Monday, 9 April 2018

Taking time out and staying engaged

Bex Anthoney writes an excellent piece about taking time out of academia and the effort required to still find time to keep engaged with the academy. Follow Bex on Twitter at: @Bexamous92

I've known for a long time that I want to pursue a PhD, and to stay in the academy as long as possible. When I finished my BA, postgraduate study was put on hold for two years because of some less-than-ideal financial circumstances as well as a lack of self-confidence. This year I finished my MA, and failed to achieve PhD funding. I'm determined that this won't be the end of my academic journey, but for now I'm looking at a second stint of time spent outside of the university.

Time out of the academy can be good for us. After my undergraduate degree, I felt the benefits of knowing that my free time was my own: when I got home from work at 5:30pm, I'd left work behind and could spend my evenings worry-free. Time out allowed me to recharge, and ultimately helped re-confirm that academia was the path that I wanted to follow. I found that I still wanted to read academic works, debated furiously with work colleagues who were curious about my studies, and really missed the library. I kept a blog over that time, mostly writing about how the bible, history and religion interacted with my favourite pieces of popular culture. However, I didn't feel like a part of the academy. Over those two years, my studies were all carried out alone and in my limited spare time. I didn't have anybody to bounce ideas off, or suggest further reading. Studying without any structure, support or guidance is difficult for even the best of us; staying motivated was a difficult task, and one which I frequently failed at. Going back to university after two years off was a big adjustment, not least because Masters study notoriously “throws you in at the deep end”, but ultimately it was very much worth it. Taking time out, at least for me, was an incredibly isolating experience, but made me so grateful to be back in the academy and more excited to study than I'd ever been.

And that brings me to where I am today: out of university with no idea when I'll be back. It's the second time that I've been in this position and I've resolved not to let myself become isolated again. This will mean a lot of work: my financial position means that I need a full-time job, and anything else will have to be done in my evenings and weekends. Doing this has required two important assets: motivation and discipline. Motivation isn't hard to find, and I'm quickly realising that loving what I study and having an end-goal in mind means that it rarely feels like a chore. Sometime, though, it's essential to work hard even when we're exhausted and don't really want to, and training myself to do my work even when it's difficult to do so continues to be an important skill for me to hone. Though, of course, so does remembering to take time off when needed!

Right now, I'm working on a burgeoning academic network for women studying Religious Studies and related disciplines (Women's Network for Junior Academics of Religion, or WoNJAR). I'm working on it with two fantastic friends from Leeds and Manchester Universities, and this exciting and important work is very much the key to me staying engaged with the academy. Thanks to WoNJAR I'm constantly in dialogue with both academics and aspiring academics, I'm working on university-based projects within my home city, and I have a reason to keep networking. Among its many aims, we hope that WoNJAR can offer students in similarly isolated positions the opportunity to come together and engage in dialogue with other academics and aspiring academics of all levels.

My academic journey so far has been a real roller-coaster, and I'm sure it will continue to be. As I start a new leg of this journey, working on WoNJAR and working to get the funding to continue my studies, things seem scary. There are a lot of wonderfully supportive academics in my field, and I have a network of friends within and outside academic Religious Studies. I have absolute faith that this, along with a healthy dose of hard work, will be enough to see me through.
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