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.
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).
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.