14. Starting a PhD: a non-linear approach

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St. Andrews Cathedral…be seeing you soon.

For the last few months I have taken a hiatus from writing my blog to focus on applying for a PhD at the University of St. Andrews. What a harrowing adventure! From start to finish, it was a good 3-month process with dozens of re-writes, stress and the agonizing wait to hear back. Even starting early, and following advice from friends and online, there were so many unknowns going into it. There were many moments of self-doubt, which had the uncanny ability to creep in when I needed it the least. With the support of some amazing teachers, mentors and friends, I managed to get someone interested in the incredibly nerdy stuff I love – Roman Aegyptiaca. In a post coming soon I will write about what that is, but for now…I will be studying Egyptian-looking things in Roman cities.

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Khoiak Procession from the Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, Italy (2014)

While the outcome might seem straightforward, (person X likes (topic), studies Y = goes on to PhD) the path is rarely as clear as this. An interesting part of the curation on social media, is all of the crap that you don’t want people to see can easily be ignored, not reported or underplayed. I focus and emphasize the things that I am most proud of, that arguably demonstrate a clear connection to my goals and objectives. It’s not always a conscious choice, but it excites me to share upcoming adventures (research trips, excavation work, conferences etc), and even if those activities are the exception to fairly humdrum periods of time, I try focus on the positive and engaging elements in my life. That curation presents a deceptively well-planned and linear pathway however.

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Roman road excavation. Merida, Spain (2014)

Like many people in the ‘millennial’ category, I have taken a strange circuitous route to finding a path. For many years I was uncertain what it was I wanted to do, or how I would even get there. My professional or academic shortcomings would emerge when I contemplated pursuing any concrete direction. Supporting myself through school involved things that looked remarkably unrelated: Italian train information CSR, custom picture framer, freelance artist, call centre CSR, book and video store sales person, maternity store sales clerk, telecommunications CSR, office administrator for an engineering firm, work-study intern with a museum, housing assistant, university credit secretary, repairs assistant, catering delivery driver, and endless amounts of ‘exposure’ work (free) and side-hustle to get through.

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‘Work for exposure? Oh can I?’ Roman wind chime. Merida, Spain (2014)

Despite working in areas that for many would happily suffice as a career, I have always been half in and half out. Every work placement is an opportunity to learn useful skills, but nothing had any real resonance to me or inducement to stay long term. I always had an eye to what might be ahead and to apply to any and every opportunity, often ending comfortable employment for a scrambling uncertainty.

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Egyptian relief. Louvre, Paris (2016)

Sure, I love ancient history, archaeology and art…but what can I really do with all this?
Throughout all of that, I knew I wanted to spend my life studying and sharing aspects of ancient history through art and writing, but unsure as to what my mixed-bag of skills would allow me to do. When I drew all of my work experience, hobbies and passions together a picture emerged that put the question to rest: I want to be an educator of Ancient History. Fundamental to this was attaining a PhD, and getting more focused and industry specific work experience.

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See? So much time spent on ancient walls. Hadrian’s Wall, England (2013)

Having been accepted to St. Andrews, I now have several months to plan and prepare – skills my varied work experience has hammered into me. Much of the existential angst of ‘what will I do and where will I be next?’ can finally be put to rest for the next few years. With the patchwork of experience that has sustained me, now behind, I look forward with more clarity and focus.

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