By Fraser Raeburn |
Over the course of one week in early August, two of my best friends got engaged to their respective partners. This was good news. I laughed, I cried, I covered up my tears in a manly fashion and celebrated. I was (and am) incredibly happy for them. To Tat and Antony, if you’re reading this, congratulations again, and I promise to be nice(ish) in any speeches that I may or may not get to give.
They probably won’t read this though, as neither is a PhD student. Nor are 99% of the friends I made growing up, at school or at university. I happened to be at home on my yearly pilgrimage back Down Under when I received the engagement news and was already in the midst of a whirlwind of catching up with old friends, hearing what they were getting up during my exile to the cold dark north. I was updated about careers being progressed, flats being bought, pets acquired and even the odd baby being made and/or popped out. Then came the engagements.
The point I am haphazardly trying to make is that I can’t relate to most of this stuff very well. While most of my friends have made giant (or in some cases, timid) steps towards adulthood, sometimes doing a PhD feels like you’ve pressed pause on all that. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone: I know PhD students who have bought property, gotten married and raised children during their studies. For me at least though, I feel like all these questions and milestones have been put off for the duration. I don’t expect my lifestyle, my income or anything else to change much between now and finishing. I am pursuing a career, I suppose, but it looks very different to any of the ‘real’ careers that my friends at home are doing. My basic goals, and those of my non-PhD friends, no longer seem to be aligned. I’m not saying that what we do – and what we achieve – isn’t real or worthwhile, but it’s beginning to look very different to the things that ‘normal’ people do.
By choosing to stay a ‘student’, remaining in the university bubble and doing a PhD, are we implicitly acknowledging that we are halting our progress towards adulthood? The answer to this – and to whether it’s a good thing or not – surely varies from person to person. I think it’s a conversation we should be having though, especially as a new batch of PhD students prepares to start in the next couple of weeks. In the end, we need to be aware of what we want, whether doing a PhD is a barrier to achieving it and, most importantly, how we can overcome these barriers if we need to.
From my perspective, I suppose this is all fine. I enjoy what I do, and the lifestyle that surrounds it. I think most of my friends are accepting of my choices, and are interested in what it is I do and why I do it. For my part, in return I get to hear what it’s like to work 80-hour weeks as a corporate lawyer, or how bad house prices are getting, or how extortionate engagement rings are. I don’t exactly envy them. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m simply postponing the inevitable, and will need to catch up at being an adult at some point.