Academic emergencies,the art of the side-hustle, and the absurdity of Cambridge

My life in Cambridge is a strange mixture of privilege and precarity. One day I’m dining in Peterhouse’s 13th-century hall, lit only by candles. The next, I’m trying to pay the rent.

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Graduation day. After four years of working towards my PhD, I find myself about to become a doctor – of history, I should say, rather than anything medically useful. Qualified to assist with your Victorian emergencies. We assemble outside college in the morning, greeting parents and old friends, and preparing to make the traditional procession towards Senate House.

It is a ridiculously beautiful day, and I think how nice it is to show off the city to my parents at its gorgeous best, all green lawns and bright sunlight reflecting off high stone walls.

There is something irresistibly lovely about it – our gowns billowing behind us in the breeze as we walk down King’s Parade, parents and tourists running alongside us to take photos, dodging cyclists and long-suffering van drivers who drum their fingers impatiently against their steering wheels as they wait for us to pass.

Bo praelector

It occurs to me, more forcefully than usual, what an absurd place Cambridge is, as we walk into the cool hush of Senate House, led by our praelector, who has Sellotaped Cliffs Notes of the Latin ceremony to the inside of his mortar board. We line up, as the sounds of chattering tourists and street performers echo in the high-ceilinged hall, where suddenly we could be stock characters in a Dutch Golden Age painting, something out of Vermeer – the black-and-white chequered floor, the clusters of gowned and ermined officiators bowing and doffing their caps to one another. I kneel before our college master, who clasps my hands and confers my degree, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

Afterwards, we walk to my local pub and are joined by friends, and we sit outside in the afternoon heat, relaying anecdotes and debating politics, by turns violently agreeing and disagreeing with one another. I go to bed sun-tired and delighted by my own temporary contentment.

Average students

I’ve always been better at beginnings than endings, though, and it’s not a happy time to be starting a career in academia. This week alone has brought headlines about the failure of Oxbridge colleges to improve diversity, depressing figures about the gender pay gap for academics, and worrying rates of mental illness among undergraduates due to sit their end-of-year exams.

Each morning, I set my alarm early to mark essays and practice papers, ready to meet with my students for revision classes. I discuss revision techniques with them, and try to impress upon them how important it is to take breaks and look after themselves, but I can see their anxiety at the prospect of leaving their library desks. I wonder if we’re getting the best out of our students, when their futures are so dependent on a few hours in an exam hall. The pressure for them, on average, to be better than average, seems to grow every year.

I feel this pressure, too, as I browse the latest round of advertisements for lectureships and research posts. It’s hard to imagine a time when my life won’t be defined by insecurity. Job applications have been a constant: for every academic job I’ve applied for, I doubt there have ever been fewer than a hundred applicants – all of us desperate for the security of even a one-year contract, which might find us relocating anywhere in Britain, Europe or North America to begin the whole process over again.

Keep calm and pay the rent

My life in Cambridge is a strange mixture of privilege and precarity. One day I’m dining in Peterhouse’s 13th-century hall, lit only by candles – in the “oldest secular building in Europe still used for its original purpose”, as alumni are honour-bound to tell you. The next, I’m trying to pay the rent. I have managed to acquire five part-time jobs this year – a mixture of zero-hours and freelance gigs, in teaching, writing, researching, libraries… side-hustles that are somehow adding up to a subsistence wage. I’ve no idea where I’ll be living next year, or where my money will come from – but, at last, I seem to have come to the realisation that worrying about it will not make a difference. I wander around the city with my headphones in, as the sun shines day after day, walking through meadows and college grounds down to the river, and reminding myself how beautiful this place can be.

Later, I sit with my housemate on the back steps of our house-share in the last of the evening light, talking of our dissertations, and putting the world to rights as we watch the sun dip behind the terraced rooftops at the end of our garden. Sometimes, it’s enough: those long summer days for which you’ve waited, like a cicada, underground.

Doing something right

Reading the news, I realise how much I’ve had the sense, recently, that something has gone terribly wrong – that we’ve been jerked into a general state of affairs that no one had envisaged for the 21st century, until it happened. Post-Trump, post-Brexit, every bad headline has seemed to confirm the sense that nothing makes sense in quite the way I’d want it to, and I keep track of politics with a kind of resigned distance that I didn’t have before. Waking up on Saturday morning, I check my phone to find the exit polls predicting a landslide victory for repeal in the Irish abortion referendum. Propped up in bed with my morning coffee, I find myself suddenly, unexpectedly, overwhelmed: crying and crying with vicarious pride and relief. Finally, I think, this is something that is supposed to happen. Finally, this is something right. 

Hannah Rose Woods has a PhD from Peterhouse, Cambridge . She captained 2016’s winning “University Challenge” team

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead