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Dr Chris Thompson shares his experience of pursuing a PhD scholarship which was more challenging than doing a PhD itself. He talks about the emotional impact of rejection letters and the moments when he hit rock bottom.

CW: This article contains references to suicide and suicidal behaviour.

My name is Chris Thompson, and from 2016-2019, I was a PhD student at Saarland University (Germany) and the University of Technology, Sydney (Australia). For three years, I got to conduct several research projects with professional football players, and I was fortunate to sample new cultures and make lifelong friends along the way. I travelled around Europe to share my findings, and I often partied like it was 1999 (albeit on a PhD stipend budget). I crammed so much into that time, it felt like I’d lived a number of lives in that experience. Sounds great right? It had its moments. But let me tell you something – it took a heck of a long time to get to this position. In this short blog, I will talk about the painful pursuit of a PhD scholarship which was more challenging than doing a PhD itself. 

How many PhDs did I apply for? I started my PhD in September 2016. My search for a PhD started in June 2014 though.

How many PhDs did I apply for in this time? Christ above,  I can’t even remember. 30? 40? But what you have to bear in mind (as I’m sure you unfortunately appreciate too) is that each application is time consuming, and you build your hopes up.

Whilst awaiting the news of an interview, you Google the university and learn about their staff and facilities. You search property prices in the local area. You tell your friends and family you’ve applied for the scholarship. It can’t go wrong in the eyes of your loved ones, and they spread the word to others. You are fixated on the real possibility that it is finally your time. It’s an obsession that can be pretty unhealthy. Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (you may need to Google that if you’re under 30).

You feel good about the situation, then BANG!

“We regret to inform you that your PhD application has been unsuccessful. Unfortunately due to the volume of applications, we are unable to provide feedback at this time.”

Can you blame the university? Of course not. They have to choose someone, and on most occasions, I wasn’t their choice. I can smile as I write that now, but I didn’t always feel this way.

The nearly moment.

It’s about 21:00 on a Monday evening in January 2015. I had just stepped off the CrossCountry train service home. I’d spent the afternoon with a potential university attending an interview for the perfect PhD in what seemed a perfect location. I get through my front door, and I’m full of confidence. The old man is in the kitchen fixing me up a beer.

“How did the interview go son?”
“Great dad. What a panel, and what a place! I could see myself living there.”

Then the academic freight train makes a move for me again. An email comes in on my phone at around 21:45.

NEW EMAIL – “FROM UNIVERSITY: PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL”
“Dear Mr Thompson, we regret to inform you….”

Here we go again! Well, I didn’t quite say that at the time, but the true colourful language that came out my mouth probably wouldn’t make it to publication. I was stunned though, and too embarrassed to say anything to my dad straightaway. I spent the night sat in silence, and wondered if things could get any worse. Little did I know, they could.

Rock bottom.

The day after this, I reflected a lot. Was I good enough for a PhD?
The panel were so nice to me – what did I do wrong?
Do I need to consider a career change? Am I wasting my time here?
What is the point of applying again?

To add some context, the rest of my life wasn’t going so swimmingly at the time either. I was sleeping on my dad’s sofa, my relationship had just broken down, and I barely had a penny to my name. The PhD was my only ray of hope at that time, and it was slipping away before it had even got going. Anyway, it’s now the afternoon and I’m staring at the television, taking nothing in. Only one thing could turn this numbness around.

“I’m going for a drink…”

I come back from the shop with a 50cl bottle of Smirnoff and some Red Bull. When mixed, it goes down a lot easier than you think. It’s now 3pm, and the house is dry again.

“Let’s go to the pub…”

I walk down the road in a not-so-straight line, and I feel a sense of guilt as I pass children walking out of school with their parents. What must they have thought of me? The guilt is merely transient, and I pass them all to make it to the ATM. I take out the last £50 in my account, and intend to buy as much Guinness as The Almanack Bar will permit on my healthy budget.

In what seems like a flash, it’s ten o’clock, and I’ve spent the lot. The thoughts had been dark in the morning, but boy were they really dark by this time. I march home in a seemingly fast way that only drunk people can appreciate, and I start trawling through Google.

“PAINLESS SUICIDE METHODS”
“HOW MANY SLEEPING TABLETS DOES IT TAKE TO….”

I read some pretty heart breaking forums which made me question my searches, but I was too intoxicated to really care. As far as I was concerned, tomorrow was showtime.

The turnaround.

The next day, I went to the hardware store to buy the supplies recommended from the suicide forums. I don’t wish to share specific details, in fear of people being inspired like I was from the articles that I had read. As the items were laid out on the table, a family friend came into the house. He was in great spirits, and we had a good catch up.

“So what are you up to Chris?”
“Ah you know, not much mate…”

Not much?!
Here I am laughing and joking, and really I was at my lowest ebb.
I wanted out badly.

But as I was suddenly alone in the house again, a wave hit me. “What the bloody hell are you doing? Do you want your dad to find you and ruin his life in the process?”

I freaked.
A panic set in, and I binned the items before my dad returned home.
I sat in silence, terrified by the voices in my head and the direction in which I had gone in so quickly.
Anyone with such symptoms of a common mental disorder can tell you how scary those kinds of feelings are.

Building a routine.

The greater problem wasn’t the PhD search – it was my lack of routine and purpose, which my mind desperately craved. At this time, I was claiming unemployment benefit, and surviving on the odd scrap of unpaid voluntary experience I could pick up in professional sport. I wasn’t filling my days and keeping my mind occupied.

My sole obsession each day was to find a PhD scholarship. I would even frequently dream that I had been offered a PhD scholarship, and I was packing my bags ready to start my new life. The mind is cruel sometimes! People kept telling me it would happen for me soon, but one person wasn’t so sure. As I went to claim my unemployment benefit one blustery Monday afternoon, I was treated to some home truths by the Benefit Officer handling my claim.

“Mr Thompson, a PhD probably won’t be coming your way any time soon. I strongly recommend you take any work you can get.”

Thanks for the vote of confidence!

On reflection, I must have come across as a complete diva. This person had probably dealt with refugees from war torn countries and families with young kids on the verge of eviction from their home, and here was some twentysomething complaining that nobody was willing to offer him a PhD scholarship.

So yeah, the Benefit Officer had a fair point, and I was running out of money. Those Guinness binges wouldn’t pay for themselves, so I ended up ditching the voluntary work (reluctantly), and spent over a year working in retail as I continued with my PhD search. Making new friends and finding a girlfriend in the process was really helpful for me, and I soon spent more time complaining about working for minimum wage in Gap than the challenges of finding a PhD!

The PhD applications were ticking over, and my luck was about to change…

“I’m pleased to inform you that your application has been successful”.

It’s now February 2016, and I’d just had my interview for a PhD based in Germany and Australia. The panel had discussed the idea of working with elite German football players, the opportunity of spending summers in Sydney, and the million dollar question of whether Leicester City would win the Premier League or not.

Exciting stuff, but I’d gone way past the stage of micro-analysing a PhD interview. Did the panel like me? Was I getting my points across well enough? Will I be moving abroad soon to start a new life? None of that over-analysis from me this time. It was just another interview of many, and I’d learned not to get carried away. I just hadn’t learned how to react when an application had been successful, which I was about to experience.

Less than a week passes by, and I’m just walking out of the Leicester City training ground, where I had been doing a research placement. As I strolled the back roads through my old estate on the way home, my phone rings.

“INCOMING CALL – +49393848301736729298”

OK, so it wasn’t that many digits, but it was an alien enough number to make me suspicious. Probably an automated scam, I told myself. Then as it is close to ringing out, I question if it is related to my interview. I reluctantly answer.

“Hello, Chris? I’m calling from Saarland University. I’m pleased to inform you that…..”

Bloody hell, I’d only gone and pulled it off finally. Time to play it cool Thommo – don’t come off too desperate here. No more Glenn Close antics from the new me.

“Well, that’s really good to hear. Thank you….I guess that sounds like it could be a good opportunity…”
“…..OK Chris, no problem. If you wish, we can keep in touch with other candidates if you are having second thoughts?”

Hold on a minute, I didn’t mean to be that cool!

“No, no, no, hang on. Send me the contract now. I’ll even blow on the ink to make sure it dries quicker. I’m in. 100% in!”

So much for playing it cool! It would turn out be the first time of many that my laid back persona was misinterpreted by German colleagues.

But that moment is something I won’t forget. The extra special part is that as I put the phone down, I was stood overlooking the park on the estate where I’d grown up as a working class kid with little hope for the future. Doing an undergraduate degree was viewed as a miracle for someone from my background, and all the childhood memories of poverty and sadness came flooding back in an instant.

The memories of rejection and misery I’d experienced for around eighteen months of searching for a PhD had completely vanished in that moment. Now an even harder part was to come – walking through the door and telling my mum I was imminently leaving the country for three years!

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