Grovelling and servitude on the PhD road

August 28, 1998

Postgraduate study costs more than mere money and time. As Amanda Callaghan explains, the price exacted can also include 20 hours a week as a restaurant lackey.

IN THE depths of last winter I had a couple of favourite daydreams. The first was studying for a masters degree. The second was spending a few summer weekends on the beach with my girlfriends watching the world go by.

The first came true and I am completely made up but I have given up the second. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights find me working as a restaurant receptionist instead. I really want to do the MSc and what is more I am determined to do it without borrowing the money.

I am not eligible for a penny in grants, or a second job would not be an issue. Show me the charitable trust that hands over funds to ambitious women with a reasonable income and no kids and I will give the lecherous sous-chef the slap he deserves and get right down to an application. Earning the extra money is the only option for me and I knew that before I even applied, so I am prepared to do a bit of extra graft.

My job is to prowl menacingly around the door in a smart suit and several layers of lipstick and prevent people walking in and sitting wherever they like. It sounds a bit authoritarian but apparently, before I was appointed to this onerous task, fights would regularly break out when non-smokers plonked themselves in the middle of the tiny smoking section and demanded an instant moratorium on other diners lighting up. The easy answer would be to get one of those please-wait-to-be-seated signs. But this area of London thinks it is St John's Wood and such instructions would be considered vulgar.

When I arrived for my first evening of bouncing the rich I never guessed that doing an MSc the debt-free way costs more than mere money. It is 20 hours a week working as a lackey, a 'no-mark'. This is an irony that I had not thought about. Improving qualifications and career prospects by climbing up the MSc ladder for me means sliding head first to the bottom of the most lowly and pathetic snake on the board, with the possible exception of kitchen porter.

When I was an undergraduate I did all sorts of dreadful jobs: cleaning, waitressing, bar-tending - just like everyone else to get in the game. But there really was a huge gap between me and the professionals I was running around after so it did not feel that bad. But now I too have a degree and, with more than 12 years' professional experience, I do rather suffer the indignity of it all. Fortunately, my friends agree that the ends justify the means and that it is a very short-term period to be out of weekend social circulation for a very long-term and useful gain. They send cheerful emails full of horror stories like the one about pouring blackcurrant coulis down the back of a groping businessman's white tuxedo.

As customers come in and look straight past me I feel like saying: "Table for two and a discussion about the relative merits of the various methods of proportional representation?" I do not take their condescension personally even though some of them are quite the rudest, most objectionable people I have ever met. They come in many shapes and sizes (often vast) but they all have the same expression which says: "I am very rich, you work in a restaurant and therefore nothing you say can be of any importance to me whatsoever." Right.

I suppose that the biggest irony is that I am not alone in this experience. Not one single waiter in my restaurant wants to make a career out of grovelling servitude. UK students of architecture and fashion are trying to make ends meet before they finish college and begin to reverse their current relationship with the catering industry. Foreign graduates in economics, engineering and music are paying their keep and learning English so that they can go home and command huge salaries. We are all doing it with the aim of going on to much, much better things and more or less happily make the sacrifice.

I know too that rudeness that would have enraged me as a teenager now sends me into the kitchen in fits of giggles and I have witnessed with silent mirth the mock servility and revenges of outraged waitresses. In the end, it is only one summer and it is quite a laugh, but next year I will be enjoying my Saturday night laughs in the pub with the added satisfaction of being debt-free and on the road towards a PhD.

Amanda Callaghan is welcoming guests at a restaurant near you.

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