PhD students: the Cambridge we don’t see

Imagine going to Cambridge having never even heard of Cindies? Or a swap? Or, dare I say it, danger spoons?

Anya Gera

Darwin College Anya Gera

Sitting in the library on a Wednesday night at 8pm, in front of me are two green ‘Rumboogie’ tickets I had queued embarrassingly long for. A woman sits opposite me at my table. At 9 we both dutifully begin to pack up our stuff, and as we are the only ones in the library (a shocker) she points to the tickets and nonchalantly asks what they’re for. Admittedly a bit surprised by her question, I begin to explain that I’m going to ‘Cindies’, to which she earnestly comments that ‘it’s funny how even after my fourth year at Cambridge I still stumble across a new place every day.’ My surprise at this moment has turned into complete bafflement – going to Cambridge and managing to avoid the term ‘Cindies’ is certainly a feat. We start chatting after that, only to realise that the bubble that is an undergraduate degree at Cambridge doesn’t even overlap with a PhD student’s life.

No matter what subject you do, every undergraduate's life at Cambridge is controlled by deadlines. Whether it means that your post-club trip to the Van (not the Van of death) is an hour earlier than you would’ve liked in order to make sure you’re up in time for your 9am supo, or that you’re getting prematurely shaky from all the caffeine you’ve had to consume in order to make it through a night shift in the library – we all have to do what we have to do. While this is, of course, horrendous in its own respects, I almost feel sorrier for our PhD counterparts whose only real deadline is their viva. A PhD student at Newnham says that the ‘first year of my PhD felt like a retreat, having worked for a few years before starting my PhD at Cambridge, then being given the freedom for the first time in my life to completely control my own schedule was almost detrimental to my work.’ As undergraduates, we are churning out work at a mass rate – breadth but not depth, strength in numbers (and by that I mean numbers of essays) – yet we are dealing with a whole new specimen when it comes to the PhD student. They are nurturing one long piece over the course of three or four years – while I can’t remember the title of my last essay, they all describe deep emotional attachments to their work, a lot of them able to cite large chunks of it.

A PhD is described by many as a journey of self-discovery, and – as clichéd as this may sound – many of the PhD students I have talked to say that the PhD is the ultimate Buzzfeed character test.

A PhD is described by many as a journey of self-discovery, and – as clichéd as this may sound – many of the PhD students I have talked to say that the PhD is the ultimate Buzzfeed character test. Most of them predominantly spend their time on their own, having to put a lot of their relationships on hold as a result of the sheer emotional energy they are investing in their own work. This isolation, however, seems to lead to a greater self-understanding. Many of the PhD students I have spoken to claim that they are very in tune with their own mental state and have very niche de-stress mechanisms such as teaching Zumba classes or burning sage in a ritualistic manner.

(Darwin College) Self-discovery comes with a pretty nice libraryAnya Gera

The PhD appears to be a long and gruelling process of self-discipline and emotional ordeal – so why are they doing it? Whether it’s the vanity of having academically acknowledged work, the altruistic need to give a piece of knowledge back to society, or simply the hope of a 5% salary increase that most PhD students ‘can expect to receive,’ there is clearly something to be said for anyone who has managed to complete this process. So, next time you see a dreary-eyed, sage-scented individual recoiling from light in the small hours of the library, take a moment of silent prayer.