University of Cambridge
7.05 I open my eyes. Over the past year, I’ve rarely been woken up by alarm clocks. The luxury of waking up naturally is a consequence of the decision I have made about a year and half ago – to do a PhD in sociology. However, I am hardly what you’d think of as ‘traditional’ PhD student: I have another PhD in a related discipline, which was followed by an academic career combined with some think tank work and policy advising. My last position was a prestigious postdoc with the prospect of tenure at a relatively well-funded institution in Denmark, which, whilst experiencing cuts, is still less neoliberal than either the UK or the US. By most standards, then, I was a pretty serious contender in cognitive capitalism’s rat race.
When I decided to take up a PhD at Cambridge – where I had been offered a place two years prior, which I initially rejected in favour of the position in Denmark – I left all that. You are probably wondering why, and most people around me did as well. The chief reason is simple – I wanted to work on social theory, and doing it properly meant I needed to take the time to do just that – uninterrupted by the increasingly insane demands of admin, bosses, political concerns, and the concept of work-life balance that seeks to define both your work and your life. Approaching the one-year mark since the start of my second PhD, I still do not regret the decision.
7.30 I get up and walk into the kitchen. The flat is rented by a friend who is a postdoc, also at Cambridge, and I’m staying in it for a few weeks before moving into a college room, having reluctantly accepted that renting my own flat is unsustainable on a doctoral stipend. The friend is currently away at a conference, but even when around, she works long hours – sometimes until ten in the evening – and yet manages to be upbeat. I’m reminded of my own semi-ecstatic permanent exhaustion that seemed normal back in the day, and the sometimes-worried looks of those around me. Things are OK, I’d say. They weren’t.
8.05 I settle in front of the computer with coffee and breakfast. I try to write first thing in the morning, which means I aim to avoid email, news, Twitter or Facebook for the first few hours, lest I get pulled into the vortex of information and opinions that might need responding to. Of course, this does not always work – the moment my concentration drops I will check at least one of those – but I do manage to get about half-hour of uninterrupted writing. This morning, it’s reflections on last week’s conference on cultural political economy at the University of Bristol. I normally save the writing of blog posts (an echo in my head says ‘non-serious stuff’) for weekends, but this one includes going through the theoretical framework that I am using for the presentation at a workshop later this month, so I’ve decided it counts as (‘serious’) work.
9.00 I have finished most of the theoretical parts of the post but begin stalling when it comes to the reflexive bits. Writing on personal stuff comes more naturally in the evenings. The owl of Minerva, etc. Perhaps a bit of music would help: Florence and the Machine, for example.
9.35 I wonder if I could write poetry and live somewhere on the English coast, permanently.
09.45 I should’ve been a dancer. Dancer, definitely.
10.00 I decide to look at emails and then go for a run.
10.10 Verso has a book sale! I quickly close that tab and promise myself to go trough the back catalogue tomorrow, preferably after I actually check my bank account.
10.20 My co-author for the paper on Open Access emails from a conference in London. He says there is convergence between the paper he’s presenting there and our project, which I’m very glad to hear. Earlier this week he apologised for the delay on our paper, citing partnership & parenthood obligations, which, for a moment, made me wonder whether things would have turned out differently had I held on to the makings of a ‘serious’ academic – job, tenure, promotion, relationship, mortgage, the works.
10.30 I have run out of tea. Definitely going for a run.
10.45 I have a strange relationship to running – unlike other forms of physical activity I engage in (walking, cycling, yoga, swimming), I do not particularly enjoy it. My ex used to run, so at some point I got him Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and, of course, speed-read it before handing it over (everyone does this, right? Reads stuff they buy for other people? Just making sure). I presume I thought that, if only I could find a compelling philosophical justification, the activity itself would become more appealing. I found the prose beautiful, yet the argument none the more persuasive for it. Paradoxically, this lack of enjoyment in the process is one of the main reasons why I persist: it is, in fact, excellent prep for writing – which, as it happens, is sometimes about inspiration, but much more about sustained effort even when it does not lead to instant gratification.
11.00 Out the door. I am well aware of the classed nature of exercise, but in this part of Cambridge – council flats, very different from the white-washed picture-perfect downtown – running for fun is so obviously out-of-place that I feel ridiculous.
11.30 I hate running.
11.45 I scramble up the stairs. After (too-short) a stretch and shower, it’s time for lunch. I go over emails.
12.45 Apparently, Great British Bake-Off is trending in my networks. Mother always told me I should pick friends more carefully.
13.30 I intend to spend the afternoon going through literature on cultural political economy – the framework is complex and I am trying to make sure I am not missing anything crucial. Engaging with the work that’s still being developed is tricky, as you risk both offending those who are building it and alienating those who criticise it, without necessarily befriending either ‘camp’ in the process.
15.00 Cycling towards the city centre, I encounter kids just off their first day of school. My feelings are split. For the most part, I hated school – which probably explains why I ended up researching education policies – but I liked learning. I do not envy these kids. The cutthroat competiveness inculcated into them from an early age must give rise to a very instrumentalist-cum-cynical view of knowledge.
15.40 I go to the University Library to pick up a book. It turns out that the library is closing early today, without explanation – probably some sort of corporate fundraising event – so I just about manage to collect the book and leave it on the reserve shelf.
16.20 Annoyed at having wasted time, I decide to swing by college – which is close to the UL – and collect my mail. Besides issues of New Statesman accumulated during the time I have been away from Cambridge, there is a letter from HM Customs & Revenue, saying I had paid too much tax on my meagre income from supervisions and the odd teaching job. The return barely buys dinner, but hey – it’s money!
16.45 Maybe I could skip dinner and spend the money on Verso books instead.
17.00 I come to the office to catch up with emails and continue reading the cultural political economy stuff.
18.00 Perhaps after all abandon everything and relocate to the coast? Could run a mobile library. And write poetry.
18.05 …Except that, of course, that would mean my Tier 4 visa would be revoked, & I would be deported. Probably not a good plan.
19.00 I’m supposed to meet a friend for dinner, after which I will go back to the flat to continue writing. I am hoping that, by the time I get back, I will be in shape to finish the conference post. My eyes hurt a bit and I wonder if I should start wearing glasses permanently, something I had so far managed to avoid.
21.00 Back in the flat. Have been feeling somewhat exhausted but the ride home through mostly empty streets was pleasant – even caught myself humming to Van Morrison along the way. Now just enough time to finish writing before going to bed – not sure if I’ll manage both the blog post and the diary entry, though; wondering if it’s actually possible to have enough of self-reflexivity for one day.
23.30 Finished both posts. I love that my work allows for bouts of late-night inspiration. Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @jana_bacevic.