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The MSc and The Expiration Date

Image: Ignacio B. Peña

I think it’s safe to say that a large number of people go through their lives and at some point (at many points) stop to ask themselves a very common question: “What the hell am I doing with my life?” It’s a question I find myself asking a lot these days, and I think it’s a fair one to ask.

Every graduate student I know made the decision to pursue post-graduate degrees for many different reasons. However, pursuing a masters or a PhD is a big decision, and it’s not one that should be made lightly. It’s expensive and, if you’re disrupting a career like I am, it’s potentially life-changing. While my situation may perhaps speak more to the prospective grad student leaving a career behind as opposed to the fresh-faced 21 year-old transitioning from their undergrad, the questions are still the same. What is it exactly that you want to do? Why?

I know that there exists the “career academic.” I don’t feel I can adequately speak for someone who is moving through their studies with this in mind, because it’s something I don’t personally want. And the truth is, the program I am in doesn’t allow for me to give much time to consider if I want to move beyond the MSc; if I wanted to move on to PhD applications, now is the time for me to be seriously considering it if it was something I’d want for next year, and for me, a career in academia is never what I set out to do. I wanted to write.

I had an idea for a novel and thought if I floated around in Europe for a bit it’d be a more inspiring environment than trying to force a few pages out every night after coming home late from work. Getting accepted into Edinburgh was something that I’d secretly hoped for, more because I fancied the idea of living in an old city in the UK than for anything else, without really understanding what it meant to be studying at a graduate level in this city. Now that I am here, I am much more aware of what an amazing opportunity I currently find myself in.

The University of Edinburgh this year has been ranked by QS as the 17th top university in the world, and UNESCO named Edinburgh the first “City of Literature” in 2004. There’s a rich history of writing that is evident all over Edinburgh, and each week there’s always something going on that could enrich me as a student and as a writer. As someone who’s not yet altogether confident of his own writing, I don’t know that I could have ended up in a better place to grow. Let’s not forget this city is also the birthplace of Harry Potter; that alone is inspiration enough for most.

The Masters of Science is an odd one, though. I’m not quite sure why specifically Edinburgh has gone with this (all their masters courses in every subject is designed as a year-long MSc program), but I’ve heard from several people that the course essentially compresses the amount of creative work and seminars from a two-year MFA program into one, without any of the teaching responsibilities that come with it. Our focus every week is strictly on craft, and I’ve found that to be the most important and exciting aspect of the program so far. Maybe I could have picked up what I’ve been learning on my own over time, but here I’m getting it all at once. I’m making conscious decisions about my own writing now that I probably wouldn’t have made without it.

This all sounds grand, and it is. So then we go back to the first bit. Why am I asking myself, two months in, just what the hell am I doing with my life?

In a way I’ve kind of already answered that: I’ve started writing, and I’m doing it in a city and in a course where my time in it has a looming expiration date attached to it.

Now that I have begun writing what I hope will be a novel, I’m finding myself filled with self-doubt about my own abilities. I wonder often if this is something I can actually do. I’ve had quite a few nights when I’ve hit a mental block. I’ll be sitting alone, staring out the dark window in my room and cursing myself for thinking I had it in me to do this. Such moments don’t stick with me for long, but they’re persistent. Frequently a thought in my head reminds me of just how much I gave up to be here. At times it can be a reminder that there were many opportunities last year to turn back, to realize that I was going to be fundamentally changing my life to do this, and that I decided anyway that it would be the right thing to do. It can equally be a discouraging thought, and I’m reminded of how much I left behind to chase an idea that has no shape to it, no guarantee of becoming anything at all.

I think it’s a question that’s going to continue to hound me throughout the rest of the year. I enjoy crafting words and shaping images from them, seeing characters come to life with just a few carefully selected phrases. But it’s hard; it’s harder than anything I’ve done before, and I think it’s because I’m always wondering if what I’m writing is ever any good.

Going to my workshop has been great in overcoming these hang-ups. We’re all wildly different to each other; in our group of six, not one writer comes close to the other in terms of style or content. I find that’s actually been for the better, and each week there’s never even a question of whether or not something being read is good or not. Instead, what’s raised immediately is what works, what doesn’t work. If the comments don’t fundamentally clash with what your piece is about, you take them all on board, and if they do, you ask yourself why. At all times I’m preoccupied with what is best for what it is I’m writing, and whether or not I’m writing it in the way that works best for what it probably needs to be.

Except unless I’m being distracted. And quite honestly, the biggest point of distraction for me right now is this idea that I’ve only got this year to do this. I’m aware now that I am going to be my own biggest hurdle if I keep defaulting to this mindset, because the truth is that I don’t actually have a year; I have as much time as I allow myself to have. It’s not like I’m going to have a perfect draft by the time I finish this course and go back to work. It’s probably going to be a mess, and will need more attention once it’s done. That’s ok. The most paralyzing result of this ticking clock in my head is that it’s keeping me from enjoying the city as much as I really should.

The walls in my flat are bare. I refuse to decorate them at all. I’ve made some really great friends already in this program and outside of it, but I know I’m not doing enough to get as close as I should, and the only person this is doing a disservice to is myself. I’ve moved countries twice already and both times I personally dealt with a lot of emotional fallout as a result. I don’t look forward to what that’s going to feel like again when my time here is through. But again, this is all self-inflicted, and I need to stop being so concerned with what it might or might not be like ten months from now when I have to do it again.

I think that when I stop and ask myself “What the hell am I doing with my life,” there’s a lot of fear driving me. I begin to think about what I’ve given up and what that shadow of a future looks like. But there’s another side to it, and it’s an encouraging one. It’s a reminder. I am asking myself if I am doing exactly what it is I want to be doing. So far, the answer is yes.

It’s been a rainy Sunday in Edinburgh today. On my way to the Teviot building, I take a long detour to walk through the Princes Street Gardens. The trees are all autumn-tinged, half-naked branches quivering in the cold wind that sweeps the ground of dead yellow leaves. I see couples and friends huddled under single umbrellas, moving without hurry on slick paths, around the base of the castle, under trees. The old city shines under a silver sky, stone slick with rain. It’s quiet on these wet days, perfect for a walk on cobblestones. I take my time. 

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