Turning points: chance and decisions in the academic journey

Six and a half years ago – can it really be so many? – I was making decisions about where to apply to university as an undergraduate. At the time, I was one of those slightly odd teenagers who was weirdly into party politics. The sort that wants to be an MP one day, and goes on marches with the Young Labour faction (see this post’s picture). Pretty embarrassing to look back on. Anyway, I wanted to study politics at university. I also knew I wanted to apply to Oxford. So I applied for Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford, and for straight Politics degrees at my other four choices. (Which were LSE, Leeds, Edinburgh and Queen Mary, incidentally). I got into Oxford. I did PPE.

I’m now doing a PhD researching early modern women philosophers. I also don’t want to be an MP any more, and in general try to distance myself from my seventeen-year-old-self as much as possible. What I find a little alarming and destabilising to think about, though, is this: if I hadn’t been lucky enough to get into Oxford back in late 2010, if I hadn’t ended up studying PPE rather than straight Politics, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t have taken a paper in Early Modern Philosophy: indeed, the closest I would have come to philosophy at all might have been a political theory course.

That’s not the only turning point I can identify in my academic journey, or the only one that essentially seems to come down to sheer chance. When I was a final year undergraduate at Oxford, I came across a paper by Eileen O’Neill in Hypatia called “Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy” (2005). I can’t even remember now how I stumbled across it, but it certainly seems like the kind of thing that could very easily not have occurred. In any case, it galvanised me. I’d heard of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia while studying Descartes for the core paper in Early Modern Philosophy I was taking, and I’d come across Margaret Cavendish at some point too, but other names – Mary Astell, Anne Conway, Gabrielle Suchon – were totally unfamiliar to me. I quickly bought Margaret Atherton’s fantastic little anthology Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period (1994) and sent requests to my college library to order in texts by Astell and Suchon.

Other turning points seem less random, but aren’t necessarily more reassuring for that. Before I decided I wanted to study politics, I was convinced I wanted to study English Literature. When I was deliberating over what Master’s degree to apply for, I was torn between the Philosophy BPhil at Oxford and the Women’s Studies MSt. I went for Women’s Studies. When applying for PhDs, I had offers of a funded place from both UCL (for the Gender Studies PhD) and Warwick (for the Philosophy and Literature PhD). At UCL, my supervisors are in the History and English departments. At Warwick, they would have been in the Philosophy and English departments. How might the course of my research have changed with different supervisors, located in a different department? At UCL, I’m in the Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry, an interdisciplinary space where people work on everything – which means it can sometimes lack its own identity. At Warwick, I would have been tied to a Philosophy department, perhaps giving my research more identity, giving me more connections with fellow philosophers – and also perhaps constraining my work more than I would have been happy with.

These turning points haven’t just affected my research, of course. In the case of my UCL/Warwick decision, I was also making a decision about where to live for the next three or four years. I chose London. I’m close to friends and family; have access to all the amazing things London has to offer. At the same time, I can find London too hectic and overwhelming: in the winter, I found the rain and the grey at times unbearable and just wanted to get out. A lot of my friends are people I met while studying at Oxford: people I would never have known if I’d gone to LSE or Leeds to study politics. Relationships that have shaped me would never have occurred if I’d gone somewhere else.

Of course I would have had other relationships, friendships, and developed other academic interests. But the reason it can feel worrying, reflecting on these moments of chance and moments of decision, is that what I’m doing now feels so much what is right for me. Academic research, early modern philosophy, my supervisors – it feels as if all the turning points have gone the right way. Again, I might feel that too if they’d all gone differently: if I’d ended up studying politics at LSE, if I’d studied the Philosophy BPhil rather than the Women’s Studies MSt, if I’d chosen not to apply for PhDs at all, or if I hadn’t got funding.

But it unnerves me both to imagine that I would have been as happy studying politics at LSE (and then what? Would I still have wanted to pursue postgraduate study, or would I have aimed for some political job?), and that I wouldn’t. If I would have been as happy, it means that the self I was six and a half years ago could easily have developed into someone completely unlike me now. Because I know that I, now, would not want to have studied politics at LSE, or undertake postgraduate research in politics, or get the kind of job such a degree might easily lead to. It means I could easily not have been me. But if I wouldn’t have been as happy, it means that my contentment now, and my feeling of fulfilment in life, is contingent on such chance moments or decisions that I make. And that also means that there might have been turning points which would have led to an even better life for me.

There’s all sorts of philosophical ideas and debates that could be invoked here: multiple worlds, personal identity, free will and determinism. What I think I find most helpful at the moment, though, is the Stoicism which I’ve recently been exploring in my research (again half-due to chance – following up a book recommendation from my supervisor, which then led on to a new and expected enthusiasm for Hellenistic philosophy…). While I’m cautious of the modern Stoicism that’s being advocated by some philosophers, the Stoic principle that our happiness should be dependent on us, rather than our external circumstances, is a reassuring one to pursue when feeling destabilised by the contingency and chance that shapes our lives. (It’s worth noting, of course, that Stoics themselves were determinists.) While the goal of finding contentment and happiness in any situation through right-living may not be entirely reachable, having it as a possibility does something to mitigate the feeling that my happiness today was at the mercy of Hertford College Admissions back in 2010. Perhaps, after all, if I live my life in the right way, these turning points will be of less significance.

Notes:

First: I’d love to hear from people in the comments about turning points you’ve experienced in their academic lives or in your lives more broadly, and how you’ve been affected by reflecting on them.

Second: I’m pretty new to learning about and researching Stoicism, so forgive me for any distortions or oversimplifications here.

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2 thoughts on “Turning points: chance and decisions in the academic journey”

  1. In applying to grad school, I was at the mercy of admissions committees. Had I attended a different school I would’ve had a very different career and life. Going on the job market was a giant crapshoot and I was at the mercy of the market, again rendering my future rather contingent. I’ve been on the market three or four times now, teaching at three universities and each time the path could have branched another direction, in some sense of could. Even in graduate school, I had intended to focus on one topic but did not connect with the relevant advisor, so I drifted to another, ending up in early modern thanks to the support of the person who ended up being my thesis advisor.

    I guess I’m saying that, for me, I only identified a turning point in retrospect, after a rather contingent series of events was largely decided for me. I’m OK with all of those, because I like where I am now. That sounds like Whig history, so to speak, but I don’t deny that I could have ended up in a variety of other places that probably would have been at least as good or perhaps better than where I am now, though surely many outcomes would have been as well (I feel fortunate). And now I wonder whether any of this is useful to you. I’ll leave it here, just in case it might be.

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  2. This was interesting 🙂 I fully agree happiness is something that comes from within, not from external circumstance. Wrt my “academic” life, ultimately I love reading fiction, so my literature undergrad was a good choice. But I think potentially even more so I always loved “the big questions”. Had I been able to do Philosophy ALevel at school I might well have chosen it for undergrad (as it stands I’m doing it for postgrad after a few years working). I’d forgotten this, but apparently I’d mooted doing a philosophy postgrad to friends during my undergrad degree, too. So, maybe there is some common theme underlying what seem like semi-random events that will show why you are currently contented.

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