Re-entering the ivory tower

I’m going to start this blog with a couple of posts from my tumblr, which is where I started blogging about my new life in academia, or rather my reconnection with academia. This post was written in February 2015.

A picture of books in a library
Honey I’m home!

Nearly twelve years stand between now – the start of my PhD years – and the happy day I filed my MSc dissertation in a drawer and hoped never to have to look at it again.

Much has changed for me personally. I’ve had a decade-long career in charity communications, leading up to specialising in online communities and social media. I can now look at my Master’s dissertation without wanting to vomit. I’ve had two children and moved to the other side of the world (London-Sydney). Family has brought complicated jugglings of responsibilities (seminars that run from 4-6pm, you officially suck), total exhaustion and of course deep joy.

One of the reasons I didn’t pursue a PhD straight after my Master’s was down to my fear of isolation and the potential impact on my mental health. Too many days sitting alone in the British Library had strained my inner resources and my relationship. Nowadays the idea of a few hours to myself, surrounded by books, papers and other scholars, feels like a cool drink on a hot day. I know it’s still going to be important to actually speak to people and make new contacts and maybe even friends, but right now solitude is a novelty and one I can emerge from into the chaos of family life whenever I want.

Returning to familiar conceptual ground and observing how the field has developed in my absence has been interesting too. The other day my supervisor chucked around the word “hybridity” almost as a joke and I was immediately transported back to the early 2000s and the air conditioned chill of the library. It’s been a good reminder that theories are always contested and will ebb and flow in popularity and relevance – an important lesson for students and early career researchers.

So I’ve changed, the field has changed, and of course academia itself has changed. The plethora of material available online! (Students today may never know the ‘joy’ of squinting at microfiche in a darkened room). Widely available referencing software! The increased circulation of ideas and serendipitous connections brought about by the advent of social media! Not to mention the development of whole new fields like digital sociology and digital humanities.

I’m not sure early careers in academia have ever been a picnic. I remember my dad, a careers advisor, having endless discussions with newly minted PhD-holders, unemployed and disillusioned. It’s another reason it took me a while to come back to academia. But I do think the precariousness of early academic careers has increased and can stretch out for many years. I sense the fear in the students and the despondency of the newly graduated, especially the women wondering how they’re ever going to fit in starting and raising a family without any steady employment prospects.

I don’t want to end on a down note, though, so I’ll just add that I am genuinely excited to be back amongst the books and the scholars. Where it’s going to take me, I don’t know yet, but I’m glad to be here.


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