To PhD or not to PhD, that is the question


So I feel like I’ve gone through a break-up lately, but it’s not with a man. And before anyone gets any ideas of me going all Anika Moa, I’m afraid it’s not nearly that salacious.

Oh no, my latest break-up was with an idea, an idea of myself, an idea of my future, and it is proving to be just as bewildering to me as those of the love-life variety.

I’ve been contemplating my future a lot this year. An auntie who I was very close to died in June, after battling cancer for a long time. During the last months and weeks of her decline, I started to feel a need to create a plan for myself that would enable me to live a meaningful life, to contribute something of value, and to create a legacy.

It was while searching for this I fell in love – with the idea of doing a PhD.

A PhD was something I had always toyed with. I completed my Masters of Arts in English about three years ago and would often mention, in throwaway fashion, doing a PhD as a possibility. But it wasn’t until this year that I actually started to really seriously consider it.

Or at least I thought I had seriously considered it. I chose the school I wanted to apply to, I organised letters of recommendation, I enquired about funding options. All was going swimmingly, and I sent away my Statement of Purpose to the professor who was my contact at my program of choice, and I received some less-than-positive feedback about my statement and it’s lack of purpose.

In fact, the feedback was not that bad. It was just suggesting that I needed to be more specific about what it was that I wanted to study. But it threw me into a tailspin, because I suddenly realised that I didn’t know what I wanted to study.

I really had no idea. There were various things I was interested in. But beyond a brief (but probably not brief enough) passionate interest in the Twilight series, I realised I hadn’t even really read anything that had piqued my interest in the years since completing my Masters.

I wasn’t overly committed to the idea of being a lecturer, and while writing my Statement of Purpose, within one day I felt myself sinking back into the habits I had while doing my Masters – shutting myself away to write because the deadline was now fast approaching after procrastinating for as long as possible, and eating – eating anything and everything – because I had to get it written, and somehow, emotional eater that I am, it seemed that eating would help.

It was these things starting to pile up in my mind that finally made me start to interrogate my decision to do a PhD, and it was clarified by reading two articles by an English professor writing on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, where his advice for potential Humanities PhD students was, in a nutshell, ‘just say no’.

This article,

and its follow-up,

helped me to work through the reasons why I wanted to do a PhD and why I shouldn’t. It was He’s Just Not That Into You for graduate school.

I think, for me, the appeal of a PhD was the validation, the sense of purpose and the specific plan it offered. It was something defined in a future that was otherwise unknown.

A PhD is something I still attach value to, and if I was independently wealthy, it’s something I would definitely consider doing, but that’s not my reality.

Some people have suggested still applying, keeping my options open. While I haven’t made any hard and fast decisions, I think it would be difficult to turn the opportunity down, if I was lucky enough to get a fully funded offer overseas, which is what I was aiming for.

To me, it seems akin to staying in a relationship that I’m not that committed to, just to see if he’ll ask me to marry me so that… I get some validation, an ego boost, have a plan B if nothing better comes along?

It reminds me of Sex and the City, when Carrie ends up saying yes to Aidan’s proposal, even though she knows it’s not right. Miranda says to Carrie ‘I’m gonna ask you an unpleasant question now – why did you ever say yes?’ Carrie replies, ‘If a man you love kneels in street and offers you a ring, you say yes. It’s what you do.’

If you get a fully funded offer in a respected English PhD program, you say yes. It’s what you do.


So now it’s back to the drawing board as far as the future goes, which is scary, not least because of how quickly things change.

Two weeks ago I was in love with a PhD, and now I’ve fallen out of love. Much like I have done in past relationships, I end up looking for answers – why, if it is such an obviously bad option now, was I so in love with it a mere few weeks ago? How can something so wrong have seemed so right?

All I can think is that, like those relationships, I guess that’s because at the time it was right. But that time has passed.



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7 responses to “To PhD or not to PhD, that is the question

  1. Steph

    Wow! Loving your new blog! My font looks giant, though. Will it turn out like that when I submit my comment? Hm. Anyway, I frequently go through ‘what am I doing with my life?!?!’ patches. I think everyone does. You might not do your PhD next year, but you might feel differently in a couple of years, 10 years, maybe 20 years! Or you might not. It doesn’t matter, really – as long as you enjoy and appreciate where you are, what you have and the people around you right now. Because when you get to your twilight years and you look back on your life, you will only remember all those fun times, all the sweet moments and the people you shared them with. And that, to me, is what constitutes a meaningful life. Ugh, that is the cheesiest thing I have ever said! But it’s true. I think. 🙂

    • lol, that is totally cheesy, but also totally true and awesome. I think that’s where Captioning is great. I worry I might never leave, because the people are so nice and the job suits me so well.

  2. thetinkerbella

    You write so well! It’s so confusing when something seems like the BEST IDEA EVER, but then suddenly doesn’t after all. I think you’re right that having a defined goal like that gives you some kind of validation and makes you feel like you’re achieving something or at least on your way to achieving something. But, seriously, life is achievement, I think!

    I feel like you should keep your options open – you never know, some awesome PhD topic could come along and re-pique your interest!

  3. June

    Oh, so no PhD? I guess if it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right. It’s kinda like how I’ve toyed with the idea of doing my Masters, but I think I’m more interested in the idea of HAVING a Masters degree than actually having a strong interest in something and wanting to pursue it further. Plans change, and I’m sure you’ll figure out what you want to do with your life 🙂

    When I was in London, I thought I would really like living there. It was just a thought at the time, but increasingly, it’s become one that won’t leave me alone. Now I’m contemplating looking at jobs in the UK. Obviously nothing is going to happen until after the recession, but it’s kinda scary just thinking about it, because it’s something so new and so far away… Sigh. Life is hard.

    • Yes, I think the idea of HAVING a PhD appealed to me, the work, not so much.

      That’s exciting about London. Actually, in a weird way, that was part of my thinking about not doing the PhD, it just felt like the universe was giving me lots of London signs – you and Steph both loving London definitely helped put that back on the agenda, as did another friend of mine who recently got back from living in London.

      I think it’s great that your travels have given you something new to think about, a new option. Options not plans is what it’s all about.

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