Ask Anahit: Student Edition

Our resident agony aunt and PhD survivor tackles some students' concerns

Feature by Anahit Behrooz | 12 Sep 2023
  • Ask Anahit

Hi! I’m about to start a PhD and I’m already regretting it. Should I pre-emptively drop out? I feel stupider and more delusional than ever :))

Oh, my sweet summer child. Firstly, the fact you feel this way shows that you are neither stupid nor delusional, but in fact cleverer than 98% of academics out there. A PhD would be a huge undertaking even if the industry weren’t an apocalyptical wasteland but given that it is – well, you are basically taking the ring to Mordor. Except the ring is your crumbling mental health and waning resources and Mordor is the University of ******. (I’m not going to tell you what my PhD was on but in the light of the last sentence let’s just say I never recovered from it.)

I can’t tell you if you should drop out. What I can tell you are my experiences, because I hope they will be helpful, and because I am one of those people the TikTok kids complain relate everything to themselves. But I, personally, don’t regret doing a PhD. I liked not having to lie to get discounts. I liked the gift of time it gave me – an extra four years before adulthood really kicked in, where I could write and travel and figure out what I wanted, both from intellectual labour and life. I adored (some of) the people I met.

But I never, ever expected anything else out of it, and that was what kept me sane. I think if you take on a PhD expecting some kind of validation of your intellectual capacities or, God forbid, a job, you will have the worst time of your fucking life. I truly saw some of the best minds of my generation destroyed by looking into postdoc funding. Academia is an exploitative and failing industry, and it can so easily turn you into a weird little guy telling shit jokes in a cave (again, I never recovered). Get in, get what you can out of it, and then bounce.

How do I make new friends in my home city?

I left my home city as soon as I could, leaving a Looney Tunes cloud of dust behind me, so I am resisting the urge to be like, move city. But if I stop and think about it, there is something really beautiful about reforming your life around you rather than hitting the refresh button every time. Could not be me, but good for you.

I remember this genre of question would come up in teen magazines when I was younger and the answer was invariably do a sport, which felt like frankly deranged advice that I obviously ignored. But there is maybe a kernel of truth there – what are the things you love, like really, really deep down, and can you be involved in a way that isn’t just going to a meeting? Are you into music? Apply to start a show on EHFM or Clyde Built Radio! Politically very motivated? Join an organising community or tenants’ union. Head to where the community you want to be part of is – arts venues, poetry readings, sports…clubs…?? Idk, that bit is very foreign to me.

And then, and this bit is crucial, ask everyone you think is cool out. Not in a sexy way (although! If that’s the vibe!) but like you are the Julia Roberts of platonic romance. Friends of friends, colleagues, that one girl you had a very sweet drunk conversation with at a gig. I am truly abysmal at romantic dating and if left to my own devices would be alone forever but friend dating? Baby, I am Hitch. I am Alfie. I am… running out of people who fuck in movies. But you get the picture! It’s really the same mechanism as romantic dating, except way lower stakes because people (me) aren’t behaving like lunatics. You think someone is cool and you want to get to know them? Ask them out!

What do you do when one of your pals is nice with you but always seems to bring demon chaos energy when dealing with others?

Honestly I have more questions than answers lol. What does demon chaos energy mean? Is it with everyone?? Why are you the exception?? What are we talking, on a scale from Paris Geller in Gilmore Girls to say, Faust bringing Mephisto to house parties?

Without knowing the particulars, it’s kind of hard to say what kind of behaviour you’re putting up with. But the very fact you’re asking this question means you’re probably worried about how it is affecting your social environment. You are in no way responsible for someone else’s behaviour and I would hope the other people around you would understand that, but if this friend knows their behaviour makes you uncomfortable – both in how they’re treating people you care about and how you see them treating people they ostensibly care about – and does nothing about it, that maybe warrants a conversation.

Let me put it like this. There is a time in your life, when you are young and full of energy and haven’t had to pay taxes yet, when chaos seems like a fun and sexy thing. There’s a definitive appeal to this kind of instability: it makes life feel unpredictable and novel, and like anything can happen. And that is so exciting! And then you grow a bit older, and you realise the full scale of what 'anything' can mean, and it feels, honestly, just a bit exhausting to live in a constant state of unpredictability.

In short, it doesn’t make you boring or a bad friend to not want to be constantly worrying about someone else’s behaviour. And if you are close enough to be able to have that conversation, and explain your concerns, then you should do that. And if you’re not… well, would that friendship drifting be such a bad thing?

How do you know when you are writing something good? Are you always just guessing as you go?

I have started and deleted a response to this 12 times and we go to print tomorrow, which is an appropriately meta response to this question. I don’t know if you ever know, to be honest. As in, I think so much of writing is about the process, and it is so difficult to wade through the mess of it – the half-formed clay and pencil guidelines and before the paint is blended and it just sits harsh against the canvas – and know whether you have said what you’re trying to say. Because you need to go back and resculpt and redraw and re… paint? I don’t know. And make something appear out of the mess.

I think when you are writing, there is the question of whether the thing you are writing is good, and there is the question of whether the writing is good. And those are two related but very different things. For me, I only know if I’ve done the first if I feel I’ve said something. And that doesn’t have to be some grand universal truth or ground-breaking idea, but it has to be something that has been wearing away inside me, that I am trying to communicate across some kind of divide between my internal and external self. And that, I suppose, is what makes it 'good', in that it feels like you’ve turned something ephemeral into something tangible.

As for the second, that’s anyone’s guess lmao. I tend to reread and rewrite what I’ve written so many times that I can feel out its rhythms and textures, and the prose is so intensely fine-tuned that I can finally let it go. I think as a method it is effective but it is also, let's be honest, deranged, and I am regularly having little breakdowns that everyone around me has to deal with. So. Do with that what you will.