How to be studying at 150% without doing any actual school work: the gruelling PhD application

So it’s been a while since my last post. For this I can only humbly apologise. However, as I will now illustrate by the magical medium of the Internet, life has been pretty hectic so far this semester. Let me take you on a journey as I describe for you an average day in the life of Marcia right now….

8am: Drag myself out of bed; shower; make lunch; pack bag until bursting and weighing 10 kilos as if I am training to join the marines.

8.50am: Leave the house 5 minutes late, as usual. Walk to school because my bag is too large to fit into the basket on my bike.

8.55am: Turn around and go back home to fetch forgotten book/phone/key card/purse/brain/kitchen sink.

9.10am: Finally arrive at school and find a place in the study hall. Procrastinate on Facebook whilst retrieving leaky thermos which has inevitably found itself upside down at the bottom on my bag. Wipe the hot boiling tea from the rest of the contents of my bag.

9.30am: Finally open half-soggy and tea-stained books/paper/article and begin studying*.

1pm: Eat lunch in the psychology canteen with friends whilst complaining about how busy we are and making ‘your mom’ jokes. Most likely run into a teacher or two at inappropriate conversational moments.

2pm: Declare it is time to go back studying.

2.30pm: Finally leave the canteen back to the study hall, coffee and chocolate in hand.

7pm: Eat dinner and eventually find myself in a far more comfortable but less productive study room equipped with couches.

7.30pm: Begin studying once again.

7.45pm: Studying evolves into listening to various albums from grooveshark and sporadically looking at tumblr, Internet newspapers and Internet cats.

8.15pm: Post various Internet cat videos onto friend’s Facebook sites.

8.20pm: Continue studying whilst making hilarious comments about Internet cats on Facebook.

11.00pm: Go home.

12.30am: Go to sleep.

Now, this is a crazy schedule. What’s even crazier is that I’ve been going at it full steam, 7 days a week since August. But don’t worry! This isn’t normal behaviour for most sane full degreers. It’s just that I’m in the middle of trying to conquer that most devilish of beasts:  winning an all-inclusive, all-expenses paid vacation to PhD island for the next 4 years. Yes, that is right: like many graduate students at AU I’ve realised that the only place I belong is in the narcissistic world of academia.

So one day as I was taking a break from reading about the philosophy of maths**, I had an epiphany. It occurred to me that whilst much of the International Extraordinaire’s efforts are spent on helping full-degreers settle into Aarhus, perhaps we should tell the story of what happens once you have been here for some time. That is, to let you in on the murky reality of what happens around your third semester: the sudden and overwhelming realisation of ‘what the hell am I going to do after I have finished my studies?!’ 

For me, I joined my Master’s programme knowing I wanted to do a PhD. This was only because a) I’m old, b) I’d been out of education for some time, daydreaming about what I really wanted to do with my life besides working in an office, and c) could only afford to go back into education with a goal in mind. So for me, I had spent some time out of education deciding that what I wanted was to find myself back there. Then I realised that if I really wanted to do a PhD I need to do another Master’s (yes yes I have two, let’s move on) to be as ready as possible for that next step. And so I searched for PhD programmes alongside Master’s programmes and boom!, two years later here I am.

Everyone is getting on a gradute programme these days

Now I am over halfway through my Master’s programme, it is finally time to to try and make that dream a reality. And boy, it is HARD. I’m certainly in the minority that before I even came here, this was my plan. For many full degree international students, although the reasons that we end up in Aarhus are vast, the fact that the majority of us are on Master’s programmes means they we are people who are genuinely interested in academia and expanding our knowledge. Unlike for Danish students, for whom getting a Master’s is the minimum level of expected education (whilst also receiving a grant for 6 years, the lucky devils), it is not the same for us internationals. In many other countries a Master’s makes you stand out, especially when it has been achieved in a foreign country. So doing a Master’s at AU, without funding and just a slim chance of finding work in DK, means that you are coming here for a reason.

Despite what some people may say about students, the majority of internationals here are not coming to put off real life: this IS their real life. Studying is difficult, especially in a foreign country and especially in a foreign country like Denmark that has very different expectations for its students compared to most other universities (i.e. the amount of independent work you are expected to do). So for you lucky and smart individuals, it is quite likely that at some point you will (or perhaps you already are) consider whether you would like to do a PhD. Studying at a top university such as AU means that you are never far from such talk: within my first week in Cognitive Semiotics I already had a 2 hour class on how to apply for a PhD at AU. Being around intelligent and ambitious individuals at a university that is highly focused on research, it’s inevitable. And it’s scary. But if applying for a PhD either in DK or anywhere in the world is something that is crossing your mind even slightly, then here is my all singing, all dancing guide to such an endeavour!

1) Consider not applying for one. Seriously.  Imagine how much better your life is going to be without going through the pain and stress of the application procedure. Reconsider all other possible career options that you originally dismissed. Perhaps you could still make it as a contemporary dancer despite only 6 months of training and your bad back. But if you feel that you just cannot live without filling your brain with as much knowledge as possible, then read on.

2) Start the process about 18 months before you would embark on the PhD. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘But International Extraordinaire, 18 months?! I’ve only just arrived here! I don’t even have my CPR card yet!’  However, this is going to be a looooooooooooong process. You gotta start preparing. What discipline do you come under?  Have you thought about where you want to study?  If it’s at AU, then you have to decide whether you want to go onto the 4+4 or 5+3 programme, which makes a massive difference in regards to how much you have completed of your Master’s programme before you apply (see here for more information as the AU website describes it in much better detail than I can!).  If  like me you are trying to cross the Atlantic and go study in the States, then it’s a whole study ‘programme’ that takes a least a year longer than here. If you have a fixed research project ready to go, then Europe is probably more your thing. Perhaps you like both options, or maybe you want to just keep an eye out on a certain school/department and apply for a specific project. You see, there are just sooooooooo many choices! And not only has the school/programme/department/funding got to be awesome, but you’ve also got to want to live in that place for the next 3-5 years. If you end up in the backend of nowhere for a few years, it’s not going to be pretty.

3) Once you’ve decided all of these things, you then need to stock up on canned goods, chocolate and coffee. You’re about to spend many months alone with your computer, the Internet and your mind, so treat it as the upcoming academic apocalypse.

4) Stock up on fun things to look at on the Internet when you are not googling cries for help such as ‘How to write a PhD application’, ‘Will getting a PhD get me a job afterwards?’ and ‘Why does anyone even do a PhD?’. I personally recommend Internet cats as a valuable stress reducing tool.

5) Consider not applying for one. Again.

6) Then apply. Possibly make some sort of deal with whichever deity you normal converse with.

What happens after that is not for me to say. At the moment, I’m still in the middle of the application process (I hope you are all wishing me luck), so my advice stops here.

Oh no, hang on. I have one more piece. Don’t write a blog whilst trying to apply.

*Please note that studying may also be replaced with: working, writing, reading, being the International Extraordinaire, watching American TV shows.

**If you are at all wondering why I was reading about the philosophy of maths (which I’m sure you weren’t), this was (but also still is) a one-woman protest against having to study maths. The more I have been relearning maths after a 12 year hiatus, the more I have become convinced that maths is just a human construct and we cannot claim for its universality outside of human thought. Although at first a reactionary motion to protest my frustration at my appalling maths skills, I am now actually kinda hooked onto this idea. It might be crazy, but at least its better than becoming obsessed by this programme (which was the alternative).

Actually, who am I kidding? I’m obsessed by both.

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