-, my perception of academic life had been somewhat idyllic up to that point. And that’s how my process of anxiety and ultimate liberation began.
While the world of academia does allow researchers to share and discuss their ideas -a highly convincing advantage-, there is a much darker side to it; a commonly held line of reasoning whereby you must do whatever it takes to destroy your rivals and make a good impression on potential connections. The world of academia is certainly seething with vibrant, interesting ideas, but it is also very much governed by interests and greed. Your ideas are irrelevant; the important thing is to publish as many articles and chapters as possible. If you fail to get an article published, you’re regarded as a failure. Aspects such as your personal circumstances or the effort you put into your endeavours are brushed aside in favour of mere numbers and figures: it didn’t take me long to realise that, ironically, a world so premised on the idea of education had very little to do with the trasmision of ideas. I began to see things as they really were, and my realisation soon led to a bitter sense of disenchantment. Enthusiasm waned; anxiety and desperation took over.
I still remember the day I decided to put my academic aspirations on hold and redirect my interests. I was just about to finish the master’s: after a year plagued with stress and a neverending string of bad decisions, I was closer than ever to submitting my MA dissertation. Coincidentally, interviews were being conducted to hire a research assistant for the coming academic year, and I was singled out as one of the shortlisted contenders. I was really close to fulfilling what once had been the dream of my lifetime: to become part of a university department and get paid for my research. I could literally have it all. Maybe I could certainly have had it all. When I was only a few hours away from explaining my project in front of the board, however, I realised the time was just plain wrong. I was not ready to commit to an academic life just yet, I had spent an entire year studying, reading and drafting papers, and my aching soul needed a break. Frustrated and dominated by the stress I had been harbouring for a year, I collapsed and brusquely decided to call it quits. And even though I could have weathered the situation with a little more poise, I remain convinced that I did the right thing.
It’s been almost a year since the day I made that decision and I still thank myself for being so honest at such a decisive time. My stance on the world of academia has not changed one whit; I remain very much aware that universities are civilised jungles -whatever that means- governed by the somewhat Darwinian dictum of “publish or perish.” However, I have also been able to remember the reason why I wanted to become an academic in the first place: I want to let my imagination run wild and write about one of my biggest passions, literature; I also aspire to spread my enthusiasm in the hope that other students will come to appreciate and benefit from my view of things. I very much enjoy writing and I also hope to contribute articles, always with the aim of helping and encouraging others in mind. I seem to have regained the strength and courage to carry on, but something has changed: I may have started a PhD, but I’ll only continue as long as I feel it’s worth it. I’m doing a PhD because I genuinely wish to widen my perspective and confront new experiences, but I’ll definitely withdraw and shift my efforts as soon as my agency begins to wane. And yeah, from the looks of it, the chances are I’ll end up calling it quits at some point, but I’d never consider it a failure: I’m finally doing what I want to do, without any binds, soaring above my fears and the greed of an increasingly dehumanised world.
Things are looking up for the time being: I’m publishing a review on a relatively frequented blog on Victorian studies in a week, I definitely know a lot more about Dickens and Neo-Victorian authors than I did a year ago and I’ll be attending a conference on Dickensian Studies at the University of York in December. And sure, I’m perfectly aware things may end up going awry, but I’ve decided not to care any more. I’m finally enjoying myself as an academic and I’m determined to continue doing so, however long it may last. After all, I’m not living someone else’s life; I’m living mine. It’s time to let go.