Smells Like (Twenty-Something) Spirit

A couple of nights ago, I caught up with a darling friend for a couple of quiet post-work drinks. We’re the same age (give or take a few months), having gone through most of high school together. After high school, she decamped to Bathurst to get a journalism degree, and then, after graduation, hopped on a plane to London. She came back to Australia after a couple of years working in British retail and nannying. Right now, she’s interning at a PR firm, doing promotional work in the arts sector: a job she loves, but one with little, if any, stability.

(This particular friend, I should add, has concocted the best imaginary PhD research project I’ve ever heard. I won’t spill it here – on the off chance that, one day, she loses her grip on reality and joins the academic madhouse – but suffice to say it combines two of my favourite popular culture icons of recent years: Grumpy Cat, and Karl Stefanovic. She’s got a killer thesis title and everything. I swear, I’m *this close* to filing the postgrad application paperwork for her.)

Another dear friend and I went to a gig together last weekend. Over dinner, we talked about her plans to move to New Zealand. She, like me, went straight from our high school to university; in her case, a four year Chiropractic degree followed by another year to get her Master’s degree. She finished last year, and has spent this year working (not in her field) and scheming and saving to get a job across the Tasman. We’ve known each other since we were six years old.

There are six of us in our little PhD group of friends. All in the Arts Faculty, all female, and all mid-twenties; the eldest among us is twenty-six years old, while the youngest is our only true baby of the 1990s, aged twenty-three. Three of the six live with their parents; two of us live in sharehouse-type scenarios; the sixth member of our little gang lives with her long-term partner. We have lunch together most days, dinner once a week, and are each other’s sounding boards for the stuff about being a PhD which no-one else, no matter how well-meaning or sympathetic, can truly understand. Occasionally, we feel collectively brave enough to broach the scariest topic of them all – career prospects, and the post-PhD (lack of) options.

We rarely feel that brave, though.

Writing about the fractured, chilling instability of Life As A Twenty-Something is perhaps the Internet’s second-most prolific pastime, after cats. Loathe though I am to contribute to that hurling void of words (most of which boil down to: “Congratulations, your existential crisis is right on schedule”), yesterday’s ‘Doing a PhD in your 20s’ post on the Thesis Whisperer website got me thinking. Until I read it (nodding vigorously throughout, much to the amusement of those at the desks adjacent to mine), I’d never thought that doing a PhD at my age – twenty-four – was particularly odd. And, though the national average age of a PhD candidate is about a decade older than me, I still don’t.

Being a Twenty-Something, if we are to believe the Internet (and who am I to argue?), is a fraught experience, littered with quarter-life crises and broken hearts and self-absorbed sobbing, and – crucially, unavoidably – ongoing and terrifying instability. Looking at my life and those of my similarly-aged friends (both within and outside of the PhD ‘lifestyle’), the Internet isn’t completely off the mark. Though my nearest and dearest are a brilliant and funny and talented lot, few of us have any recognisable stability – in terms of careers, doubly so. (Those rare characters that do seem to have it all together, I regard with a mixture of awe and suspicion). The argument for attempting a PhD later in life cites the above as proof enough for putting off the postgrad experience as long as possible; certainly, there are days when I wish I was a little older, if only to perhaps lessen the frequency with which I wail, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” But in my mind – and I do hope this isn’t just a desperate justification for my life choices – doing a PhD as a twenty-something makes enormous sense.

I’ve been very deliberate, for example, in making sure that the thesis – overwhelming, overbearing beast that it is – doesn’t become my entire life; in that, I think, I’ve achieved a modicum of success. (Some people who I love, and who love me, would beg to differ: “Wait, where are you?… You’re in the office? But it’s Sunday!”) I go to gigs, and meet friends for drinks, and travel up to the Coast to see my family when I can (though never, I suspect, often enough for my mother.) I can do all of this, and still get work done and sleep a reasonable amount each night (though again, probably not enough by my worrying mother’s reckoning) exactly because I’m in my twenties. I’m young, can still survive on a diet comprised mainly of caffeine with few negative consequences (sorry, Mum), and – most importantly – I’ve no other commitments. I don’t have to schedule my thesis work around kids, or a partner (foreveralone.gif), or another job. All I have to worry about – in a turn of events that greatly pleases my narcissistic tendencies – is me. My time, my energy, and my attention is almost entirely my own – so long, of course, as I pay my rent and bills, and meet deadlines for thesis work, and eat and drink and sleep and exercise enough to keep me recognisably alive. It’s a deeply selfish lifestyle, which dovetails nicely with the fact that, justified and important in its own way, a PhD is a deeply selfish pursuit.

For three (or four, or *gulp* more) years, I get to come into work every day and write about stuff that I love. My work, in its most basic form, is along the lines of, “Hey, look at all this cool shit I found!” (Also: “Hey, music is awesome!” and, in the case of PowerPoint presentations, “Look at Kurt Cobain’s pretty goddamn face.”) I get to sit in the archives, and I get to make arguments, and – most pleasingly – I get to write.

Not a bad way to spend my stint as a confused, fractious, narcissistic twenty-something.


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