It’s Sunday morning and Euston station is bustling with people waiting for their train’s home to the North. I catch up with one such visitor to the capital over a cuppa and a spot of people watching. Having not seen Sam for ten years I’m not sure what to expect, I know he’s been studying for a PHD and that he’s moved away from the leafy suburb we grew up in, but what is he like now? Ten years is a long time and a lot can change …
Anyone who knew Sam at school knows what a quick wit he has, full of self-depreciating humour and fun. These things have not changed, as we sit down for a coffee it only takes about a minute before we’re easily laughing about our school days. I always thought of Sam as one of the clever kids, however he is quick to set me straight. “I was definitely not in the queue for being pictured by the Yateley Courier”. This was our local newspaper that came and to take pictures of our town’s brightest on exam results day. We bond over our jubilation of getting average marks whilst we watched on as the gifted cried over B’s instead of their expected A’s. After sixth form those of us who decided to go to university scattered across the country, giving us all a new start. After only telling a handful of friends in Yateley he was gay, University for Sam meant a chance to really be himself without the worry of coming out to people he’d known for years. “At home it was just the unspoken, like the elephant in the room. It just felt weird, uncomfortable”.
Sam decided to follow the course rather than the city when picking university “You expect to come out in a blaze of glory to a cosmopolitan city and I found myself in Keele!” The idyllic village didn’t have the nightlife to offer like popular student haunts Manchester or Bristol but he was studying Biology and enjoying a new sense of freedom. Initially Sam wanted to be a teacher but soon thought better of that idea, “I just thought I couldn’t possibly teach secondary school children because they terrify me.” To his surprise Sam starting to really get into to the academic side of things and by the end of his post grad he’d exceeded his expectations of another average mark. “I was thinking this is a very different situation to when I had my fingers crossed for a D in chemistry at sixth form”, he finished with a first class degree and a group of new friends. But alas it was time to move on, Keele being a small place everyone scattered across the country to seek their fortunes, “It’s like ripping the plaster off, we all had to go somewhere else and start again”.
Deciding to re-group Sam return home to Yateley which was somewhat of a shock, “You know that feeling you get when you arrive somewhere with no plans, no job and I was like … shit.” He felt like he had rewound, with the added pressure of not many people back home knowing he was gay. “I mean it probably wasn’t even a shock to anyone but it just felt weird to be back there and feeling like a teenager again”. Sam doesn’t like to get into a situation where people don’t know, “I always try to slip it into conversation pretty early on when I meet people, otherwise you have to have a big ‘come out’ every time you meet someone.” He rapidly applied for a masters in Environmental Assessment at Manchester University thus enabling him to move away once again and ending a phase in his life he describes as “slightly panicked Yateley thing” which only lasted between the June and September of that year. In Manchester he lived in a huge house with 9 other students, of all different backgrounds and finally found himself in a big city, this was a very happy time for Sam. “This group of people would never otherwise have formed, we used to have these big dinner parties were we’d stay up drinking and chatting.”
After his masters Sam wanted to a job, to put to practise all he had learnt in his undergrad and masters. This lead to him moving to “some shit village near Birmingham”, after securing a job in environmental consultancy, Sam found himself in an area surrounded by old people and middle class families and asking himself “why am I living here?” A handful of friends were close by but not close enough to make the sleepy town a home. This taste of suburban life is the closest he’s ever been to getting a gym membership. Besides his unrest with his suburban surroundings Sam also was not content in his job “I like to think of myself as a bit eco, I’d studied all this environmental stuff and actually I’d ended up doing planning applications for landfills”. Although he was planning more environmentally friendly ways to landfill he began to feel as if he was one of the bad guys. Sam concluded he wasn’t going to take the pragmatic approach and went on to pursue his more idealistic values by studying for a PHD. Returning again to his post grad haunt of Manchester. “I’d like to say I gone through my life with strategic decision making skills but actually, like most people, I’ve just stumbled into all of it.”
Sam’s PHD focused on the environmental assessment of development plans and how they make things more sustainable. He worked for 4 years on the PHD which has meant a lot of personal and financial sacrifices, there were times during his studying where he would have to pinch himself and realise he was really giving his all to complete it. “I had to move into my grandparents house outside of town (as he didn’t have funding for his 4th year) and I couldn’t always see my friends or afford to spend time with them”. Whilst his peers were reaping the benefits of attaining well-paid jobs after further education, Sam was toiling away at his thesis living an extremely solitary life. Some of Sam’s closest friends in Manchester moved to Australia and his other friends went to visit them, there was no way he could afford the trip let alone the time out to go on a holiday the other side of the world. Watching on as other young people travelled the world, partied and became fully fledged adults Sam remained steadfast, determined that he would completed his PHD.
Although Sam would never attribute the end of any of his romantic relationships to his PHD, he does understand the strain it puts on a couple. “It’s stressful, your undertaking this thing and it’s all on you. I know I’m a bit of a winger.” The first couple of PHD years Sam describes as “not completely taking over his life” but by the 4th year when you’ve been working on something for so long it begins to take it’s toll, sticking with it was one of his hardest challenges “I realise the sacrifices I’ve made now I’ve finished that I didn’t quite realise at the time.” Something Sam is determined to set right now he’s finished and wants to spend a lot of time with his friends and family, otherwise he worries he will turn into a lonely man with cats.
This year Sam left Manchester after five years to head to Liverpool for his new position as a Lecturer of Environmental Assessment at the University of Liverpool. He opens up a new chapter in his life, along with adapting to some new locals “they really exist, there genuinely are please walking around in Ugg boots and rollers at 2pm and they are all ready to go out!” Sam’s strong moral ethos has meant he hasn’t compromised on what he wants to achieve. The end goal has been achieved and a place at a respected University as a professor and with the all-important Dr in front of his name is well worth the sacrifice. He can enjoy the freedoms of an academic career with the freedom to pave his own way “It’s modernised a bit, it’s not as though professors while away hours undisturbed working but it’s definitely more flexible than other careers in terms of determining your own path.”
What’s unusual and refreshing about Sam is that his life choices have never been motivated by money, from early onhe’s always had other things he wanted to achieve, even before deciding he wanted to be an academic. “My financial situation is appalling, anyone who’s spent 8 years as a student is never going to be in a good way by the end of it!” But there is no bad feeling when he looks at his back on how academia has shaped and to some extent taken over his life and even though he would like to make a little bit more money isn’t everything “It’s almost as if I don’t want it, like I’m actively avoiding it.” Sam jokes, “If I want to be all high and mighty on my soap box, actually if making lots of money it won’t work”. I’m glad to have caught up with him at a time in his life where is happy in his career, he describes his personal life as “all still to play for”. In terms of where he might live in the future and who he might meet. He’s now looking forward to some long awaited time to catch up with his friends and family.
As we say our goodbyes I tell Sam I don’t think he’s changed from the person I knew from school and he seems slightly disappointed by this. But even though he’s a professor now he still remains as funny as he was as a teenager, there’s no getting rid of that cheeky sense of humour. He is never one to toot his own trumpet “I feel it’s more persistence rather than academic gift that I’ve got to this stage”, I even get a glimpse of the thesis, Sam tells me he carries it around “like a lunatic”. I’m very proud of my school friend Sam, not too shabby for the boy who kept his fingers crossed for D in Chemistry.