I just walked away from Cambridge, one year into my PhD. I told my friends that Cambridge wasn’t cool, I told my mum I was unhappy, and I told my supervisor that number theory was fascinating but not for me. Really, I just miss my dad.
I studied for my third year undergraduate exams in the café of the hospital where he had treatment. I went back to Cambridge after a summer grappling with his loss, and the trauma that comes with watching someone die. I broke up with my partner, and took my master’s exams commuting to the hospice that my grandmother had suddenly found herself in. I finished my degree two weeks late, to go back to my newly, doubly-bereaved family. Somewhere in that time someone offered me a PhD.
Six months into postgraduate study and I find myself spending hours walking along the river Cam to fill evenings, scouring my phone for cheap bus tickets home. In a bid to connect with my near-silent department, I’m sending half-hearted messages to my ‘office’, offering cake – do come say hi if we haven’t managed to meet yet! My desk has no heating, and is in a different campus to the rest of my group. I’m watching freshers agonise over coursework I thought I would never have to think about again, while lecturers proudly confide in me all the ways they withhold teaching ‘so we can design harder questions’, and laughing at me when I don’t remember some meaningless fact from a course I took years ago. Cambridge academia is a system I am struggling to penetrate, and am increasingly unsure that I want to.
“It was only when one of my friends reminded me that I didn’t actually have to be there that I realised that I indeed did not have to be there”
It was only when one of my friends reminded me that I didn’t actually have to be there that I realised that I indeed did not have to be there. As soon as the idea I could leave was in my head, the fact I was still in Cambridge became incomprehensible. Why had I thought that the stability of staying would transcend the fact that Cambridge is Not a Good Place if you are unhappy? Why did I ever think four more years in a town containing some of my worst memories was a good idea? Why wasn’t I with my friends, giving myself some time out and a fair chance at moving on, growing, finding something I enjoyed? Why didn’t my supervisor realise how much pressure he had put me under?
In the moment, grief has often not felt that visible to me. I got through my degree, I somehow kept some friendships (or maybe they kept me) during several years of feeling intensely disconnected, and I think I felt confident when I said yes to staying on at Cambridge for a PhD. It is only looking back on myself, or when I try to look ahead, that I realise that I was not capable of knowing what life I wanted for myself at the moment when I was making decisions about it. I still do not know how to process decisions without the support network I have been so lucky to become reliant upon.
This is not to say I am not grateful for the support of the people around me. It is inevitable that people less involved with the shock of a death will stop thinking about it, and it is inevitable that grieving friends and family will struggle with communicating the endless reverberations of that loss. But people have been so scared to ask me if I’m ok that they have assumed that the decisions I have made have been rational.
My department, who had chains of emails and extenuating circumstances paperwork from the previous two years, failed to check up on me even once. My supervisor never considered that his offer of more Cambridge might not be as supportive as intended. To turn down such prestige, from the man responsible for getting you through your master’s thesis no less, and when you have no idea what to think about anything at all, is incredibly difficult.
The moment I officially left was the first time I have felt properly connected to myself in over two years. I am going to give myself some time to think about what I want, and to think about my dad. I am going to go travelling, to write and to see some of the people I lost touch with over the last few years. Tentatively, I am happy. Leaving was the first time since losing him that I did something he would have been really, properly proud of.