Midnight In Philadelphia

My “top-choice” university for a Chemistry PhD was not the one that I ended up attending. It was a simple-enough reason why: they didn’t make me an offer of admission. In the summer before I departed to the USA I discussed this fact with a friend, who asked how I felt about the choice I went with (now several months after the offers & rejections, and my ultimate decision).

“Well…even if I received an offer from [Top Choice University] I might have visited and seen something that really put me off them…” I reflected. At the end of the day I had made a good choice with the options presented to me, and I couldn’t/wouldn’t know what would have happened if those options had been different. For all I know, even if Top Choice University had made me an offer…I may have ended up in the same place I am now. 


In June 2009 as I prepared to depart for the USA, I had a strange fantasy. I imagined that I would board the flight from London to Philadelphia and fall asleep. When I awoke I would still be on a plane…but 12 months would have passed it was flying in the opposite direction back to the UK. I would awaken and have no recollection of what happened in the intervening time: I wondered what emotions I’d feel as I read my diary and searched Facebook: would I believe the things that had happened to me? Would I feel regret or relief for having no memories of what had transpired during that year?


Time: it happens, I’m OK with it happening, I don’t usually regret what is in the past because there is no guarantee that anything could have changed what happened.

Right now I’m mulling over another time paradox.

In September 2010 I boarded that plane back to the UK. I dozed during the 6 hours, but successfully awoke with all my memories intact. I felt bereft at leaving my friends and an entire life behind. There had been a fundamental change within me during those 12 months and in leaving the States I was partially relinquishing those changes. Knowing that I had to return I applied to PhD programs on the Eastern Seaboard. When I was unsuccessful…I applied again. When I was successful…I filed the application for my visa.

And so nearly 3 years later in August 2013 I boarded another trans-Atlantic plane. Now, I’m thinking of another fantasy:

What if it was September 2010 again and I was once more flying across the ocean. Except this time…I was flying to Philadelphia, not away from it? What if I touched-down on the Eastern Seaboard with my student visa, PhD program admittance letter and 2 cases of luggage with no time gap between my stays at all?

Another fantasy that won’t be coming to life.

A lot of change has happened in three years. Friendship circles have shifted. People have changed. I have changed. I can’t return as is to the same social circles – my outlook on life has changed. Once we get beyond the afternoon coffee spent catching up with a Q&A session, do we actually want to do things together? With the bulk of folk: yes, resoundingly. With a couple of really nagging exceptions however, I’m no longer sure.

The physical distance between my current address and the social circles I wanted to preserve is maddening: at ~90 minutes on public transport it isn’t too far that I can’t regularly visit. Yet 90 minutes is too far away to access on whim – I can’t visit during the week, I can’t “just” swing by to do a spot of shopping (too much time wasted in transit). Philadelphia is just close enough to constantly remind me how distant I am.

While I lament the passage of time…I could never give up those 3 years of change. It would mean undoing the sensation of swimming down the Rhein, cycling across the bridges of London, watching the world from the coffeeshops of Edinburgh. It would mean undoing moments of asphyxiating hilarity, curl-up-on-the-floor-until-the-darkness-goes-away awfulness, punch-the-air-yelling triumph and everything in between.

Nor can I guarantee to myself that anything would have been different had I come back to the States earlier. If I’d submitted my PhD applications in the winter of 2010 while I was still at the University of Edinburgh…would I have been accepted anywhere? If I had broadened my scope in the Fall 2012 cycle…would I have just ended up with an offer from a badly-fitting institution? If I had been accepted into a PhD program 1 or 2 years sooner – assuming I ended up in the desired location…would the program have been so stressful, time-consuming and absorbing that I had no time/energy to socialise outside of my cohort? It may have been – with the benefit of a bit more maturity I’m less concerned with being the perfect scholar, researcher and teacher all at once.


There are a couple of obvious strategies for 2014. (1) Spend a lot less time in Philly, in effect admitting that I can’t really “go back” or “be back”. (2) Spend a lot more time in Philly, so that I feel more integrated. (3) Become a lot more judicious in how I spend my time in Philly – should I only return for definite social events, or should I focus more on a smaller number of people?

There isn’t a straightforward answer. The one thing I love about going down to Philly is that I can forget for a day or two that I’m a grad student. Having friends who have either passed through grad school (and lived) or didn’t pursue any postgraduate education (and went on to be awesome) I think is essential to my own mental wellbeing.

At the same time though, grad school is important to me. I don’t want to be struggling through the coursework or staying up until midnight marking. That means I shouldn’t be rushing off somewhere every weekend. Based on last semester, I should be staying put more weekends than I’m day-tripping.

The third option is the best, although how it will work out in practice next semester isn’t clear. My perception might also shift if I take on board some of the thoughts from my last post: vague dissatisfaction in one corner of my life tends to seep into other corners too.

Whatever the choices I make, time will move forward. And I won’t regret that in the slightest.

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