Before launching into this post I just want to give a bit of a disclaimer and state that I do believe that higher degrees are worth completing. It is just a matter of figuring out whether you are getting it for the right reasons. I have had reason to question whether my degree is worth it. It is, it just needs some tweaking and perhaps a change to something more practical like Masters rather than PhD. I also want to mention that I have had nothing but support and help from my supervisors and other HDR staff alike and without them I would have been in a much worse predicament…
Over the last month or so I have been doing a lot of thinking. How is that any different to the large amounts of thinking I do normally? It’s been about my degree. I have never had reason to question any parts of my education. I knew that I wanted to get into university, I worked hard all through high school to get there. Keep in mind I hated high school. Hate is a strong word but my schools years were pretty horrible and I was glad to be out of there!
So I got into the course and university I wanted and again I worked super hard and missed out on a social life to get into the honours degree and then into PhD. I even had 6 week plans for every assignment so I had them prepared early. To be fair though I didn’t miss out on everything. I managed my time well and was able to continue with part-time work and go on exchange overseas to Portland, OR. When I finally got accepted to do PhD I relaxed a little. I had finally got to where I wanted to go and now I could really focus on research and enjoying spending time in archives. Well, my little dream went astray within 18 months. I had the project worked out, the literature review and introduction drafts written, successfully completed my colloquium, gone on several research trips: many to Melbourne but one very exciting trip to Canberra…I, and my supervisors, thought everything was going well until after several trips to the National Archives came up with nothing. I thought that if I kept going I would eventually find some hidden gem of information. I genuinely thought that it was me who was the problem. Perhaps my research skills weren’t up to scratch, perhaps I was using the wrong key words, perhaps I should speak to more members of staff at the National Archives. This eventually went on until I was asked to attend a ‘consultation.’ This sent me into panic mode plus! I was worried they were going to kick me out or something equally as dramatic. Thankfully nothing of the sort happened and the ‘consultation’ was a review to see why there had been problems with the progress of the thesis. A plan of action was put in place, a new supervisor was assigned to the panel and so the process began again. The only problem? The new topic still lacked information. Another slight revision of the topic still led to a lack of archival information. Now, I’m in my third year, time is ticking on with both my scholarship and candidature. I was getting worried that the scholarship would come to an end and I would be left without any form of income.
With the help of my partner, who has been in a similar place with his research, I decided to take a leaf out of his book and start looking for work. NOW! I’m just hoping I’m successful in one of my applications. I discussed this with my supervisors who were coming to the same conclusions and liked my plan of finding work, intermitting for six months then reviewing where the thesis is at, whether I want to continue with Masters or PhD or if I want to continue at all. What my supervisors reiterated to me is that no matter what decision I make I have not wasted my time as a PhD candidate. I have learned valuable skills, participated in many projects and improved my writing and research skills. If nothing else I have still got my honours degree which is a help in the workforce. This is also true for my partner as without the years of lab experience he had as a HDR student he would not have got the position he is currently employed in.
I think higher degrees are important, but I also am thankful that my university has the flexibility to change depending on the candidate. I’m not locked into PhD, I can complete Masters if I choose. Without this experience I would not have realised that academia really isn’t for me at this point in my life. Maybe down the track but not right now. I’m feeling that at this point in my life I’m a little behind others my age because of the years spent studying, but at the same time I’m a little ahead. At the end of the day I just want to be employed in a job that I enjoy and feel like I’m contributing something to the world. Now to find a job!
Just to add a few words regarding my own postgrad experience. My experience has been a little different to Sarah’s. I never hated high school, I didn’t love it exactly – I guess I felt a little indifferent to high school, I went, I did the work then I came home and did the homework. I worked hard enough to get into the course I wanted to but I definitely could have put more effort into chemistry. I worked hard throughout my undergrad but let’s say I was a different student to Sarah. I didn’t work on assignments a month or more before they were due, usually a two or three weeks (3 was the definite maximum) but sometimes it was only the week before. When I finished my undergrad I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I knew I didn’t want to just go out and get any job – I wanted to do something with history but I didn’t want to do an honours year. I didn’t feel IT about any of the subjects I had taken. I really like the World War units but just not enough to write a thesis. I fell into a Grad Dip of Museum Studies and found I really liked the idea of museum work, and just museums in general. So in 2009 I began my Master of Cultural Heritage course.
Up until now it has been great, in 2010 I interned in Washington, D.C. and then in July this year began my thesis unit. I’ve had the opposite problem to Sarah, I’ve found so much information it has been difficult at times to get through. I have to agree with Sarah, though I’m not doing a HDR, higher degrees and postgrad study is well worth it, even before you finish. I have had my own moments of wondering if my thesis, and my Masters was worth the trouble. In August, I hit a road bump. I found out that I may not have been able to get the primary documents I needed from the museum in D.C. My choice was to revise my thesis focus or attempt to hire a researcher to get the documents I needed. I had to think very hard about what I wanted, was I going to revise my focus, change from what I had really wanted to do for the last 18 months and start almost from square one. Or was I going to risk my project by trying to hire a researcher, taking the chance that the researcher may not get the relevant information and essentially be back at square one anyway? Add to that, I didn’t have all that long to decide what to do. I spoke with my supervisor, my family and friends and I decided I would risk hiring a researcher. I was lucky, I found a great researcher, sent him a three page guideline for the information I wanted, emailed my contacts at the museum and organised for the researcher to go in, and he sent me exactly the material I needed. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb, take the risk and let it fall where it may. But the one thing you should always do, is really think about what is right for you. What do you want out of it and if it is working for you. There is no sense in doing something if it makes you unhappy.