The Other Side

Leaving academia, listening to your body, and embracing creativity.

On Friday 6th October I handed in my PhD thesis, marking one of the many ‘endings’ of the PhD submission process. In a few months I’ll have a viva (an oral exam in which you ‘defend’ your thesis), there will inevitably be some corrections to make after that, and then I’ll be done. Except there’s also graduation after that. Despite all these endings still to come, I think that the first ending was probably the most important. On the 10th June 2021, I decided that I was absolutely leaving academia.

June 2021 was still filled with pandemic haze. We were well on the route to the government’s ill-advised removal of all social distancing measures but not quite there yet. We could see people again, post-vaccination, but it still felt remarkable. I had been working on my thesis in earnest throughout the lockdowns—the narrative for the whole thing had been locked in for a while, at that point—but I had only recently finished collecting data in April 2021, with my fractured signals project. For me, writing a thesis during the pandemic looked like being cooped up in a living room with three other postgraduate students all trying to complete theses. Four desks huddled up in the same place that we played Golf with your Friends on the PS4 and watched endless amounts of Grey’s Anatomy.

This got… tedious.

Whilst the early lockdowns were hard (I’m a person that loves to be around their friends and in community), there was also a relief from the relentless pace of everything. Since the start of my Master’s (and honestly, for ever), I’d been grinding away, desperately trying to do bigger and better research projects, to find my voice, my style, my methods. I was doing far too much. I was trying to prove myself, though I’m not sure if I quite knew to whom I was trying to prove myself. I spent half a year doing an ethnography of a small charity, then proceeded to start working with two more charities and hop between months of ethnographic observation, design work, and essentially doing youth work at the same time. In August 2019, I took on my biggest project to date (a one hundred person workshop) with only two months to develop and deliver the entire thing.

A masculine non-binary person standing in an elevator. They do not look well. There is a distant look in their eyes.
This is the face of a person who definitely isn’t overworking!! This is healthy right??

Now I can see just how stupid this was. At the time I was oblivious. Not tuned enough into the protests of my body, perhaps; ignoring the back aches, lack of sleep, and racing heart in favour of doing something bigger and better. The onset of the pandemic—whilst tragic and full of lives pointlessly lost by the mismanagement of public health policy at the hands of the government— meant I broke that cycle, finally heard the call of my body, and could drop more deeply into understanding what I needed.

Inevitably, I found myself making use of every spare moment, addicted to the churn of overwork. I started EXIT Press with some friends, working on the first volume of LOST FUTURES from November 2020 to January 2021 (having never used InDesign before); I started freelancing, trying to make sure I had some financial buffer for when I inevitably ran out of PhD funding; and I took my artistic practice seriously for the first time thanks to the help of Julia Camerons’ The Artist’s Way.

If you’re not familiar with The Artist’s Way, it markets itself as a 12-week course to “discover and recover your creative self”. The isolation, fear, and sheer boredom of the past year had driven me to want to reconnect with my creativity, to loudly embrace it rather than only drawing on it when I could justify an academic project centred on creative methods. I didn’t complete The Artist’s Way—after a certain point I found Cameron frustrating, and the book bore the marks of being from a different time—but I embraced enough of it to find that creative spark inside of myself again.

I realised that for my entire life, I had been what Cameron calls a “shadow artist”:

“Shadow artists are gravitating to their rightful tribe but cannot yet claim their birthright. Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist–hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to the light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the touch.”

I had been more content to engage in art and creative practice through the facade of academia, which almost seemed to provide a set of rules by which I could engage in art-adjacent activity without having to actually put my whole self on the line. Easier to comment than create; easier to create through a set of rules than to embrace the wilderness of doing anything.

On the 8th June 2021, I had an amazing session with one of my freelance clients. I had been helping them to think through their strategy for power and influencing. A brief around understanding systems change more deeply became a beautiful conversation about understanding the limits of power, how to exert it, mapping zones of influence, and how media interacts with this. We chatted about Stuart Hall’s theories of encoding and decoding, of emergent strategy and how to plan firmly but loosely, of Brene Brown’s ideas of vulnerability and belonging. It was fulfilling. It helped affirm to me that I had a valuable practice as a facilitator, movement organiser, and critical friend. And I was getting paid for this!

On the 10th June 2021, I got comments back on a publication I had in for review:

“This is great , here are three extensive sets of changes we want you to make, can you do it in two weeks please?”

The second I received that email I felt something bubble up within me. Something that had been brewing for so long—ancient, even—was finally clear. The email came, I turned to my partner, and said “I’m leaving academia”.

I’m sure this was a relief to her, as she’d seen up close for years what the academic grind had done to me, how it had sent me all over the country in search of a validation that would never come, how it made me unavailable and distant. I’d never felt so certain about anything in my life. I knew in my bones that this wasn’t what flourishing felt like. I had such a great session on the 8th—felt purposeful, knowledgeable, skilled; and then to be made to churn out extensive changes with no consideration of my existing workload… that wasn’t what I wanted as a reality of work and life for myself.

(This isn’t a post about fractals co-op, but incidentally I noticed in checking the dates for this post that our first in-person fractals meeting was just two weeks after this. It’s nice to be able to see in retrospect how these patterns coalesce, when you’re so oblivious to them at the time. It’s nice to have that different reality of work now. )

Of course, any good decision will be immediately tested. Just a week after I made this decision, a friend got in touch to ask if I was interested in being a named post-doc on a grant they were putting in. I grappled with my decision for a while, but came down on the side of continuing to stay out of academia.

It’s not easy to be out of academia when you’ve still got a PhD to finish, though. Those of you who know me will know that I had an incredibly disrupted PhD experience (eight supervisors! A parent death! A grandparent death!), so despite being “close to finishing” in June 2021, I was still “close to finishing” in June 2023.

Even though I’ve got a few endings still ahead of me, having submitted my PhD finally means I can actually feel like I’ve left academia. That I’m on The Other Side. Of course, I’ve been dreaming of and building The Other Side for the past two years too, building fractals co-op with my fellow worker-owners and exploring different kinds of artistic projects through EXIT Press, but every new thing would stretch me thinner. Making me less able to focus on building the connection and intimacy that I want with the people that are close to me. Unable to focus on my artistic practice in the way I’ve longed for since the early days of the pandemic.

A small room with white walls. In the foreground there is a projector screen. To the left there is a dining room scene, lit warmly.
The Museum of Lost Futures.

In September, I ran a project called The Museum of Lost Futures with a friend and collaborator, Mwenza Blell. We created a museum of possible pasts and futures and invited forty people who are close to us to come through its doors, and face its questions. What haunts you about your world? What must crumble for you to have the life you need? People were simultaneously speechless and full of words. People cried, and spoke tender words to people they care about deeply. They shared visions of the future they had never managed to articulate to their closest confidantes. They left filled with mourning and hope, new worlds sitting on the tip of their tongues. It seems fitting that the last days of my PhD were filled with people imagining brighter futures for themselves and finding a way forward towards these.

On Friday, after submitting my thesis at midday, I was walking down Northumberland Street in Newcastle. One of the first places I remember from this city. When I came to interview for my PhD in 2017, I stumbled up this road, feeling lost in a city I didn’t yet know and wondering if it was for me. On Friday, I walked down Northumberland Street and felt like I was able to notice things again. To see the world in Technicolor. To pay attention to what needs to be focused on.

I opened my notes app and scribbled down some hurried lines of poetry, the first I’d written in months.

Newcastle City Centre near Monument. It is a bright and sunny day. It is not very busy, surrounded by buildings both old and new.

Too many blogs and newsletters start with a mission statement. I haven’t done that here because as far as possible I want to cut the crap and just write the things I want to write and share those with you. Above all else, I imagine you’ll want to subscribe if you’re interested in me or my work, rather than any specific pitch on ‘what this newsletter will be’!