On Not Getting a PhD

Manhattan

For the longest time, I had sworn off doing a PhD. The idea of a PhD, as a friend once said to me, will haunt us until we either get one or we die. I had believed that if I wound up doing one, something had gone wrong. Pursuing a PhD meant having failed to commit to my own writing, which, if I were being honest with myself, I couldn’t say that I had ever really been doing—even though I had just spent three years apparently doing just that at an MFA programme. Pursuing a PhD seemed different, though. It seemed like the most adult-type thing you could possibly do. It seemed more serious—staid, even. Conversely, it might also be argued that spending over five years of your life writing a book that no one is going to read is perhaps the most wildly frivolous and self-involved thing you could ever do—the messy end to the most masturbatory of all decades, your twenties. 

 

Pursuing a PhD would surely mark some sort of inexorable decline that would almost certainly end with my throwing myself off a balcony in some vague, European city after years of attending dreary conferences on essentialism, or the environmental imagination, or on the role of the bicycle in 20th century European novels. I thought a PhD was a slow death, a way to spend the years filling my pockets full of stones before wading out into the stygian waters of the increasingly non-extant college job-market. Knowing—and very much in spite of—all of this, I decided that I would spend a year of my life applying to several of them.

 

In early 2019, I decided I would submit to eight PhD programmes by the end of the year. I had come to New York three and half years earlier from Ireland, late in the summer of 2015, to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, and had planned to return to Ireland two years later, ready to sign copies of whatever it was I naively assumed my first novel might be. I never did manage to write—never mind publish—a remotely readable draft of said novel. I did, however, meet my girlfriend, whose entrance into my life two and a half years into my time in New York changed both my relationship to the US and the idea that returning home was inevitable. For a while, it seemed as though we had all the time in the world, but, eventually, the time on my student visa ran out. I would apply for a PhD. We told ourselves we could do a year apart and I thought that a year in Ireland, to see friends and family, and to approach the mammoth task of applying, might be the perfect interval before launching into a five, maybe six-year long, PhD. 

 

Because many PhDs in the US are fully funded, applying to one seemed like a great idea. Alongside the fact I already had an advanced degree, I truly believed that I would be so irresistibly employable that I would easily begin forging a career during my PhD. Not only did it provide me with a way to live in the same country with my girlfriend, it also provided me with a response to a question which I worry will haunt me forever, but now, in my late-twenties, seems more pressing than ever—what are you doing with your life? At every crossroads, education has always seemed like a reasonable way out, a way forward that no one who knew me ever bothered to question. Finish undergrad? Get a Master’s. Finish your Master’s? Why not get a slightly more advanced Master’s, an MFA? Wise or unwise, the decision to pursue more education has always come at a time when I felt I was beginning to drift, and I have always taken that chance—and, crucially, it has always paid off.

 

It is hard to overstate that I had never intended to do this much college. College was never really a certainty, much less an ambition, right up until the last minute. The all-boys school I had gone to in Drogheda, the relatively small—but by Irish standards quite large—town I had mostly grown up in, was a mixture of working and middle-class children. My friends and I, who shared relatively similar backgrounds—often one-parent households—cared about little more than girls, music, and, from sixteen onwards, getting stoned out of our minds as frequently as possible. College was a laughable idea. We knew little about elsewhere and cared less about getting there. 

 

At school, the career guidance teacher spoke to us as though getting into a pre-college diploma programme, or at best, the local IT, might be a god send for any of us. Thankfully, I had two great English teachers who encouraged me constantly, and other teachers who seemed to think I could do well if I simply put in more effort. About to turn eighteen, with my end of school exams approaching, I decided that I did want to go to college, and preferably do so as far as possible away from Drogheda, which seemed like the most radical idea I could conjure up.

 

Up until I was fourteen, my mother was a teacher, teaching art at the local Youthreach, a training programme for early school leavers. Most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds and had been expelled from other schools. I had been to three of her students’ funerals before I turned thirteen. We had a lot of conversations—before I was really old enough to understand—about how little support some of them had at home, and about what that could lead to in later life. I had grown up thinking we had little money—which was true, we really didn’t; my mom was unable to work for a major part of my adolescence—but I realised then that money hardly mattered if you had a parent or a guardian who was invested in your achieving something. 

 

Even though I had spent most of those years opposing everything I felt she was pushing on me—which, in retrospect, she hadn’t really been pushing at all, but simply suggesting, in the way that good parents tend to—as I approached eighteen, I conceded that she was right about how important education seemed. I didn’t understand how important it actually was, but I was at least ready to admit that it seemed important. Uncertain of what I wanted to study, I applied, and was accepted, to study Arts at Maynooth University.

On not doing a PhD
Maynooth Campus

My group of friends quickly became more middle-class at college. I was surprised to learn how differently their teachers had spoken to them, as though going to Trinity, or to UCD, or, for some, to a college in the UK, was something achievable. I waited for someone to laugh whenever a new friend or acquaintance mentioned an ambition, but no one did. I added nothing to the many earnest discussions about the merits of studying a certain subject at a certain university, or about future job prospects. 

 

All of these new friends, I learned, had done Transition year—a gap year of sorts where an emphasis is placed on extracurricular activities, class trips—often abroad—and work placement or internships. At my school, only one class—twenty students out of one hundred and twenty—were afforded the opportunity to do Transition year. At my friends’ schools, it was common for it to be mandatory, meaning that students were graduating high school at a slightly later age—equipped with useful skill sets and a degree of maturity—than most leaving my school.

 

Back at college, in addition to stidying English, I found that I also enjoyed studying Sociology—particularly having names put on experiences which, as far as I was concerned, were unique phenomena. In all of my three years of classes on how structures of inequality hamper social mobility, or on the differences in educational attitudes between middle and working class people, I realised that on a meta—but very real—level, I had already encountered the most telling lesson I would ever learn about education and its relationship to class and economics. It was simple: one group of students were being told they could have whatever they wanted, and the other were being told to be grateful for what they received. 

 

The slight pressure I felt from my mother to do well in school came from her desire for me to go to college, from which neither she nor my father had graduated. Two years before I was born, my father dropped out of the since-closed Rathmines College of Commerce in his first year because he didn’t like it. My mother dropped out of NCAD in third year, so that she could have me, two weeks before her twenty-second birthday. They split up when I was three and went on to lead remarkably different lives. My father never went back to college and has since worked a variety of factory-adjacent jobs. My mother taught art for eleven years, fell ill, left her job, and then, some years later, began making art full time, before returning to college finish her BA at 43, just as I, at 21, was beginning my MA. Because of her practice at the time, and having already completed two years of a BA, she was fast-tracked into the third year of a four-year BA, which meant that she and I, bizarrely, both ended up graduating from our MFAs in 2018.

 

I qualified for a tuition waiver and a grant during undergrad and, more or less, for my master’s, too, which covered rent and some living expenses. I also kept the part time job I had had since I was 14, returning home each weekend to work at that most glamorous of all first part-time jobs—the rural petrol station. The grant wasn’t related to academic achievement—without it, the awarding body concluded, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. 

 

As grateful as I was for the financial support, I retained a suspicion throughout college that, somewhere along the way, a concession had been made for me to be there. That—and this is strangely bound up in money—I didn’t deserve to be there. I remember receiving the first cheque, and whilst immensely pleased, was also quite embarrassed for having received it, feeling a sense of shame then whenever I spent it. It was weird—I needed it, but I also wanted to be rid of it, to have distanced myself from the person who had needed it in the first place, as though we were different people. Whilst it eased over time, the uncertainty surrounding my being at college followed me throughout it.

 

Later, during my first few weeks into the first semester of the MFA in New York, I was sitting in a communal area, where people from my programme gathered to write, read, and chat, talking to people in my programme whom I was getting to know. A poet from my year sat down beside us and went in and out of the conversation which, somehow, had moved on to the cost of being here. I said that the scholarship I received was the only reason I was able to attend the programme. The scholarship had covered half of my tuition fees, which, whilst it wasn’t enough, provided the bank confidence to lend me the rest.

 

That scholarship you received was needs-based,’ the poet pointed out to me, ‘not merit-based. I received a merit-based scholarship. There’s a difference.

 

I wanted to respond with something clever, but, honestly, I hadn’t even known there was a difference. I nodded politely, winded. One of my classmates looked at me with widened eyes and steered the conversation towards another subject. I remember sitting there quietly afterwards, half-pretending to read emails, wondering for how long I was going to carry this impostor syndrome around with me.

 

Although those feelings have mostly disappeared, I had, for an embarrassingly long time, been somewhat envious of people who have felt like they deserved whatever they wanted. Many of my classmates, whose attitudes and behaviours I was quietly, but keenly, interested in, were the purest examples of privilege I had encountered. Most were affable, but they were people who had been told from a young age that there was nothing stopping them from getting what they wanted, and their lives up until I met them had thrown little at them which suggested otherwise. My mom had repeatedly told me those same words growing up, but I had at that point been raised long enough by a single mother to know that things don’t always work out quite the way you want them to.

 

Few people during the MFA spoke openly about financial struggles, which is significant considering it costs $120,000 for two years. Two reasons come to mind: for most people at an Ivy League college, money isn’t an issue; because of this (mostly) unspoken fact, many others who have received scholarships, or assumed large amounts of debt to attend, feel somewhat awkward about (rarely) bringing this fact up. With exceptions, of course. I met several classmates who spoke about taking out loans, despite already being racked with debilitating amounts of undergrad debt.

 

One classmate even confided that his parents had re-mortgaged their home so that he could attend the programme. My mom had offered to do something similar in a moment of panic and characteristic support after I called to tell her that I had gotten in but wasn’t sure I could attend because of the financial hurdles involved. When I called my dad to tell him the news, his initial response was that it was very nice to have been offered, but obviously, with all of the money involved, I couldn’t go. I understood his own relationship to education and his reaction to the many obstacles which faced me, but I maintained that I was going and so by the next time we spoke he fully supported the decision.

 

I regret not telling this classmate the particulars of my own struggle and I suspect embarrassment stopped me from doing so. Because most of my peers didn’t often talk about how expensive it was to be there, at, of all things, a Creative Writing programme (in the one of the world’s most famously expensive cities) I managed, in some bizarre attempt at fitting in, to seldom publicly acknowledge that I felt ‘worried’ about having taken out such an enormous loan to be there.

 

Instead, I listened as classmates—most of whom didn’t work—spoke about how hard it was to write. I tried, but didn’t always succeed in not bringing up the fact that it’s harder to write with two jobs, or that I taught twice a week at a voluntary after-schools programme in order to accrue more experience and improve my CV so that maybe I’d be in with a shot of getting that unpaid—but nevertheless much sought after—internship that I couldn’t even afford to take. 

 

This is not to say that I went through the two years there resentful of everyone at college—I didn’t. I made some great friends and had some of the best, if some of the most challenging, years of my life there. I listened, I watched, and I learned a lot. I realised that the entitlement and confidence that comes with a degree from an elite school are as much of an act as anything else. Some people believe that they are perfectly entitled to end up at an Ivy League college; others believe that they have rightfully earned their place at one; others, like myself, still maintain to this day that some sort of fortuitous and highly elaborate clerical error had been made. Even after my graduation ceremony, as my girlfriend and I made our way down to downtown to meet my family for dinner, I remember catching a glimpse of myself in a window, in my silly little cap and gown, and wondering when I would be able to accept all of this.

 

A few months after graduating, about six months after having finally resigned myself to returning home, I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, lying in bed in Brooklyn on a day off. The novel follows the relationship between two teenagers from the west of Ireland, Marianne and Connell—the former from a wealthy background, and the latter from a recognisably working or lower-middle class one—from high school to Trinity College, Dublin, where their different backgrounds come to the fore and cause problems. Because winsome and wholesome Connell is at Trinity, it’s assumed he has come from a comparable background. He works multiple part-time jobs to acquire enough capital in order to better fit into this new world of affluence. 

 

As the novel so wonderfully points out, the sad thing about trying to fit in is the dislocation that that brings with it. It’s a double bind, often one that you’ve unknowingly committed to, and for which you will have to pay over the coming years in all sorts of ways that will not make sense to most people. It is a strange sensation, fighting your way into a new world, only to get in and realise you may have gotten lost somewhere along the way.

 

I inhaled Normal People in a day, feeling a strange rush of recognition as I read the last page, where Connell receives the offer to study on an MFA programme in New York. My own life had been different in many regards, but similar in others. My story in New York was coming to a close just as all of the possibilities of his were beginning. For the first time in years, I found myself thinking about the application process. 

 

I remember getting the offer from the university, sitting in my living room in Toulouse, in France—where I had moved after applying to college to try (and fail) to teach English, under the assumption that I wouldn’t actually get into an MFA programme—whilst watching Six Feet Under with my housemates, killing time before I went in for a shift at the bar at which I was working. I became overwhelmed at the thought of having to do it all over again. Would I, even? The long talks with my mom. Convincing the bank to lend me the money. The debt. The doubts. The goodbyes. The learning how to live in a new place, studying its streets and ways like a new language. Getting lost, constantly. The break-up that followed shortly after I moved, when everything seemed like it was falling apart. The uncertainty of it all.

 

And this: walking alone along Rockaway Beach on an evening in early September, staring out at the horizon, the same day my mother and grandmother, who had helped me move my stuff over to New York, said goodbye and returned to Ireland. It was a week after I had arrived, a week before class would start, two years before I imagined I would leave New York, and four years before I actually did. The city lay far off in the distance, unnerving in its disinterest in what had led me to it. A breeze came in off the Atlantic. I wondered if I had made the right decision.

 

Unlike when I was applying to MFA programmes—programmes into which I felt I had no chance of being admitted—I did believe that I had a good shot at getting into one of the best colleges in the US for a PhD, and I told everyone as much. Academically, I had done well and felt that maybe I had originally been wrong about not wanting to do a PhD, that maybe it was exactly what I was supposed to do. Most people I spoke to in academia, particularly those who had been there for a while—former professors, some friends late into their PhDs, people I’d met at conferences who were struggling to find work related to their PhDs, and even someone who had written one of my letters of recommendation—had told me, in no uncertain terms, that a PhD was not a good move and if there was anything else at all I could see myself doing, I should focus my energy on it instead. 

 

Some professors and friends did, however, say that it was a good idea—and I chose to listen to only them because I really did want to do a PhD. I find it interesting now that I politely but steadfastly ignored all of the ‘negative’ advice, reasoning that what had gotten me this far, would get me further. The equation, more education equals more success had worked, so why stop now? Everything pointed towards more education. There are certain things we do so habitually and for so long, we aren’t even aware we’re doing them.

 

In May of this year, the year of staring absentmindedly at screens, walls, or out of windows, I learned that I had been rejected from my eighth—yes, eighth—PhD programme. The thing on which I had been banking—to wit, luck—had finally run out, and confirmed what I had suspected all along, that I was an impostor who had scammed his way this far. I had used education to insulate and shelter myself from the world, to keep some of the bigger, more pressing questions at bay, and, for the first time, that strategy was falling apart. 

 

When I now think about why I decided to apply for a PhD I see a constellation of reasons I wasn’t cognizant of when I began all of this. Applying to PhD programmes was a very reasonable and logical response to an immediate and pressing problem—an expiring visa, the threat of being made to leave the place which had become my home, and, as always, the slightly bigger problem of not knowing what to do with one’s life. 

 

Back when I first began writing this essay, I failed to see any connections between my past and my naïve, lofty hopes for a vaguely romantic future as an academic, a future I wasn’t even certain I wanted. In the course of writing that essay—of which there remains thousands of unusable words, vestiges of a less self-aware and self-critical version of myself—that essay, which is simply an earlier, more meandering version of this essay, I began to feel as though I had missed the point, focusing on the mundane and vaguely comical things that occurred (mostly to me) during the application process.

 

Describing this version to my girlfriend, she pointed out that I had everything about applying, but nothing about how being rejected felt—about what I thought all of this meant for me, or how I situated it within the bigger story of my own educational journey. I defended the draft, but I realise now I was simply defending how much time I’d spent writing it—much in the same way that that draft had been written to defend how much time I’d spent applying to eight PhD programmes. 

 

As I began to rewrite it, I started to think more critically about how I had chosen to spend the previous year, about the motivations which lay behind it, and about the hopes which seemed to guide it. It was easy to block out how unpleasant the year was whilst I was living it simply because of how much work there was to do. It was only after I had filed the applications that I could begin retracing my steps, unpacking everything and making connections. Whilst it may sound incredibly obvious, more education has always been inextricably linked with the idea of progress in my mind—an idea amplified by the fact that I was the first in my family to graduate. 

 

Being the first to graduate from college in my extended family, I never had to put up with the same level of scrutiny from family members demanding that I leave college and enter into the ‘real world’ in the same way a lot of my friends had to. Until recently, that is. That I did anything seemed to impress most of my family for my first few years in college, and it was easy enough to keep the education game running. College, in and of itself, to them, seemed like enough of an accomplishment. But this time around, with the PhD application, some of my family had become more expectant of me, of what I could achieve, and had begun wondering, firstly, what was taking so long with the applications, and then why it was taking so long for the admission offer to arrive.

Columbia Campus
Columbia Campus

Growing up, I had seen my parents hammered time and again by the real world. If that was the real world, I wanted no part in it. If through education I could ensure that I wouldn’t have to work in, say, a minimum wage job, then I would get as much education as possible. Deep down, I believed that education offered me a buffer from the world. It had become a reflex to the purposelessness which I have felt for as long as I can remember. As much as education has fuelled me, so, too, has its absence—perhaps more instructively. If it has given me anything, it has given me perspective, an understanding of what I do and do not want out of life, and, crucially, the luxury of being able to recognise the difference between the two. 

 

So, what could someone who has spent a year of their life trying, and failing, to get into one such programme, tell you? One thing is certain—I could not and will not ever be able to tell you what it is like to do a PhD in English. I could, however, tell you that it is sometimes easy to get caught up in valuing the end results. I could tell you that when the end results are so precarious, that the process—whether it’s spending a year applying to a PhD programme, or five years completing one—should be meaningful. I could tell you that it is neither salient, nor useful, to define yourself by your education. I could tell you that it is always a good idea to unpack and interrogate where you’ve gotten, or inherited, your own ideas about education and its relationship to success. I could tell you that everyone’s own educational journey—whether it ends at 18 or is suddenly reignited at 43—warrants a reflection. I could tell you that the way education is presented to different groups of people can have an enormous, possibly inestimable, impact on each group’s understanding of—and attitude towards—education. I could tell you that if young people are not told about a specific opportunity, most of them will, through no fault of their own, go through their entire lives not having considered it an opportunity, or possibility, at all. I could tell you that goals can be recalibrated. I could also tell you that running to exhaustion in The Phoenix Park during peak application season will obliterate your stress and anxieties, helping you to feel nothing, at least temporarily.

 

I could tell you that having the very thing which you imagined the next five years of your life in relation to vanish, and that the blank canvas which lays ahead of you waiting—for what, exactly, you are not quite sure—is an utterly terrifying prospect, but one of which you find yourself, increasingly, less afraid.

 

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