What does a PhD Mean in a pandemic?

Alex Fitzpatrick (www.twitter.com/archaeologyfitz) is an almost-finished-PhD candidate and zooarchaeologist. When she’s not complaining online, she is the host of the ArchaeoAnimals Podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network (www.archaeologypodcastnetwork.com/animals). You can find more of her work at her website: www.animalarchaeology.com.

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When the pandemic first became an international talking point with all eyes on China, I remember how fast the dread hit me. As a Chinese-American migrant in the United Kingdom, with my Chinese-American family living in what would quickly become a hotspot for the virus, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before microaggressions would turn into macroaggressions. That dread would quickly transform again as the United Kingdom got hit with a national lockdown at the end of March, and I found myself barred from my lab for the next 6 months.

Oh, yeah…I was in the middle of finishing a PhD during all of this, wasn’t I?

It’s funny (or maybe it’s not), but when you’re a non-EU migrant in the UK, your studies can quickly become the last thing on your mind. Even before the pandemic, I was much more concerned with finding employment (can’t be more than 20 hours a week, can’t be freelance work, but also I have no access to public funds, so good luck with surviving!) and planning which visa routes I could apply for next. That’s not to say that I wasn’t working hard on my research…but as a self-funded (read: funded by US student loans) PhD student, it was hard not to become more pragmatic in the prioritising of my anxieties. I love my research, but it won’t pay my rent. Or pay for my next visa extension (or the various other things that migrants get charged hundreds of pounds for).

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Frankly, this pandemic has me asking a question that I have yet to answer: what does a PhD even mean to me at this point? As a migrant in a country that is viciously hostile to immigration? As a person trying to survive a global pandemic? As a mentally ill Asian woman  in an overtly racist, sexist, and ableist discipline? For a long time, I think I was spurred on by spite – after years of being referred to as “Short Round” for daring to be an Asian archaeologist (a reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, truly a masterclass in Orientalist racism), I wanted to prove that I could earn my PhD and therefore be legitimised in a discipline that would rather study me as an object. 

I’d like to think there was some positivity in there as well, that I would like to represent someone who wouldn’t normally be thought of as an academic and archaeologist. That I could break the mould, as a chubby Asian woman with tattoos and an inability to remember the names of bones despite literally being an expert of animal bones. I mean, how many archaeologists are like that?

But again…spite and aspirations won’t pay my rent, or my visa fees, or help me survive. 

At the time of writing this essay, a week has elapsed since I submitted my PhD. I wish I could say that I was enjoying my post-PhD time, catching up on sleep and relaxing…but I’m not. Everyday, I sent out an average of 3 job applications, both for academic and non-academic positions. PhD or no PhD, my life depends on employment: to continue to have access to life-saving medication, to remain with my partner in this country, to keep my legal status as a migrant, to simply survive. That the job market was already grim pre-pandemic doesn’t help with the urgency, either. As I lose focus on remaining in academia, it’s hard not to feel an immense amount of grief and regret either – did I really spend the last decade of my life studying for degrees that will not matter? Did I waste my life chasing a feeling of prestige that will not keep me warm and healthy as we face a winter pandemic?

What does a PhD mean in a pandemic? If it can’t save me, was it worth it?

I don’t really know.

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