Why I Turned Down a PhD

This isn’t an article I ever thought I’d be writing. For a long time, a PhD was my dream, my ultimate academic goal. To enter the world of those three extra letters neatly placed after my name, to command academic respect from your peers, who too knew the trials you had put yourself through in getting to the status of ‘doctor’. I knew exactly what taking on a PhD meant; long lonely nights researching, isolation, self-doubt, crippling stress and anxiety…I knew all of this and still believed it to be right choice. Yet here I am, having sent the official refusal of offer email just hours ago.

Writing and submitting my application for this year’s batch of studentships was actually my second time around already on the PhD application front. I’d attempted to leap straight from my third year of my Bachelors into a PhD, and naturally, I fell short that year. I collected myself, began my masters, and poured my efforts into that, developing my PhD application more so after the completion of my MA dissertation, having had more time to grow as an academic and develop the research project itself.

I spent a lot of time juggling my new full-time job in marketing with developing my PhD application. I’ll admit, there were a lot of tears, a lot of stress, and a lot of frustration. Having to keep it secret from the majority of my colleagues didn’t help the situation either, as I was afraid of being made redundant during my probation period if they thought I would be leaving soon anyway. While I was attending a lot of conferences during the summer, reading extensively, and generally keeping myself up to date with my field, by the time Christmas 2016 rolled around I was feeling more deflated and conflicted about it than I wanted to admit.

I was enjoying my job, more than I had expected to enjoy a generic office job in marketing, something that was distinctly outside of my media specialism. Equally, I was enjoying being able to live in a nice house (with heating! and no mould! and no mice!) for the first time in two years. I liked the freedom to make plans with my money, to book holidays to visit friends abroad, to have fun new experiences without worrying about my overdraft or not being able to afford food or clothes. For the first time since I was 18, I had savings. When I finally submitted my research application in mid January, I’m almost ashamed to admit I felt relief that it was over and out of my hands for a few months while I took time to think about my future.

If I’m honest with myself, I think even by the time I handed it in, my decision to turn down the PhD offer was already forming in my head. I wrote countless for and against lists, researched extensively on what doing a PhD was like to live and breathe, and what the job market was like for new PhD graduates in the UK HE sector. The more I researched, the more disheartened I felt. I struggle badly with anxiety, and everything I read seemed to reaffirm my fears that the PhD would be the most stressful thing ever undertaken willingly. The job market for young academics is horrific; zero hour contracts and a massive lack of support and permanent roles seemed common. With universities increasingly acting like businesses and taking education as a means of money-making opportunity. thanks to our Tory government, placing inherent value on knowledge is becoming less and less guaranteed. I couldn’t help but think; what would a PhD even be worth if I did it?

The decision to refuse the PhD offer came long before that email dropped into my inbox today. I spoke with friends, family, my boyfriend, looking for advice from each of them on what to do. But ultimately, I could only make the best decision for me, with the information I had. I couldn’t risk lack of job security, lack of finances, and increased stress and anxiety on a three year long project which wouldn’t see me graduate until I was in my late twenties. It sounds awful, it sounds shallow, it sounds materialistic and like I’ve embraced the shackles of neoliberalism – and maybe I have, and maybe it is all of those things. But I like being able to make plans for a future I have a lot more certainty about. I love being able to go on holiday and explore new parts of the world. I like being able to buy clothes and shoes before they are completely falling apart. I like to know that at the end of the day, I can have food in my fridge and cupboard as a guarantee, not as a hope. Many people who take PhDs have some kind of support network: maybe they live at home with parents, maybe their partner supports them by working, or maybe they just have parents who can afford to support them. I live as a lodger, my parents are divorced and neither could ever support me, and while my partner is fully supportive, it’s not in a financial sense. I’m absolutely fine with this entire situation, but taking on a PhD would mean I would be forced to move somewhere cheaper, borrow money from my already stretched parents, and put strain on my relationship – I’m not willing to go back down that route.

One thing that always sticks out to me as a pinnacle of student life is this. When I was between my third year and my masters, I worked as a cashier at a supermarket. It paid my rent and some of my bills, but not much else, so I ended up digging deep into my overdraft between pay checks. I was busy preparing for my Masters in my free time, so I still felt like a student. We were a house of three, and we were all very, very poor. We used to take it in turns to buy key household essentials, like milk, sugar and toilet roll. On this occasion, it was my turn to buy butter. And I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have £1.20 to spend on a tub of generic butter spread. I have never forgotten that moment of pure helplessness and frustration when I realised I couldn’t afford a basic necessity. I knew that I couldn’t go back to roughing it in student life. Taking a PhD would mean exactly that.

I’d like to clarify; I still love academia, and deep down I think it will always be a passion of mine. I have nothing but immense respect for those who do take on the challenge of a PhD – in a way, you are stronger than me to see all of this around you and still bite that bullet. I’m not saying I’m never going to go back and study, because in the future I absolutely would love to take up another MA or even an MRes. But to me, a PhD is just too daunting, too big, and too full of uncertainty to make it worthwhile for me. I’m happy in my career, and even taking steps up the ladder as I recently got a new position which is a small promotion on my current role. I’ll still keep reading and writing academically, but it won’t be my work – it’ll be my hobby. I’m okay with that. I’m happy to be a hobbyist rather than a professional. At the end of the day, I have to do what feels right for me, and while I am sad to be turning down what once would have been my dream, it feels right.

Coming to this decision isn’t something I’ve taken lightly, and I’ve spent a good few months reaching it. I can only hope that ten years down the line, I can still look back and say that I made the best decision possible for myself at this point in my life.

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