Tuesday, June 1, 2004

A place called home

Last week Beth wrote on the Australian intelligentsia and those who’ve left home to pursue careers overseas, especially in the 1970s. I found this post quite provocative, not least through being mentioned by name as part of the large Australian professional diaspora. Another reason was that I had something kind of extraordinary happen on Saturday.

I stumbled in from a day’s play rehearsal, punting and drinking to find a letter from this organisation waiting for me. I’ve been offered three years PhD funding. It's an incredibly generous offer.

I have to stress that my Masters marks are not out and the Law School has not accepted me yet (significant unhatched chickens) – but funding is usually the hard bit, so it looks like I have the option of staying on 3 years for my doctorate.

And I’ll take it.

But why? Couldn’t I do a PhD at home?

I’d love to do a PhD in Melbourne, I love the city and it has some great international law research centres. So why will I stay on in the UK if I’m given a chance?

I’ve been unpacking my responses cautiously. The prospect of four years in a foreign country (even speaking the language) scares me. I am a long way from old friends (with a few noble exceptions) and family. If I went home to corporate law or government service I’d be earning and could get a foot on the property ladder. As it is, I may return at 31, broke and with four degrees in tow.

Why stay then?

The biggest draw-card is, to be entirely frank, something my Australian undergraduate supervisor (now head of a major UK law school) said to me over lunch recently: “It’s sad, and it shouldn’t be the case, but you’ll find having a Masters from Cambridge opens doors for you nothing else would.”

The same goes for a PhD. If I want to go into the underpaid, Alice-in-Wonderland world of academic teaching and research (which I do) a PhD is more-or-less vital, and doing a PhD here is potentially career-making.

Is that a sell-out? Well, no. As I commented at Beth’s site – I don’t think the present Australian young-professional-expat community sees itself as turning its back on home, and it comes abroad with a fairly assertive national identity.

In my field, international law, it is hard to imagine being taken seriously If you had not spent some time studying overseas. Further, being based at a European institution, you get to see guest-lecturers and speakers who just don’t get to Australia.

Personally, I also distrust the “easy” option – the thing I would find easiest to do. And, in the lead-up to exams, I would have liked nothing more than to just pack up and come home for good. (As I still intend to do eventually.)

As a small, proud country do we risk missing something? Surely we should be over by now thinking that leaving home is an act of betrayal (not that Beth’s post in anyway suggested this). It’s just as bad as treating those who “made it” overseas as inherently superior (though in some industries, there may only be so far you can go in Australia given our limited population).

Where does the individual fit in this debate? Is Peter Carey less Australian for writing novels with inherently Australian concerns, but while he is living in New York? Or is it the case that “exile” is sometimes the thing that reveals our national identity to us? (It's easy to think of a long list of historical celebrities who did their best work in exile: Ovid, Locke, Grotius, Einstein, Mary and Percy Shelley, Byron, etc.)

I find it amazing how fiercely (almost pardoically) Australian the Australians abroad can become, and anytime I go drinking with Queenslanders, I’m no exception …

(PS due to the joys of technology half the comments on this post are over here.)

No comments: