A peer from University turned to me at the tail end of my degree and asked me why she never saw me in any of the core Biomedical Science units. When I snorted with laughter, and explained that my degree was Global Arts, and am profoundly unskilled in the ways of extrapolating data from the prodding of poor little lab mice, she was shocked.
"There's no way you studied Arts," she gaped. I doubt she even knew she did it, but she uttered the title of my degree with an inadvertent curl of the lip, and a curious gaze, as if I had a second head that she had not, until that moment, ever properly noticed before. The emphasis said it all; indicating the clicking-over of every nub in the cogs if her mind.
I can't say I blame her for being surprised. I'm not offended by the implied elitism of a peer who has structured three years around hardcore microbiological science, particularly in contrast to some of my more creative, but less analytical units. I could pass for a left-brain learner, if you didn't spend too much time with me. All of my closest friends in undergrad studied Biomed, or Science, or Psychology. I had a key to the Biomed Society Office, and ran the Activities portfolio for two years in a row. Once someone gets me to talking about the so-called "legitimacy" of the autism-vaccines link hoax, I can argue about due scientific process until my opposition has been backed into a corner, cowering against the onslaught of my rage. I could pass for a Science student, until someone hands me a test tube and expects me to do... whatever people do with test tubes.
As a recent graduate, I didn't have much time to plot out the definitive arc of my future. Given I am prone to overexcitement about things in the distant future, and race through the days of anticipation like an overclocked wind-up toy, perhaps the lack of forethought was a good thing. I had decided on a career path, and a Masters by coursework was going to get me there, and I was going to use that leverage to ease myself into a swanky government job. With all of the responsible stuff out of the way, I'd be a hobbyist author who never needed to starve in order to create.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. (Warning: if you're not familiar with the term, maybe don't try reading Steinbeck as an introduction. You will feel feelings you have never felt before, and most of them will overlap with soul-crushing anguish.) But a bit of feedback on my penultimate undergrad assignment threw a spanner in the works: "I seriously hope you're considering Honours." My best-laid plans went awry. They went awry hard.
The notion of Honours had almost always made me want to gag. Intensive research, heavy self-directed learning, no exciting coursework options where a diverse spread of great minds explain the nuances in their logic... I have tried to create a witty denigration of the concept, like "Chlorophyll, more like bore-ophyll!" but the best I could craft with was "Honours; more like Horrors." Insert bah-dum-tish at your leisure.
There was a different factor, however. Something I had been bullishly trying to ignore: the prestige. Not many people can so easily stroll into Honours. Before I knew it, I had two offers sitting in my email inbox, smiling malevolently: the invitation to undeetake my Masters, staring at me with puppydog eyes in the hopes I would not abandon it, and the offer for Honours, wearing a shit-eating grin that said, without saying "It was always going to be me, baby." So I abandoned the former in favour of the latter, and lost my meagre 3 weeks of holidays chasing up supervisors, course advisors, and spitballing thesis ideas. "After all," I told friends and family, "A thesis is only 18,000 words. Even multiplied four times, that's still less than my first novel." (Don't worry, I used a calculator.)
About a week from commencement, I became overwhelmed and realised that, given my severe weakness for not being able to put off until tomorrow what responsibility suggests I should do today, I was saddling myself up for an arduous, painful tilt. There would be backbreaking loads of research, a forfeiture of all my spare time to write, an inability to make time for fiction writing, and all for a career path that was okay, but not necessarily my true passion.
Some people have a natural gift to do one thing, with perfection. I am not one of those people. I'm impulsive and showy and everything is my all-time-favourite-thing, if only for twenty minutes. And a year of research for something I felt lukewarm about, at best? Well, you can see what inspired me to run from that commitment with nary a backwards glance before I fell in too deep.
I deferred the Honours program with the expectation that I may come back in a year, but my indecision about my future tainted my ability every look forward to it. I began a full-time job. I started at entry level, and was promoted twice in the span of a year. I was immediately besotted with the variety, the challenge that comes with my work never being the same two days in a row, the solidarity of my colleagues, the support, the room for growth, and that's before even considering the cashola.
But I'm a lifelong learner. I'm always hunting for some adventure. And just because I'm comfortable, it doesn't mean I'm done. I've merely delayed the question of what I want to do when I grow up for another day.
Career and academic options have crossed my mind, and I have dutifully disregarded them soon after. I've contemplated investigative journalism... but have, alas, become more and more jaded about committing to graduate studies in a bloated industry as the media monopoly throttles the most interesting parts of journalistic debate in Australia. I researched a journalism internship in Ghana, and it continues to cheep in the back of my mind, imploring me to do something risky. But I fear that this is merely the new branch of volountourism, where rich white kids go to somewhere "poor" and pose with turtles, poor kids, and other colonial clichés. I am wary of any program that will admit somebody with no prerequisite but for the few thousand dollars it would cost to go. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does beg the question as to what prerequisites these "global experience too-good-to-be-true" organisations do have.
There's always the option to undertake a degree in some realm of creative writing. But even I am enough of a realist to know a bad investment in my future when I see one. This is not to disparage on anyone whose career path has been moulded in this manner, bur rather to acknowledge my own shortcomings. The fact of the matter is that the book industry is discouraging at best, impenetrable at most brutally honest. There's nothing there for me. Editing and publishing are nice ideas, but in practice, I would tire quickly of reading the work of others in perpetual pursuit of grammatical errors and failure/ My sympathy threshold is too low to read a crappy manuscript without writhing in discomfort for its author. I can't study the hard and fast rules of writing without losing my lust for it. I'm not a formulaic person, for better or worse, and to have to nitpick every beautiful, perfect Oxford comma out of existence in somebody else's manuscript would be more than I could bear.
So what is an Arts graduate to do, after the dust has settled? I used to sneer at the lazy jokes about the uselessness of Arts degrees because I had a clearly-defined path in my mind. Now, they actually start to scrape at the sides. And I rage.
I rage against the baby boomers who refuse to retire to give Arts graduates graduate-level employment, and the digitisation of everything that makes genuine, honest freelancing accessible to so many people that one can't even give away their work for free. I rage against the university that gave me no vocational training, and the niggly little traits of my personality that exclude me, as if I have no choice, from chasing honourable pursuits like so many of my friends: ethics, squeamishness, an aversion to the corporate emphasis will likely always keep me at arms' length from conventional success. Because of these factors, and half a million others, a litany of exciting career paths beckon no more to me than the notion of sitting at home all day in beige-coloured underwear, eating cheese that's just that little bit too runny.
I can appreciate how privileged I am to have the freedom to abandon any one career path so easily, or two, if considering the academic one I discarded with all the fickleness of a sub-par student. Ever-present is the temptation to circumvent being a grown-up altogether, and merely stroll into the sunset with a bindle at my back. This is the fantasy that tickles me the most, right now. I have mapped a 24-month Around the World itinerary that encompasses all the irresponsible wayfaring a lass could ever want. I have set a financial target to activate the dream, which was only recently met in the wake of my most recent promotion. It is invigorating to know I could go at any moment, if I really wanted. But still I stay - working hard at my job, spending time with friends, grinding away at a trilogy. I like the space I am currently occupying. And the hardest part of being as spontaneous and ambitious as I am is accepting that there is nothing wrong with living in the present.
Truth be told, I'm happy. I'm flaky and uncertain, but I am only young. I have a whole realm ahead of me to explore. As soon as I crawl out of my own head and the hunger for adventure takes over, my degree is only going to be a stepping stone, bunched with dozens of other stepping stones, that leads me down the garden path to the grown-up I one day want to be.
And when I think about it like that, there's no science in the world that can configure away my optimism.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.