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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On Having An Audience, Or, I Wrote A Thing And People Who Aren’t My Thesis Supervisor Read It.

Here’s something they don’t tell you when you sign up to do a PhD: You will write hundreds of thousands – probably millions – of words, and no-one will read them. As a general rule, most of what we write as postgrads will never see the light of day, destined to malinger in the murky depths of the hard-drive. Occasionally, some of those words will make it into chapter drafts, to be seen by another person – the thesis supervisor. Very, very occasionally, a tiny fraction of those words will make it into a journal article or conference paper, where their exposure perhaps expands to a dozen or so people. Anything over fifty people is, for a postgrad at least, a boom audience.

So writing something that’s seen by hundreds and hundreds of people? That takes a little getting used to.

A few weeks ago, I attended the History & Media conference, as part of the Presenting The Past History Week program. Designed to bring academic historians and media types together in collaboration (or, at least, into the same room without it disintegrating into cross-career chaos), the conference included a Writing Workshop; bring along a draft op-ed or other piece of public history writing, the email said, and we’ll go through it with mentors. My first attempt was a decidedly scrappy book introduction, with almost no redeeming features save for me referencing four of my favourite music festivals in a single sentence. It was shoddy, but it was words on a page.

And then came Election Day.

I voted mid-morning, and then escaped the Sydney heat (and the election coverage) for a few hours in my office. In an effort to do ‘work’ without actually, you know, working, I decided to catch up on George Brandis’ interview with Radio National recorded a week earlier, about arts policies under the (inevitable) Coalition government. The interview, from memory, was a little under half an hour long.

I lasted eleven minutes before I ripped my headphones out of my ears and stormed away from my computer in disgust.

That night, I went to my friend Lisa’s house, to watch the election coverage. I was still on the train when Antony Green called the election for the Coalition, fifty-seven minutes after polls had closed. It wasn’t until much later that night, as Kerry O’Brien was signing off, that I remembered the interview I’d been listening to (raging at) earlier in the day. Brandis, I realised, with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, was Arts Minister once more. And that’s when I got very, very angry.

I was still angry two days later when, back at my desk, I saw the shoddy book introduction I’d written for the conference writing workshop. The workshop was the next day, and I had eight hundred and twelve other things to do. So, naturally, I ignored all of that, opened up a blank Word Document, and wrote a thousand rage-filled words about why Brandis as Arts Minister was decidedly not-good for the popular music community. After deleting the swear words, it looked a little like an op-ed. Certainly, it was less awful than my other possible workshop offering. So off I, and my angry little op-ed, went.

The feedback I got on the piece was far kinder than it, or I, deserved. My angry little op-ed, they said, should be published. For five days, I sat on the details they gave me of who to send the piece to, and where it should (could, would) be published. Finally, by the Sunday, I was deeply fed up with myself and (after adding in a paragraph and getting rid of what the journalist mentor called “that wanky academic lingo”) I emailed it off to the editor of Australian Policy and History. Two days later, it was published.

A day after it went online, one of the people at APH let me know that she’d forwarded my op-ed on to a couple of music journalists. A day after that, media group Sound Alliance asked to use my piece on one of their music press websites. A few hours later, my article – now with a snappy new title and pictures – was at the top of the Opinion page of FasterLouder.com.au.

My byline. On the music website that I’ve been reading obsessively since I was fifteen years old. I tried to play it cool, but (as ever) don’t quite think I managed it. I tweeted a link to the op-ed at its new (music press!) home, and then watched as, for the next twenty-four hours, my Twitter and email inbox exploded. People were engaging with my work. People were reading my work. People who weren’t me, or my thesis supervisor, or the dozen or so people who constitute the readership of an academic article. People who run websites and music advocacy groups and radio shows that I love. People who not only liked my work, but actively defended it – and me – when the inevitable detractors emerged.

Comparatively, the amount of people who have read and shared my op-ed is less than a drop in the Internet ocean. A week on, and I’m firmly back in the world of the thesis, with its even-smaller readership (of two). But if nothing else, I got two publications in less than a week, and one of those was a byline on FasterLouder.

Yeah. That still hasn’t sunk in.