I’ve been talking about going back to university to get my PhD for a few years now.
At first, it was just something I said out loud because it was expected of me, because that’s what you say in the first months of unemployment after your MA, because my brother was getting one and I am just as clever as he is, because it sounds like something I’d do, and frankly, because it made me sound smarter than I am; made me sound as though I had big academic dreams. And possibly because this was, at first, someone else’s dream that I received with open hands.
In the five and a half years since my last MA class, I’ve learnt more than I could have possibly imagined. I had to re-learn and un-learn and reject things I had been told and never questioned …and in short, I grew up, I became more critical of the world we live in, more aware of my position and privilege, more understanding of the structures and inequities of our spaces.
My ‘why?’ wasn’t just an enquiry, it was an eroteme drenched in the contexts of who was asking, who wasn’t, what the question was, where it came from, what it wasn’t asking, which words it used… And my ‘why?’ was as much a question as it was a cannonball into everything I had ever held true, ever held as fact, ever held as ‘known’.
I have learnt to embrace this. Swallow my discomfort and walk forward even as the ground beneath my feet is shaking.
I have spent the last year and a half seriously thinking about going back to university, getting my PhD.
I have thought about all the things I know, the thousands of things I have unlearnt, and the huge; gaping black hole of all the not-known. I have grappled with wanting to know everything about everything and one particular thing about something.
I have drafted and redrafted summaries of my proposal in my mind, thought over facets of research and angles that haven’t been covered. I have, tentatively, discussed it with people I trust who have offered points to ponder; criticism to incorporate and encouragement to persevere on. I have surrounded myself with gentleness.
And I’ve come to realise that applying for a PhD is more than what you know, it’s revelling in all that you don’t know, it’s shining a light on the gaps in your knowledge, and it’s about baring your soul.
My research proposal is on community interventions and abortion stigma: things that are close to my heart. Things that prick my soul and make me lie in bed, eyes wide open at well past midnight, pondering a film I saw years ago where the abortion scene was equal parts infuriating and equal parts heartbreaking. I am convinced that it is essential, important, under-funded research.
The difficult part is convincing someone else. There will be no gentleness here.
I’ve been keeping most of this to myself.
PhDs, I’ve been told, are an intensely personal act. You drown yourself in this, your priorities shift and your PhD is always number one.
I’m not sure of the accuracy of this, but I have been floating along with this river for a while now, and land seems far away.
I am ready to dive in.
I submitted an application (in the nick of time) this morning. My first.
I’ve been nervous about it (understandably). Partly because it’s my first application and partly because I’m applying somewhere well beyond my intellectual weight class. I’m afraid people will laugh (at best) or jeer (at worst)- and perhaps they’d be right to. I’m applying there for a number of reasons, not least of which is to know that I tried (and the tiny flicker of hope that I might prove some vague point of ‘good enough’ to myself).
I’ve also been defensive about my choice of research. I suppose I’m sensitive to it- I have spent many cups of tea and twice my body weight in stress-eating on it. But, I have also spent most of my career on this- it isn’t some vague, arbitrary research interest. It has been the entirety of my professional career choice. And it wounds me when it is dismissed, when it is submerged into something else, when it is undervalued. And I have yet to learn to cope with this, to respond in a way that isn’t: a) defensive, and b) a summary of my research proposal to prove just how important it is. I need to realise that I have to hone my argument, my reasoning, my passion- so I can convince the people on the other side of my graduate admissions table. Everyone else’s opinion isn’t quite as important.
I have also been battling a fair bit of annoyance. When I talk about working on my proposal or my applications, people I haven’t had any correspondence with in years feel they have the right to ask me ‘where are you applying?’.
‘None of your goddamn business’, is my default reaction.
I suppose it has something to do with my ‘intellectual weight class’ discomfort, but it also chafes that since we’ve last talked; I’ve lived in three different countries and you have no idea or interest in any of that… but the wheres and wherefores of my university applications are of great interest?
I have been getting better and better at ignoring things I don’t want to respond to. I’ve realised I don’t have to bare my soul for everyone and every thing: just the things I want to drown in.