PhD

A doff to uncertain times

In a week’s time, I will be walking across a stage, doffing my Tudor bonnet as I am introduced as Dr Hilton. I will enter the room as part of the academic procession, and sit on stage amongst dignitaries, staff, and my fellow doctoral graduates.

Around the same time that I am marking this educational milestone, high school graduates will be accessing their secondary school results and the ranks that will decide if, where and what they study at university. Some of them will be excited, some of them will be disappointed. Eighteen years ago, I was a high school graduate finding out my OP, and it was not the result I’d been hoping for. There were tears, lots of tears.

For the past five years, I have been teaching first year university students, and my most recent position saw me mentoring students who all faced challenges in their studies. Many of these students didn’t get the results they’d hoped for, and many of the students I’ve taught over the years were enrolled in a course that was not their first preference. As a high-school-senior my university preferences had to be changed numerous times. The creative arts courses I was applying for required portfolios, auditions, and interviews. There were numerous applications that didn’t make the cut.

I started my undergraduate degree at seventeen years old and I lasted two and a half years before dropping out of university. It was eight years before I returned and I was twenty-nine years old when I graduated. Tears, tears, lots of tears.

When I finished my Bachelor’s degree I wasn’t ready to leave. I knew I wanted to keep learning, keep studying. A conversation with one of my lecturers led me to an honours degree. Another year of university went by. My thesis was awarded first class honours, I was accepted into the PhD program. I was unsuccessful in gaining a scholarship initially and had to work a job I hated while studying full-time. There were wins, there were set backs.

It was four years from commencing my PhD to submitting my thesis, and another year where the thesis underwent examination and some minor changes before I was awarded my degree. During those years, my research took twists and turns, there were personal difficulties (including a mental breakdown and relapse into self-injury – issues that had plagued me since my senior years of high school), trips to Canberra, Melbourne, Wellington: New Zealand and Stockholm: Sweden, and I met some of the most exciting and wonderful friends and colleagues. Next week there will likely be tears.

I have no idea what’s next. There is no linear pathway to follow. My degree is not a guarantee. Academia, like many other industries is plagued with issues of insecurity and uncertainty. Creative practice has never been considered a “comfortable option”. I will sit on that stage at my graduation scared, unsure and earnest.

There is a richness in resilience.

Need some inspiration to push on? Watch: John Waters Commencement Speech.

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