‘Why on earth would you do that?’ On leaving your job to start a PhD.

November 28, 2019

Just over a month ago I turned 34. Not only does this mean that I now get the odd twinge in my knee when tackling stairs, but it turns out that this also puts me at exactly the average age for an Australian starting a PhD.  

 

Four and a half months ago, I left a career in the social services that I had spent nearly a decade establishing and enrolled in a PhD about Antarctica. To me, this was a huge thing. It felt risky, and I was acutely conscious that I occupy that hairy part of the Early-30s-Venn-Diagram-Of-Economics, wherein you’re old enough that stepping away from your career entails a big change, but young enough to have absolutely no financial safety net if everything goes belly up. Surely it would have been much smarter to stay the course and keep inching my way towards a home deposit, right? 

 

But I didn’t. And, if this statistic that I found on the internet is correct, then other people are making the same choice. This leads me to ask why. Why are people like me leaving established careers to take up a PhD? Why are we taking this enormous risk? 

 

In no particular order, here’s why I did it:

 

1.    Tasmania. This never would have happened if I was still living in Melbourne, seriously. But, as luck would have it, nearly three years ago we made the shift to Hobart and our gorgeous city’s marine and Antarctic connections has played a big role in me choosing to call myself a Tasmanian. I don’t fully know what this connection means yet for me, or what it means for our state, but this PhD is part of finding that out. 

 

2.    The Future. It’s big, slightly scary, and definitely well deserving of the capital F. Over the coming decades, we humans are going to be faced with all manner of serious and urgent questions about our relationship with the earth, and in particular with our blue and frozen places. This is important stuff, and I want to contribute. 

 

3.    Let’s blame Google Earth. Every day at work, I used to drift off into boredom and find myself opening google earth and spinning my way around the dark blue waters and frothy coastlines of the southern parts of the world. Tierra del Fuego, the Kerguelens, Bouvetøya. Every day, I’d close the browser on these places and feel a little pang. It wasn’t until I took on some research assistant work on a project about social policy that I realised how fascinating research could be, and that it offered a legitimate pathway that could lead, maybe, straight to the southern ocean. Once I figured that out, what could I do but take the leap? This is a choice, but it’s also a compulsion. 

 

Fifteen years ago, give or take, I sat in the office of my then Classics professor and explained to her why I was withdrawing my honours application. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but she listened, understood the decision, and closed the conversation by saying I’d be back. That academia still had something to offer me, an itch that the workforce would never quite be able to scratch. Turns out, she was right. 

 


 

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Hobart, Tasmania | karen.alexander@utas.edu.au | +61 3 6226 4869

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