“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Recently quite a few of my friends have been having crises about their lives, usually relating to jobs, living circumstances, and/or general disappointment about their current situation in comparison to their original life goals.  Some also state that they have absolutely no idea what they want to do yet.  My favourite set of musings has by far been the blog by the hilarious Laura Cullen (http://not-bridgetjones.blogspot.co.uk/) and, although this has a deliciously humorous tinge, the reality of it is that so many in their mid-20s are experiencing these tensions between aspiration and reality.  I, too, currently suffer the “so you’re STILL at University?” statement by peeved relatives who are wondering when exactly it is that I will lose the student label and “finally start my career”.   I wanted to use my first blog to unpick some of the tensions that I have experienced during my own career and life choices up until this point and to think about my journey so far.  This blog generally also serves as (hopefully) a sanctuary for my current writer’s block.  I can’t promise to be funny though.

So when my primary school teacher asked my 8-year-old self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “vet”, drew a picture of the horse that I wanted and went off on my merry way to make a daisy chain.  Over the years (and as I developed a sense of horror when seeing blood), the answer to the career question changed many times: from teacher to social worker, back to teacher (after having a great English GCSE teacher), to best-selling author (after reading To Kill A Mockingbird), to lecturer, back to teacher again, and now my official line is “happy to do anything in the academic context”.  This list is by no means exhaustive and I am sure that many of my friends experienced this indecisiveness too (and probably still do) when growing up based on what they wanted/what their parents wanted/what they think their parents or they wanted.  I definitely did not foresee that I would a)be doing a Geography degree after spending most of my Geography GCSE lessons sticking photographs and quotations from school trips into my Homework Diary, and drawing hearts around the boys’ faces that I fancied; or b)doing a Geography PhD surrounding perceptions of the sex industry. 

I would describe my decision to choose a Geography degree (which was always a toss of a coin between English and Geography) as one made from simply liking the University, the brilliant staff on the open day and my 18-year-old assumption that a BSc degree would make me more employable than a BA.  Following on from this, my decision to do a PhD was based on a simple question posed by my undergraduate dissertation supervisor: “Have you ever thought about doing a PhD?”  This was really because I was just telling him how much I had enjoyed my undergraduate dissertation so much and asking out of curiosity about how he ended up in his role.  After that, I made some enquiries and simply got caught up in the excitement of being a “doctor”, of being the first in my family to do a postgraduate qualification (and only the second to do any degree at all) and of having the opportunity to develop my research interests.  Neither of the decisions was initially based on the burning desire to do a particular degree or career (as at the latter stage I was toying with teaching secondary school age again); I just went with the flow.  A few years down the line, and on the road to submission, I can’t help but be thankful for those fleeting moments whereby I made some key life-changing decisions almost subconsciously, and for seemingly less “important” reasons than “this is my life goal”.

Similarly, as a partially-funded PhD student, I had to fund my living expenses through a variety of jobs which were never potentially long-term career choices, but were what I considered to be subsidiary roles to achieve my now new ultimate goal of finishing my thesis.  I spent a lot of time experiencing imposter feelings (which all PhDers go through) and resenting the fact that I did not have the sense to go through any other potential funding angles before launching straight in.  Often the phrase “rollercoaster” is used to describe the emotions that PhD students feel and I definitely believe that my part-time status exacerbated some of these emotions that I personally experienced; certainly the “imposter” complex.  Comments such as the “so you’re STILL at University?” and the inevitable roll of the eyes when saying that I still got student discount at 25 didn’t/don’t help either. 

 I guess what I am trying to say is that there are a lot of expectations, certainly in the current climate whereby everything is pinpointed to “employability”, “what employers will want from you” and attaining a “respectable” career in whosever eyes we deem important to us, to be absolutely clear on what we want to achieve in life.  As I have gone through the PhD journey, I fluctuated very much between feeling that I was doing absolutely the wrong thing (after all, some of my friends are now Assistant Head-teachers or with successful businesses) to feeling very privileged to have been given the opportunity to combine the skills that I could cherry pick from all of my previous career aspirations: a successful author = writing; a teacher = academic teaching; inquisitive and loving to learn new things = research; a vet = owning two cats to keep me sane during my hermit moments – close enough!.  Although my situation isn’t financially ideal in terms of general life stability (and I often feel guilty/selfish as one half of a relationship), this has taught me to try and harness the moments of indecisiveness or roles that I don’t always want to pursue forever, understand and appreciate why they are happening and make the most of every opportunity.  A PhD might not always be seen as a “proper job” (I have lost count of the times I have heard this), but it gives me the potential to make a difference via my research and I can’t think of anything that would make me prouder.