I’ll get straight to the point. After months of frustration, followed by a sudden stroke of inspiration and then a lot of deliberation, I’ve made the arrangements necessary to interrupt – that is, take time out from (I never know if UCL admin-speak is universal or institutional) – my doctoral studies for a period of 12 months from this autumn. And, quite honestly, I doubt if I’ll ever go back.
Okay, maybe that last sentence is my current negative line of thought talking. I’ll admit, currently I’m fresh out of positivity so far as my degree is concerned, and perhaps some time away from it will be just the tonic to revive my love for what I do and more to the point my conviction that it is a worthwhile endeavour. But it doesn’t change the fact that I no longer see this as a valid career path, one leading to a positive and profitable (in any sense of the word) outcome. Therefore, I have no motivation to complete my thesis other than for my own satisfaction, plus the interest of whoever might be interested in its subject matter. Frankly, however, I think I’m beyond the event horizon and so wouldn’t bet against me having called a stop to things for good.
I should stress again that this is not a brand new, spur of the moment decision. It’s all been lined up for weeks. Thus it was weird to sit on this knowledge for the duration of Leeds IMC, divulging the truth to one or maybe two trusted confidantes over the course of the four days, while pretending that everything was a bed of roses to anyone else I met for the first time or didn’t feel like I knew well enough to admit the reality. I had the best time in Leeds but keeping schtum about interrupting nonetheless did impinge upon my experience of the Congress.
My decision to interrupt all comes down to funding, and my failure to be awarded a full-time scholarship for the second year in succession. I know, once was not enough so I came back for a second kick in the teeth! I wrote my mum an email in the weeks after, in which I told her that things to do with the future were becoming clearer but that my studies were like an addictive drug, one that you can’t simply come off straight away. I’ve spent years training/reading/writing in support of my doctoral research, and consider myself to work at the highest standards required to do my topic justice, so you’ll understand why I’ve couched the shift away from this to something new and completely different (whatever it will turn out to be) in such stark terms.
It hardly needs saying but, for me, this whole situation is massively annoying and frustrating. Had the chips fallen differently then no doubt I’d be all happy and keen and mapping out a future in which I tied Old English group-name and habitative place-name elements, archaeology, and history together, and blew everyone’s minds (at least a little bit) in the process. That’s not going to happen now. Ever. And it really saddens me to type those words. Someone else will have to take up the baton, whenever that might be (if that sounds like you – email me).
Perhaps it’s my fault. Perhaps it’s the fault of those who advised me on my application and gave it the green light. Perhaps it’s the fault of those who assess applications and award the funding – in the wake of my rejection, I heard some pretty “interesting” things about the none-more-opaque funding body I applied to but there’s not a lot to be gained by elaborating on that point. Ultimately, I’m an adult and so I realise that some of the responsibility (blame?) must rest on my shoulders. And you know what? I reckon I’m okay with that. I really do. I went into the process with my eyes wide open, knowing it might not turn out the way I wanted it to. At least I gave it a go – twice! – to see if it would happen for me.
Right now, I feel too old, too conflicted, too depressed, too tired to carry my research on to its conclusion. There are younger, more motivated and ambitious research students out there working in my field who can (and no doubt will) drive things forward. Maybe I don’t give enough of a shit to strive to be among their number. Three-and-a-bit degrees later and there’s a lot (maybe too much) about academia that I don’t like; years away from university working in jobs of various corporate shades really awoke me to its shortcomings, and I’ve never been able to overcome them. I do fear that academia as we know it in the UK is fucked, comprehensively outgunned by those who have it in for it and too slow and undynamic, for all the talk to the contrary, to make its own fundamental changes for the better. (PS. I’m not an arch-capitalist, quite the reverse in fact; it’s more my professional experiences with people, not processes that have left me feeling and thinking the way that I do.)
And maybe all this is a blessing in disguise. Call me idealistic or whatever, but I want to make a difference in this world, and I don’t think telling people how and why people adopted the social identities they did in bits of north-west Europe 1,500 years ago is really helping in the same way as if I was to apply my grey matter to some other issue at hand. I’m highly educated, with some hot-to-trot skills in some areas, and ample ability to learn in others, so I reckon there’s a really awesome line of work out there for me somewhere. I’m genuinely excited for what the future holds, a sense that came with my initial decision to interrupt, and hence which makes me think I’m onto a winner by choosing this path.
In the immediate future I’ll be tying up loose ends with my doctoral research and other bits and pieces, so don’t be surprised if this is marked by a spike in activity on SM and elsewhere. I’m aiming to have a lot of things put to bed by the end of them summer, be it submitted or else in a position whereby I can let them be for months or years. Beyond that, however, expect a corresponding diminution in activity, but not a cessation – I still have a small number of medieval-related projects I’m aiming to undertake. Likewise, I’m not going to mothball this blog, although the frequency of posts will inevitably slacken as my attention is diverted elsewhere (not that my content creation has been voluminous these past few months!). I’ll also be continuing in my role as meetings secretary for the IoA/British Museum Medieval Seminar series, so expect some chat about that. All the same, I need to recalibrate my relationship with medieval studies, and consequently how SM fits into that and the new life I’ll be establishing for myself in the coming months. Rest assured, this won’t wind up with me going full-bore M J Harper-style anti-academic nutjob.
By way of some parting thoughts. To those who are doing or are about to do a funded PhD; you are privileged to be in that position and you should do everything you can to make the most of the opportunity. True interdisciplinarity is a mirage, now and for the immediate future. Fuck the LAHP. I wish academic medieval studies all the best, but come late-September I shall be at best semi-detached from it and I wouldn’t bet against that remaining the state of play thereafter.