It’s a Smuggler’s Life For Me…

In an inevitable but utterly surreal series of events, I submitted my PhD thesis just over a month ago. In many ways – thanks largely to Mr Whale and the efforts of my absolutely fantastic friends – it was one of the most enjoyable days of my life. I swam in the sea, drank beer and whisky, smoked my first ever cigar, spent time in excellent company, and enjoyed an absolutely amazing cake, hand-made by a particularly splendid individual:


“Dr. Hollis is climbing a mountain”, with T-Rex Pusheen for scale.

On the other hand, delivering my thesis to the bureacuratic anonymity of University Registry also represented giving up something that had been the absolute centre of my working life for three years. I lived and breathed that bastard. At times, I cried over it. More often, I restrained squeals of excitement as I discovered yet another fantastic, fascinating, characterful source that just had to go in somewhere.

So, existentially speaking (ahem), the weeks after submitting a thesis are a pretty weird time. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that quite a few people end up doing a PhD because they aren’t really sure what they want to do after finishing school, after finishing a B.A., after finishing a Master’s, so they just extend the process a little longer. I am of the breed of people who absolutely loved school as a child, and so the decision to stay in formal education as long as possible was a relatively straightforward one (ironically, I was on the verge of starting to train as a school-teacher before I got the funding to do a PhD). But I have also definitely been grateful for the opportunity to put off the decision of What I Want to Be When I Grow Up for a little longer than most.

The obvious answer, at the end of a PhD in a distinctly impractical subject such as History, is to go in to academia, and this was certainly on the cards for me for a long time – may still be, in fact, for all that I know what the future holds. But as I got closer and closer to thesis submission this idea became less and less immediately attractive. I loved the research and indeed I loved all of the voluntary ‘extras’ I had taken on, such as contributing to university policy (anyone reading this should know already I am an odd narwhal), helping to run workshops, and generally being an organisational busybody wherever I could.

But. But. But. As I wrote my thesis I remembered a past self who had sat up late at night writing stories and sending speculative novel excerpts to publishers. At some point in my late teens I had rejected the career plan of ‘become a writer’ as too ambitious, too low-paid, too unstable. Then I immediately threw myself down the academic career path, which is of course highly ambitious, often lowpaid, and inherently unstable.

So coming out of the PhD I wanted to find some way to make space in my life again for giving that old dream a chance to breathe and – perhaps, with the wind in the right direction – flourish. My first thought had been to just try to get a part-time job of some sort, and to spend the rest of the time writing. But as I simultaneously recovered from the three-year marathon of the PhD, and a nasty bout of bronchitis, I began to wonder whether I couldn’t earn my keep in some way that utilised all of the skills of reading, writing, researching, and teaching that I had been developing for so long.

And so, since 15th October – as my self-employment registration with HMRC records – I have become a self-employed freelancer. I’ve never been one to only have one arrow to my bow, so I am currently a (deep breath) freelance writer, researcher, proofreader, editor, and postgraduate developer and workshop-deliverer. To my significant amazement, all of these balls have started gathering moss at an unexpected rate, and my diary is already looking pleasingly full with a delightfully interesting range of different tasks and pursuits, that quite closely resemble some of those ‘extras’ I so enjoyed over the past three years. And there is time, in the midst of all that, for my writing, for the stuff of my soul as well as for the stuff that buys food for my stomach.

It could well be that in a year or so I have found that this venture simply isn’t sustainable, or that perhaps I miss academia more than expected, or an opportunity comes up that I simply can’t pass up on. But for the time being, I am very happy to be using my ‘very particular set of skills’ both to make a living, and to make time and space for living.

The ‘theme tune’ for this post can be found in the discography of the fantastic McCalmans: