Luck and the Waiting Game

Originally published in the Scotsman.

Everything seems to happen in fits and starts in the academic process. Bursts of inspiration are followed by frustrating dry spells. Long spans of solitary work are punctuated by energetic meetings and seminars. Students and staff race to finish funding applications, then spend months waiting to hear the results.

Where funding is concerned, I’m in the middle of a nerve-wracking wait. A few weeks ago, I received my first rejection letter of the year. I’m hoping it’s also the last, but the waiting season is off to a disappointing start. Even if I get the other grants I’ve applied for, it’s likely I’ll need at least some loans next year.

Still, it’s too soon to give up hope. My money should last until August, and I have a lot of work to do before then. I can’t help imagining this is what people must feel like when layoffs are announced – knowing that after a given date, some people will have jobs and others won’t. In the early stages, no one knows whether they will be lucky or not. Despite the uncertainty, there’s nothing to do but keep working.

I might be able to complete my PhD, or I might not. It’s a gamble. And it has nothing to do with my skill, dedication, or hard work. It has nothing to do with anything I can control. Somehow, they forgot to mention this part of the process during high school and undergrad. I used to have the mistaken impression that working hard was the way to earn rewards. I’ve since realised that luck has more to do with it than we’d like to admit.

There’s a certain serenity that comes with this understanding, a Zen-like peacefulness that emerges from knowing I cannot influence the applications I’ve submitted, no matter how much I worry. Of course, I still spend hours writing applications and searching for potential sources of funding. And I still worry about money. But I’ve realised that the only thing I have control over is the quality of my work now, and the amount of satisfaction I get from it. Most people never have the chance to even start a PhD, so I should be thankful for the opportunity and make the most of it.

It’s an interesting experience, oscillating between anxiety and calm. I’m not sure which is a stronger motivator – the joy of being “in the moment” with my intellectual work, or the fear of being forced to give it up. As much as I long for the comfort of certainty, the constant balancing act makes everything look brighter, sharper, more urgent.

Sometimes I wonder whether it can be sustained, both in my own situation and in academia at large. With increases in student numbers and shrinking budgets, all disciplines are diverting more and more energy into funding applications, away from teaching and research. Here in the UK, government money is allocated through the Research Assessment Exercise, which rewards departments that are already favoured by the funding councils and private charities. In a scene that mirrors the lives of many postgraduate students, under-funded departments are left competing for scraps, investing huge amounts of time and energy into meeting RAE requirements. It’s a gamble as to which departments will be lucky.

In the business world, creating extra work means creating more jobs. But in academia, it simply means more output from people who are already stretched thin. I’m sure there’s a limit somewhere, both for individual students and for the academic system as a whole. But for my own sanity, I’ll just focus on my work for now.

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