I do not want to be an academic

September 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

[and that’s okay, and no, I am not quitting my PhD]

This piece reflects my current state of mind, so it’s a bit messy and perhaps not really making a point – or many. And I hope none of my future employers will read this.

For some people, their job is their life. It’s their passion, one of the most important things (hopefully after family and friends). I am usually amazed by these people – by everything they know, they do, the little sleep they need. I used to want to be like them.

I don’t want to be an academic. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love what I am doing. And it’s not that I ever really thought I’d want to (or had the capacities to) become Professor, but what this actually means had not really downed on me. It has, now.

In Burundi I met a couple of great PhD students who knew impressively much about Burundi, politics, whichever academic debate… who seemed to be working all day, every day whereas I really needed my weekends to do nothing, read Harry Potter, visit Audifax, eat croissants. And spent most of my evenings watching movies, overstrung by everything I’d seen and heard. (To be honest, this is not entirely true. I often read articles here and there during the evenings, as well as during the weekends. Because I felt like I ‘had to’ or just wanted to, but also quickly realised that it sometimes was too much). I realised that my dissertation will probably not be as good as theirs. And I did not really care, as I know what it will take me to live up to those standards, and that I am not able (/willing) to do that. Of course, even in PhD-land there’s the super intelligent and the okay-ish people, and I’d like to believe that by choice, I am part of the latter. And I do believe I work hard enough – as hard as I can, which will never be similar to genious people. The ‘brille’ is lacking – and I don’t think that hurts me anymore.

In the weeks after I got back from Burundi I decided (or at least, I think) that I do not want to be an academic, and that that’s okay. I am really doing this now because I enjoy it a lot, I get to study one particular topic in a given country for three years almost without distraction, I eventually get to write a book (that no one will read, but hey). I enjoy incredible amounts of freedom – well, you can read all about how much I like PhD’ing in a previous blogpost.

Then I attended a Summer School in Ghent. It was great. I received very useful feedback from two senior and four junior researchers (a pretty amazing thing, given the fact that during my annual review at uni here the three assessors had not even read my paper – ha ha), met PhD’ers working on interesting topics, listened to all these great presentations. Most of them political scientists. Some of it rather theoretical. And I realised that I don’t really like abstract theories, nor fully understand them. Generally, when I don’t like something and don’t immediately understand it, I tend to leave it (which is why I failed at math in highschool and dropped economics and physics as soon as I could). Slightly problematic when doing a PhD so I’ll have to find a way to deal with that.

A lot of very intelligent young people talking about complicated research, theories and concepts. By the end of the day, I just wanted to talk about B-movies and holidays, but dinnertime was ‘professionally-socialising’-time. I did not understand (or could not keep my attention to, probably related to this) one of the presentations, I did not ask one question during four days. Because I simply did not have one. It all felt a bit ‘beyond me’, my head was full of empirics linked to the fieldwork I had just finished, I simply cannot be planted from one environment right into the other… etcetera.

I attended this summer school to personally learn from it, to meet interesting people, to add an experience. Not to further my career, not to put myself in the spotlight, not to discuss journals to publish in. I don’t mean to say that it’s wrong if these are your reasons for attending, simply that mine were different from what I interpreted other peoples’ to be. And I did not really mind – people aspire different things, that’s all good. I just felt a bit out of context. Perhaps not smart enough.

Before moving on to what this all meant when I got back to Durham last week, time to introduce an over-arching theme: making choices because what you believe other people will think of you, when you do.

One of the biggest cliche’s is that life is simply too short…. in this case, to make choices for any other reason than your own aspirations and gut-feeling (excluding hurting other people, naturally). For too long, and I think I am not alone in this and therefore dare writing it down, I’ve been making choices partly because I thought other people would really find it impressive. Which they did, which did not help.

Look at me, doing an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (being slightly -haha- out of place), look at me volunteering in Africa (feeling homesick for months, but man, the experience!), look at me doing a traineeship at that same Ministry (starting to realise I really do not fit in that grey, risk-averse environment full of generalists, having to work on the basis of government policies you do not necessarily agree with, feeling so far detached from ‘the real world’. Status, yes. Mostly for that reason, coupled with awareness that there’s no jobs, and the fact that there are interesting things to do in that building and that some people really are different, I decided to go for ‘het klasje’, the yearly recruitment procedure. How I failed – both on the intelligence as well as the competency test, in which I scored below average on every competence except for empathy, on which I scored 5 out of 5. As I was doing a traineeship at the time, I was invited to talk about these disappointing/surprising results. I am happy that my personality made up for my apparent lack of intelligence and competencies, but as I had just heard I would be working in Mali the next year [which later was changed to the DRC], I decided not to take up the offer to move to the next round. This had to do with pride, but also with the awareness that I just did not fit there – the procedure of admission did not really help).

Then Congo happened, and people who’ve been reading this blog for a while know what a success that was. I felt miserable for months, did not get any work done, felt increasingly guilty about that, frustrated with my employer, went home completely burnt out and had to attend sessions with a specialised stress-therapist in order to get back on track. The fact that my colleague, an experienced development worker, went through a similar experience made me realise that this had nothing to do with my professional qualities, and to cut a long story short: there I realised that I cannot work on a project I don’t believe in – a project that’s counterproductive, adding to everything that’s wrong with ‘international development’ in that corner of the earth.

[just a small sidenote: of course, I did not do all of the above solely for reasons ‘beyond me’. I actually really enjoyed many parts of it, even in the DRC, and learned an awful lot. I do have some agency, people ;)]

There it stopped. I applied for a PhD-position and got it – only then realising this meant that I had to move to the UK. But I decided that I could quit anytime I wanted, decided to see this as a process which I would try and get the most out of, making use of all the freedom that comes with it: in the UK, you don’t have to teach, you don’t have to organise anything. You can (career, people!), but you don’t have to. You also don’t earn anything, but that’s another story.

Back to the moment I returned to Durham, to be more precise, a small village 3 miles away. As for many people, I am in Durham because I am doing my PhD there. And this is where it gets complicated: I’d just realised that my PhD is not my life.

In Durham, it is. Everyone I know here is doing a PhD. This is crazy, as it does not really reflect society as it is. Of course, all these PhD-people are more than their research, but there’s an atmosphere of ‘talking about your research’. I am really very tired of that. Admittedly, Durham is beautiful. The weather has been surprisingly good. I still get that nice warm feeling when I see the cathedral, the river, the trees that are changing of color now autumn arrives. I am extremely priviliged to have been given this opportunity. I’ve met some really nice people which I hope will stay in my life for a long time (funny enough, all but two of them are Dutch). And all of them say the same thing: it’s all about university here.

Most people doing a PhD won’t end up in academia, surely my supervisor does not expect me to, which really helps. Yet many people act as if their research is the most important thing ever. Maybe this is not so much about academia as about ‘careers’ in general. And of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting a career (in which-ever sector) – perhaps I am a glowing example of what some feminists in the Netherlands now call ‘vertrutting’, meaning women don’t appear much in the higher echelons of society simply because they don’t want to. I don’t care to join this discussion, really, but I do know that I am sick and tired of trying to pursue something for the wrong reasons. If that means that I am part of the ‘vertrutting’, that I’ll never get a supergreat career and will never become the boss of the world, then so be it. At least I can stop comparing myself with other people my age who have done so-and-so, instead just being happy for them they’re achieving so much, realising that I never will, either because I don’t have what it takes, am unwilling to push myself that far, or have different priorities.

HASHTAG rant over. Back to analysing Burundian farmer interviews.


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