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Crossing the Pond: Thoughts of a Prospective Transgender Studies PhD Student

After finishing my undergraduate degree last summer, I crossed the pond and went absolutely nowhere, from Cambridge to Oxford. I’m clearly a fan of jaw-breaker degree titles: Human, Social and Political Sciences (pretentious, low word-to-substance ratio) and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (ostensibly much more intelligible, though ask me to define any of those constituent terms conclusively and I’ll be obliged to give you the poststructuralist spiel about the dangers of definitional certitude – the first article on our reading list was Wendy Brown’s “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies”).

I’m hoping to pursue a career in academia, but I forgoed applying during this year’s admissions cycle. I did this for self-preservation purposes, mostly. If the pressures of Oxford are bad enough, try waiting on what will inevitably feel like yet more judgement about your academic worth or indeed, even being in close proximity to those who did decide to take the plunge and apply.

I also did this (or rather, didn’t do anything) because the state of my field, trans studies, is pretty dire in the UK, to say the least – aside from ruining the Harry Potter series, the hostile climate of trans-antagonistic rhetoric and government policy makes it difficult to research anything more interesting than that pertaining to the defence of my existence, let alone receive funding for it. A provisional dissertation thesis carrying the title “Genital Imperatives, Sticky Penises, and the Trans [Un]remarkable: Toward a Trans-Inclusive Sexual Ethics” doesn’t stand much of a chance. Every academic that I’ve spoken to here has advised me to cross another pond, the Atlantic Ocean, where apparently the grass is comparatively greener and the money somewhat more available. One gave me a rather ambivalent motivational speech suffused with existential warning: if I lived and breathed learning and couldn’t see myself doing anything else, then by all means go ahead, but be prepared to frequent food banks for at least a few years.

The politics of PhD departments and funding opportunities are bewildering, especially for a still somewhat doe-eyed Master’s student. It is undoubtedly a privilege to be able to consult a whole network of eminent Oxbridge professors with insider knowledge of the process, but I’ve somehow found myself caught up in precisely the frame of mind that I was once trying, I think judiciously, to avoid: that of obsessively poring over Sociology department websites and emailing potential supervisors about whether they’re open to expressions of interest from prospective PhD applicants.

On that note, there’s something simultaneously self-flagellating and self-aggrandising about having to write those emails – “please consider me”. I’m trying to calm down; to breathe, and know that I’ve done what I can so far. The ever-churning – and spitting – wheel of Oxbridge makes it difficult to do so, with much of the emphasis at postgraduate level being on career progression and “next steps”. This is necessary but still utterly terrifying: academia is, of course, far from meritocratic, but there is still some sense in which you are relying on the power of your own brain to continuously devise something promising to say – and for a funding body to believe in you, whatever the criteria for that belief actually entails. But for now, I’ll focus on my Master’s dissertation, and try to cut down on that emailing.

Image Credit: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office/ CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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