It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career

As many people know, before I was ill I was a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. I originally suspended my studies for three months, and had the original diagnosis of stress been correct, this week would have seen me returning to my  research, at the beginning of the first semester of the third year of my project. Obviously this is not the case and I’m taking a longer break than planned. I really hope that I’ll be able to get back to studies at some point, even if I work from my parents instead of returning to Glasgow, but at the moment I’m not in any position to make plans. Plan A was to try for a career in academia – being a ‘proper’ academic was/is the dream. It was always a bit of a pipedream, and with cuts in departments and the insecurity of the job market it was never going to be easy but it was the goal I was working towards. 

In amongst everything else that is happening, this may seem very insignificant. However, so much of my identity is tied up with academia and being a high achiever that it’s probably one of the hardest things at the moment. At a time when I’m having to adjust how I think about myself, my academic career has a huge impact on that. I miss conferences and writing and research and reading. I had to withdraw from several conferences over the summer and there have been calls for papers for conferences coming up which I’ve had to force myself not to put myself forward for – even if I’m well enough to do bits of work here and there, I won’t be able to get to a conference. (Although fellow medievalists, there are so many amazing ones coming up! Please go, and tweet, and let me live through you! Especially if you can make the GMS/SMFS conference in Oxford next January) At this point I should stress that all this pressure comes from me – my supervisors have been wonderful, as has the wider academic community. Doing a PhD is never easy and even under different circumstances (if I had gone straight through in three years, for example) it would have been a hard slog. Many of the feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome were already there one way or another. 

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been an academic person. On my very first day of school, I ran off when I was picked up  because I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t have an especially good time at school as a teenager but I loved learning. I still do! 

There are a few things I’ve found really helpful in dealing with this. One is in keeping up, albeit vaguely, with the latest in the field. Mostly this is via Twitter but reading articles and even books doesn’t feel out of the question at the moment, even if writing a whole PhD does. Feeling like I’m still part of these communities is also invaluable – whether my fellow students at Glasgow, people I’ve met at conferences or friends through academic twitter. On that note, if you’re a medievalist who isn’t part of #medievaltwitter, it’s largely a really supportive and great community which really engages with the field. 

These things don’t make it easy to adjust my sense of self and other people in similar situations may not recognise anything I have written here. When I was worried about whether I would get funding for my PhD, and again when I’ve been worrying about the academic job market post-PhD, friends have told me I’ll be okay. I didn’t believe them at the time but funding wise it worked out! 

I’m not sure there’s much more I can say other than ‘this is really hard’, but I think it’s important to talk about these things. When you are ill, you don’t stop being a person, and you don’t necessarily stop having the same interests that you did ‘before’. It might be difficult to live out those interests, but early medieval nuns are still my passion, even if I can’t really read Latin sources and commentaries at the moment!  

5 Thoughts

  1. I don’t think I have anything profound to say, but I just wanted to say that what you describe does *not* sound insignificant – but also, taking time out doesn’t mean you are not an academic. You’ll always be the academic who wrote the papers you’ve written and participated in the conferences you’ve been to. Whatever happens, you are that scholar.

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  2. I agree with Jeanne, you are still an academic, you ARE that scholar. The world of virtual talks and lectures is vast now, can you access some of those to “keep your hand in” so to speak?

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  3. Hi Debbie,

    I don’t know that you’ll remember me. We met once at a LTA seminar at which we were both speaking, and I was intrigued by your topic and by the vigour with which you approached it. Although my research is somewhat different to yours, I really took courage from the example of robust, engaged and quite risky scholarship which you set during that short paper.

    I just wanted to let you know how sorry I was to hear that you’re currently unwell. Here’s hoping for your speedy recovery so you can get back to the academics that you love in earnest.

    Best wishes,
    Rachel

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  4. Hey, not exactly the same situation, but my academic career was completely derailed by a massive nervous breakdown in my 4th year, so I can imagine a bit of how you feel. I hope you’re coping okay. I’m praying for you.

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