By Bernie Divall
If life really is about the journey, then I should be very happy. Last night I went to my eldest daughter’s parents’ evening, and was (yet again) overcome with joy at the realisation that she really is a proper all-rounder in her abilities. She excels at music, literacy, history, languages, science, art… Really, the only thing holding her back is a lack of confidence in maths, but I feel sure we can all live with that. And her grandfather is a mathematician, so help is at hand.
I’m immensely proud of the way we’ve brought our children up in terms of their education. We’ve always told them that working hard in the subjects they don’t find so easy is really important, and ultimately massively rewarding. For myself, this has been a direct reaction to my own upbringing, in which I ‘became’ a musician at around the age of 11, and was pigeon-holed accordingly throughout my secondary school education. I excelled at arts and languages, and giggled my way helplessly through the sciences. I remember my mum telling me that I wouldn’t be any good at sciences, because she wasn’t. So I stuck rigidly to being good at what I knew, and never explored other options. I do remember having a bit of a fascination with human biology, but never tried at the subject because it was challenging. My dad said that if I was going to fail anything, I should get a ‘U’ – this stands for ‘unclassified’, and meant the exam result would not appear on my ‘O’ level certificate (yes, I am that old. Older than GCSEs). So I got ‘A’s and ‘B’s in everything except Biology. In which I got a ‘U’. So indeed, it never appeared anywhere.
Off I went to music college on a scholarship, and I had fun in my pigeon-hole for a while, until I began to realise that it might not be enough for me to spend 8 hours of the day playing the bassoon. There was definitely more to life than what I felt was like stroking my own ego for the rest of my life. And at some point after that, several years later in fact, I found my way into midwifery. In which, as well as large amounts of psychology and sociology, I studied elements of human biology for three years. And far from being rubbish at it, I discovered that it was interesting – fascinating, even – and I could do it! I expect this was because I was now at a point in my life where I actually WANTED to learn such things as the circulatory system. After all, I’d be a pretty rubbish midwife if I didn’t know that.
Then, when I was doing my Research Masters, I had to deal with statistics. Maths had been my other big fear at school (despite, or perhaps because of, having a mathematician parent), and I was convinced that statistics (one of the Masters modules) would be utter hell. Again, I was wrong – it was actually quite fun, manipulating numbers until they did what I wanted them to.
And here I am now, doing a PhD. Who would have thought I could travel from the life of a classically trained bassoonist to the kind of thinking and writing I do now? My husband sometimes points out what a journey this has been, and I do feel a bit amazed at times. When I was 14, or 16, or even 18, I would never have considered ending up here. I probably wouldn’t have even known what a PhD was!
So I’m glad for the journey I’ve had the chance to make. Because my children can see that making a career choice at one point in your existence doesn’t restrict you to a lifetime of living that career. And I can see clearly why it’s such a good thing to encourage them to work at and get enjoyment from all the subjects available to them. I don’t regret my journey to this PhD life, and indeed I think that for me, it has been a necessary sequence of events to get me here. But I’m definitely a big believer in not being limited or restricted. Not in childhood, and not in adulthood either.
So I wonder where the journey will take me next? I’ve always had a hankering to be a hairdresser, but I think I’ll leave that one alone. What I’d really like to be is a writer. The thing is, I’m left wondering which path I need to take to get there? Decisions I’m making now will have a big impact on my ability to get to where I’d like to be. But then again, as I’ve learned along the way, there’s no such thing as a dead end.
This post first appeared under the title “Tell me again – how did I get here?” on PhD Life, a blog about the PhD student experience run by PhD students at Warwick University. Bernie Divall is currently in the second year of her doctoral studies, having left the crazy world of the NHS to become a midwife researching midwives. She’s funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and NHS East Midlands, so is on a tight schedule to finish in the three-year PhD sprint – the NHS may have absolutely no money left by her fourth year! Bernie is loving the PhD experience, although she has a tendency to get lost in a pit of ‘think’ at times.