“Why don’t you just quit?” is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the last three years or so. The answer is usually something along the lines of “I’m too stubborn”, or, “I’m not coming out of three/five years of my life with nothing to show from it but poor mental health” but is never “because I enjoy it”.
I stopped blogging on here some time ago because I had nothing to say other than “I hate everything” and because I had been told to stop mentioning my mental health, and even to delete all mentions of my struggles (which I foolishly did) because it would affect my place in the job market. A job market, I might add, that is excruciatingly over-saturated with exquisitely smart and worthy people, many of whom will never succeed due to an extremely problematic system in which you’re expected to prove you’re the best researcher, publisher and teacher all whilst being expected work on a zero hours contract for a minimum of three to five years before you get properly hired. Anyway, most of us know the woes of academia already, so I’ll shut up about that.
This time last year I handed my thesis in. I was about as mentally ill as I ever have been, I was on the highest dosage of anti-depressants possible outside of a ward and I had maxed out my allowance of counseling sessions at my institution. In June of 2018, I failed my viva spectacularly. I was given a year to do corrections before needing to viva again.
How did I get to that point? Let me tell you a story, team.
In 2014 I was a young, naïve and excited student who had won a scholarship to do my Ph.D. on trans theory and fiction. I was, and am, so grateful for the scholarship and the opportunity it allowed me. Having grown up as working class and with an occasionally…difficult…home life, it is something I had always aspired to and could never have afforded on my own. I packed up and moved across the country on my own, and then spent two months wandering around the city and another month at the university before I even met with my supervisors. Not the most auspicious of starts.
After a year and a half, I had lost a supervisor without having been told they’d left the university and failed a transfer viva, the recommendations from which I was advised to ignore, something that definitely came to bite me in the arse later. I then spent two years under the supervision of someone with no experience or expertise, and who, despite appearances, was a toxic and manipulative bully. They encouraged me to do work for the university, which they then stole without paying me for. They bad-mouthed me to other staff behind my back. Most crucially, they gave me little to no useful feedback. By the time I had another person put on my supervisory team I already had a submission date.
My viva date came. Before the viva, I sat with my supervisors, one of which was very supportive, whilst the other (guess which one) told me they were really nervous, leaving me to reassure them rather than the other way around. Then the viva happened. It was… yeah. Afterwards, I had a cry, a pint, and got the train back to my Mum’s house where I had moved because I wasn’t given enough teaching that term to pay my rent.
A week or so after my viva corrections report arrived, I had a phone conversation with The Supervisor, who a) turned up half an hour late, and b) basically told me that ‘the viva report is clear, you should know what to do’. When I said I didn’t, they sighed and told me to ‘just deal with it and get on’.
I finally asked the graduate school for help.
My newer supervisor was made my director of studies and a new member of staff was bought on to the team. The first meeting I had with them made me realise how different my entire PhD experience could have been. They were encouraging, they were clear, they gave me actual feedback and suggestions. They didn’t make me feel stupid. It’s been six months since then, I have two months until my new thesis is due to be submitted, and whilst I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, three stone heavier, and about a fifth as fit and healthy as I was, I still don’t feel nearly as hopeless as I did a year ago. My new supervisory team has truly kept me going, I couldn’t be more grateful.
I have a job outside of academia, one that is kind of boring, but which doesn’t completely destroy my sense of worth. I miss teaching, I miss my students, I miss watching them flourish, I miss cheerleading them, but there is no power in the verse that could make me put myself back in the toxicity of academia.
I recently posted a list of things I’m looking forward to doing once the PhD is over on Twitter
It was intended as a personal reminder of what life might look like in a few months time so I don’t collapse into a puddle of woe, but the kind of response it’s gotten and the number of people who have said they feel the same really concerns me. I thought I’d had a pretty rough time of things, but if this is The Story of academia, then why do we still do it to ourselves? Why are the narratives of success still based on whether or not you ‘make it’ in academia – a field in which the recompense isn’t that great and the hours are frankly terrible? As a lecturer, something we had to push more and more was the idea of ’employability’ – basically helping students to understand that their skills are transferable. We spoke about the different fields they could go into and what their futures could look like, but by the time you get to a PhD, this is completely undone, and everything is about getting publications, getting teaching experience, getting to the top. What I saw with The Supervisor, and what I think we’ll see a lot more of in the future, is the people that end up in teaching positions are a) those that can financially afford to live on a zero hours contract for years, and b) those who are willing to tread on anyone to get to where they’re going. It doesn’t bode well.
It hasn’t all been bad, though. I’ve met some brilliant people, made some amazing friends, and loved teaching. I’ll come out of this with an appreciation for life I don’t think I would have had otherwise. I’ve learnt my own strength and resilience.
So, to anyone who is doing, or thinking about doing, a PhD, please make sure you’re doing it for yourself, please realise that your worth as a person is not based on some words you write, please think about what you’re actually hoping to gain from the PhD. I firmly believe now that it would be much healthier to treat the PhD like a hobby rather than a job. Do it because you enjoy it. Stop if you don’t.
One thought on “Tales of Toxicity”
Is there such a thing as a happy PhD story?
It’s about 3 months since I withdrew from my PhD, which makes two things I never thought I’d do – quitting and starting a PhD to begin with. Everything looked like it was working in my favour, including an incredibly supportive supervisor, a subject about which I was hugely passionate and a great PGR community (of actual friends, not just peers passing in the corridors), but I couldn’t ignore the wider issues and toxicity of UK academia, not to mention unrelated personal issues. I was asked by my department if I’d consider doing a PhD following my MA so I had a bit confidence instilled in me, but it took a lot of persuasion and heartache to persuade many people that the life of a “perpetual student” (Dad, 2014) made sense.
Despite a good start (in 2017), it wasn’t long before I really started to feel the full force of the academic, emotional and physical pressures. Then last spring’s industrial action came about and through my involvement as a rep within the department and my friendship with many of the staff, the dark side was laid bare. By June, I commenced a six-month interruption for health reasons and by Christmas, I’d extended it by another three months.
For a long time, quitting altogether was not something I would consider. I was too stubborn and determined to prove myself, particularly to those around me who had given me their support. But too much had changed and there was too much at stake – I was an almost completely different person to when I’d started and I’d realised truly where my priorities lie. Crucially, I could no longer see a future for myself in academia, which had been a big reason for doing it (studying, writing and teaching about film and tv seemed an attractive prospect), and with that version of the future out of the window, the foundations of my enthusiasm became untenable.
Then a few weeks into January, with the help of a serendipitous email holding an exciting opportunity, I made the decision to withdraw. I wish I could say it was a tough decision but the reluctance to let anyone down, myself included, was completely smothered by utter relief and everything in my life became better at once.
I have the greatest respect for anyone undergoing or having completed a PhD, especially now that I’ve experienced a little of what it entails. Congratulations and best of luck in the future!