On opting out: How to make life choices when you’re a professional ditherer

On Saturday, I put the final nail in the coffin of my plan to do a masters. You may not know that I’d applied for UCL’s Comparative Literature MA, got in and even found some (very partial) funding, but for a few months at the end of 2015, that was officially The Plan. Then, over the first half of this year, I gradually wobbled towards a change of heart. And just the other day I sent the email that made my declining of the offer official.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

The course I chose was one that fit my academic interests perfectly and would have been genuinely exciting. It would also have justified a deferral of the terrifying decision about what I want to do with the rest of my life, giving me a whole two years (one for saving, one for studying) in which I hoped some kind of epiphany would arrive. What’s more, it was an easy plan to explain.

The idea that you are what you do is embedded deeply in our social interactions, making it hard to form an identity if you don’t do something ‘proper’. When you give an honest but unimpressive answer (e.g. “working in a pub and recovering from my degree”) to the question “what do you do”, there is the odd asshole who sees is as their duty to attack said answer with such force as to make you believe that your carefully-reasoned choices were but a momentary whim.

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In contrast, “I’m saving for a course” is an utterly defensible explanation for why you’re currently a barmaid. To illustrate, here’s a loose retelling of an interaction I actually had with a rare obnoxious customer:

HIM (after talking exclusively about his wealth and importance for some time): What are you doing then?

ME: Working in this pub and serving you drinks.

HIM: I mean, in the long term. Come on, it’s not like you can do this forever, it’s career suicide. The problem with this country is that young people have no work ethic.

ME *internally raging*: I might do this forever, you don’t know me! What right do you have to question the validity of my choices? By the way, this is my second shift of the day, and you can shut up about work ethics given that you’re literally sitting and watching me work right now!

ME *externally, with exaggerated calmness*: Actually, I have a masters place. I’m saving for it.

HIM: Oh, now I see that you are a valid human being and I bow down before your clearly well-founded life decisions.

Do you see what I mean when I say having a concrete ambition makes life easier?

There are Good Ideas and ‘good ideas’

Those reasons seemed watertight for a while. But whenever I sought advice, the overwhelming response was “do the MA for your own fulfilment if you want; it won’t affect your career either way.” The loud, clear message was that I could do it, given a bit of determination, but there was no should about it. It was entirely up to me and my own confused little brain. So me and my confused little brain sat down and thought about it over the dark winter months, and we came to a few conclusions. Here they are:

  1. It would be more of the same. I chose a taught Masters with a focus on the subjects I most enjoyed during my undergraduate degree. The advantages of this are obvious, but in truth it would have been a reiteration of what I’d already done, except with less support and ending in a less essential qualification. Unless, that is, I was aiming to become an academic. Which leads us to the following…
  1. Academia is almost certainly not my niche. I miss getting to read all the time, I miss lectures, I miss regularly doing interesting translations and (forgive me Finals-Rowan for what I am about to say) I actually miss writing essays.But, setting aside the massive ‘if’ of whether I’d succeed long-term, I don’t want that life. Research into the uses of the domestic appliance as an allegory for pain in mid-1976 literature from the North-West of France* is not my thing. What’s more, although I  seem to perform well in an academic setting, it’s definitely not the best environment for my mental stability.

*a topic I just fabricated, but which gives an idea of the ludicrous specificity that’s entailed by most long-term research projects in popular, underfunded subjects.

  1. I like studying literature, but it’s not what I loveThis is a whole nother can of worms, but I’ve known since before I (somewhat inexplicably) chose a French degree that I really want to make cool stuff, not just read about it. When I work out what I want to make, I’ll really be kicking myself if I can’t take the opportunities I need because of spending all my savings on an MA that was basically an excuse to avoid the future. Much as I love reading books, I could probably just buy the whole reading list rather than spend £10,000 on tuition.

Choosing not to choose

An undergraduate degree is an indisputably useful thing, even if you choose the subject more or less at random. By contrast, you have to care about a postgraduate degree, because when the government’s not paying and the qualification won’t get you a job, the price tag matters. Once I’d thought about it properly, it became apparent that what I’d be paying for was a) an excuse to read fun books and b) the right to say “Look, I’m doing the Correct and Obvious Thing!”

Ironically, even though it would have been stressful, expensive and difficult, I realised that doing that MA would have meant taking the easy way out. This is because of the distressing truth that the main driving force behind all my choices and achievements from school to university has been a combination of two minor superpowers: terror of failure, and a reasonably clear sense of what I should do next. Together, these mean I’m just not very good at saying no, even when my gut is telling me to.

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The masters was such an obvious next step for me. I’d performed well at uni, I knew how to read books and pass exams, a couple of people whose opinions I respect had even expressed the flattering opinion that I’d be good at postgrad study. The door was open, so I walked towards it, put one foot through it…

…and realised it was the wrong sodding door. Not only that, but the guiding hand of moderate certainty had entirely disappeared, leaving me lost and alone with only my trusty friend ‘terror of failure’ for company. I proceeded to have something of a meltdown, which we might talk about in another post.

What now?

This post is retrospective. I really made my decision back in March, although it was a little sad to see the end of my student days becoming concrete yesterday. I haven’t worked out what exactly I do want to do, but I’ve closed the door on study for the time being, and the room/job/tortured metaphor I’m in at the moment is pretty great. It’s giving me a lot of ideas for things to look at when my contract ends, a date which is looming already. I’m aware that I’ll most likely have to work for subsistence rather than the sheer joy of it, at least sometimes, but surely that’s better than pouring all my resources into a semi-practical enterprise that’s almost – but not quite – what I want to do.

So there you have it. This is me, officially disappointing anyone who thought the MA was the right thing to do (and believe me, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of disappointing anyone.) I still think it would have been a dream come true in some senses, as an apparent escape from the depressing side of real life and a re-immersion in literature, but I also think it was someone else’s dream.

And I reckon it’s probably time I join in with real life. Until, at least, I’ve worked out what my own dream is.

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