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"You Ask Me What I Want" & "Hobbies" by Emma Burnett

You ask what I want

and you look expectant.

I want to tell you that I want a day in a hotel room with you.

I want a nowhere space, where we talk, and I gaze at you, and you touch my hand, and we laugh, and eat takeaway, and half-watch something, hyperconscious of each other.

That sometime late in the day, we would kiss and I would touch you and you would moan into my mouth, but I wouldn’t follow through, I would just bring you to moaning then I would stop.

And then you would laugh and do the same to me, a path of discovery.

And finally, when it’s too much waiting and wanting, you would ask almost shy if we could, and I’ll want to, so we will, and it’ll be good, and we both know if we carry on for the rest of our lives it could be great.

But since you’re waiting for me to answer, I guess… I’ll have a latte?


Ad hoc hypothesis: every PhD student gets good at something that isn't related to their degree.

I know someone who became a marathon runner. She says she runs to take her mind off things, but I wonder sometimes why she needs to take her mind off her work for five hours every day.

I know someone else who is a potter. I mean, she doesn't just make pots, she makes all sorts of pottery and has gotten big into chemistry and making her own glazes and everything. She's a historian.

I have a friend who got big into cats. I mean, like, hardcore. She travels around the world volunteering on neutering missions. She's not a vet or a nurse. It's just her thing.

I'm not gonna say that I wouldn't recommend a PhD though lots of people do say that. I think they're great if you're into long-term projects with limited support and being part of an institution steeped in racism, sexism, and a culture of not giving a single solitary fuck about doctoral students' wellbeing. If your experience was different, well, lucky you.

You'd think anyone in that sort of toxic work environment would just say screw it and walk away, but startlingly few of us do. I finished up last year, after four tedious years of feeling totally shit about myself, but that's fine because my PhD hobby has turned into my career. It's amazing how that happens, right?

I thought maybe I'd stay in academia. That's what a lot of us think, going into the PhD. We're going to be incredible researchers, we're going to change the world, one reference at a time, and everyone will sit up and listen when we convert our findings into public-facing blog posts. Journalists will beg us for interviews, other institutions will pile job offers at our feet.

I don't know what the average drop-off point is for that career aspiration, maybe somewhere in the second year? That's what it was for me, anyway. I was in a meeting with my supervisor, and I mentioned postdoc positions after my PhD, and she just goes 'ah.' Like, not 'ah!' and not 'ah?' Just 'ah.' And I walked out of there knowing, just knowing, I had no chance. It was my hobbies that saved me, just like they save us all.

Ad hoc hypothesis, but grounded in anecdotes, which is all social science is anyway, right? Don't tell my supervisor I said that, she'd probably cry or pull all her hair out. Which is maybe why she said ‘ah.’

Anyway, now I'm done, and my hobby is my life. Most of the others I know with a hobby passion haven't turned it into a career move, like I did. The runner still runs, though not as much anymore, because she doesn't need to escape her life for 25 hours a week. The potter, well, can you really turn that into a career? Anyway, she still needs to finish her doctorate, so there's that.

But in my line of work, there's plenty to get paid for. I mean, it started as a hobby, and I was paying to learn everything. And then I joined a team, because university is basically still like school, and everyone loves a team player. That's when I got noticed. I got offered an absurdly cushy scholarship by an exclusive old boys club that didn't seem to care that I was female, if I would promise to keep practising and go twice a year to a training camp somewhere warm and sunny, but spend most of each day indoors and promise not to sit out in the sun too much because it might destroy my eyesight.

I signed immediately.

My work takes me all over the world now. My contract is basically the same. Travel where they tell me, and try not to do anything stupid. Take your pay, go home and eat obscene amounts of sushi. Find some new, low-risk hobbies. Live your life, basically.

I'm just saying, if you need a hobby when you're doing your PhD, choose one that turns into a great career. Sharpshooting worked out pretty great for me.

Emma Burnett is a recovering academic. She’s big into sports, cats, and being introverted.


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