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Why I Quit Oxford University and the Benefits of Being Unreasonable

I had achieved a childhood dream – I had been accepted to study for my doctoral research at the University of Oxford when I was 23. Now, after little more than a month, I wanted to leave.

Growing up in Ireland I had dreamed of studying at Oxford or Cambridge. My father had been a Maths Professor at Queens University, Belfast, and I wanted to follow the same career path (just not in Maths!).

My talents lay elsewhere – in the humanities which were fostered by my mother’s love of literature and history and which I naturally excelled in at school. English Literature and History were my passions.

Although I was a good student some of my teachers in Ireland took issue with my lofty ambitions – who did I think I was to aspire to such academic heights?

The school career counsellor advised me to set my sights lower and when I got accepted for an interview at a Cambridge college for my undergraduate degree my English teacher refused to sign the essays I had to submit as a sample – even though I had gotten A grades in his class! He didn’t want some English don looking over his work – so ran his excuse. I got called for interview anyway – but didn’t get it. 

Fast-forward five years. Although I didn’t get into Cambridge on that occasion, I got accepted at Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews, on the beautiful coast of Fife.

Prince William entered the following year to my and everyone else’s surprise. It’s a small, excellent, and nurturing university.

I studied English, Italian, and Mediaeval History in my first two years but soon got tired of post-modern theory that ruined Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and the Icelandic Sagas for me. It was years before I read a novel again.

I chose to major in Mediaeval History instead and excelled with inspirational and caring teachers. I went to Oslo for a life-transforming Erasmus year abroad in my third year fully funded by the Norwegian Government and came back to St Andrews for my final fourth year. I graduated with a First Class Honours degree dead-set on a career in the lofty groves of academia.

Oxford and Cambridge both accepted my applications to start my postgraduate degree. I decided on Oxford in the end because one of the colleges offered scholarships for Irish students.

Oxford, however, didn’t prove to be all that it is made out to be. Although I liked many of my fellow students and made lifelong friends there, the environment was more taut, competitive, and unfriendly than at St Andrews.

There was an air of superiority and entitlement that I found uncomfortable. Despite its reputation, the quality of teaching was not as good as at St Andrews and there was a tough love approach to students – a sink or swim attitude.

The crime rates also came as a shock. Students being stabbed or attacked was not uncommon while the house opposite where I was living – a college owned residence for postgrad students – was broken into eleven times during the year! The social disparity and class system which I had not experienced in Ireland or Scotland led to tension between locals and students. 

I also made the mistake of not doing due diligence on my chosen supervisor. I had chosen him because I had read one of his books and was really impressed by his scholarship. The problem was that his field of research had changed in the meantime and he was now working in a totally different area than the one I wanted to do research in. I knew within three weeks that I didn’t want to stay in Oxford for the rest of my PhD but decided to stay on for the rest of the year so that I could get a research Masters.

When I told my friends and fellow students at Oxford that I was going to leave, they couldn’t understand this. Oxford for them was clearly THE PLACE TO BE, but I could see what the culture was like and wanted none of it.

I worked on my Latin and became interested in an eleventh-century Latin text from Austria which I edited and translated as part of my degree. Despite the tough-love approach from my supervisor I was determined to prove him wrong – and in the end got a Distinction for the final work.

I returned to St Andrews to continue my PhD where I knew I would have a good working relationship there with another supervisor and I was awarded a Carnegie Scholarship – full funding for three years.

One of the self-imposed conditions I had set myself was that I wouldn’t do the PhD unless I got full funding. I had a good friend at Oxford who was £40,000 in debt after finishing his doctorate there and couldn’t find an academic position. The only work he could get was working in a cafe.

It had cost me £15,000 to fund just one year at Oxford which I had partly paid for by working as a furniture removals guy in Oslo for a summer and I thought any more debt wasn’t worth it.

I finished my PhD in three and a half years without any student debt and had my first academic job lined up before I finished – at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna where I would work for the next seven years.

And that piece which elicited such a strong reaction from my supervisor in Oxford when he told me I should quit because I had the Latin of a 12 year old? It was subsequently published in The Journal of Medieval Latin

If you are ever told (or tell yourself) that you are not good enough or you can’t do something, just pause and reflect. Get unreasonable.

The following will show you how.

Check out the in-depth interview with Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn on Navigating the PhD.