One Year in Research, Part II: On Having the Freedom to Flail

In October, to mark the first anniversary of starting my PhD, I decided to write two retrospective posts about being a one-year-old researcher.  The first of these, a post about my specific project, happened.  The second, about my experience of PhD life more generally, didn’t.  Oh I had the best of intentions, it’s just these other things kept appearing that seemed more immediate, or alternatively a vital part of some important long-term goal, or easily-dealable-with right now, or goodness me my to-do list is looking a bit out of date I should probably make another one of those before I do anything else.  And anyway whenever I thought of the post I didn’t really have anything interesting to say at that moment, so probably best to leave it until sometime when I could think about it properly (definitely in the next few days) and perhaps things would occur in my head in the meantime.

Conveniently, that’s also a good summary of much of my PhD experience.

I still don’t think I’ve got anything particularly novel or interesting to draw out of that premise, but as the new year has occurred and retrospection has once again become mandatory I’m going to offer up some more-or-less disjointed reflections.  The intention here is to be less academic and more personal, though keeping those two apart might be an issue – maybe even the central issue.

  • The main thing that marks out the PhD experience, for me, is the level of freedom afforded – you’ve got the time, independence, and support networks to pursue things that might prove fruitful, without poor decisions reverberating around colleagues or into your bank balance. The ability to completely restructure my working day around some new line of thought – whether related to research, or a public engagement project, or whatever – is a luxury that cannot be overestimated.  The flipside of this is the introduction to this post multiplied many times over.
  • The combination of this freedom with spending my days within a university reading and writing academic things initially – and somewhat depressingly – felt like a straight continuation of my undergraduate and masters days. This mindset turned out to be unhelpful.  Many of the practises that worked well for me during that earlier period have proven inappropriate for the PhD process.  One example: making a bold argument from a limited amount of reading works well for weekly essays; for early PhD research it just looks over-reaching, even arrogant.  I now think of the difference like this: in student years, you are trying to show that you are worthy of a qualification; in the PhD you are trying to show that your research is worthy of a qualification.  I’ve mis-spent a lot of effort this year trying to show cleverness over completeness. 
  • While probably helpful, trying to depersonalise the PhD process in this way can be tricky. I do feel defined by the identifier ‘I’m doing a PhD’ more than I have by any other label to date, probably because it’s a distinctive life course and a substantial (and unique to me) project that I selected for myself.  The risk is allowing myself to feel overly defined by my work, and of seeing the luxury of freedom as tied to a responsibility to always be doing good stuff with it.  Bad use of available time and resources might be part-and-parcel of the unpredictability in research careers, but it ain’t much fun to be in the middle of.
  • A more positive difference from undergrad/masters days is that within my institution I feel like a contributor, rather than a recipient. This is a very welcome feeling after five years inside academia, and one that I’m very grateful to my department and supervisors for encouraging.
  • Having that bit more time to think about everything provides a great opportunity to overthink everything. That can become habitual to the point of paralysing both work and everyday thought.  I have thought ‘yeah, but…’ for every single one of the above points.  It’s tiring, doesn’t make me very popular in the pub, and something that’s definitely worth watching out for.
  • In the social sciences we’ve problematised notions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. This is an important practice, but one that can bite back when you apply it onto your own work.  They’re both drawn-out processes, and hard to discern when you’re in the middle of them.
  • Key final point: I am surprised at the general sombreness of these reflections. Reflecting on those reflections, I see them as specific points of negativity embedded in a much more diffuse, but still crucially present, background of positivity. The problems that delayed this post may be ongoing and frustrating, but the litmus test is that I still look forward to returning to the office on Monday.  My PhD life is, in the extremely helpful words of one of my supervisors, ‘full of flailing’; nonetheless, it is one I am continually grateful to have.  Happy New Year y’all.  Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some things to do.  Though maybe I should make another to-do list first.
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2 Responses to One Year in Research, Part II: On Having the Freedom to Flail

  1. Jim Grozier says:

    I don’t know whether you were inviting or expecting comments on this … if not, please ignore this. If you were though, here goes.

    The “freedom” thing you mention is something I experienced too, though I don’t necessarily see it as a positive thing. I think there is an optimum level of freedom; any less and you may feel restricted and get bored, any more and you are just drifting aimlessly. It’s something that hits most PhD students I think. It may have hit me more because I had been used to a life of being employed on a specific job which did not really involve much freedom – you just had to get the job done, the job was mainly defined by others. But certainly there have been people who have found the level of freedom, or perhaps one should call it the lack of structure, completely impossible and have given up. One person who made it through his PhD but did not want to go any further in academia told me in 2001, “I’m going into finance – I’m too much of a driven person, academia’s too laid-back for me”. It was a remark I could not understand at the time, but two years later, when I started my own PhD, I understood.

    There are of course big differences between a science and a humanities PhD. In most experimental science PhDs (and probably in theoretical ones too) there is a pretty well-mapped-out programme ahead of you so you are not completely rudderless; but you still have to watch out for blind alleys which some academics will happily send you into. I did my PhD in a science dept which was probably more laid-back than most (e.g. we did not do the “upgrade” process that most other universities seem to do; and a lot of the formal procedures were just rubber-stamped) so even though I had stuff to do on a day-to-day basis (like sitting in a freezing cold lab taking magnetometer readings every 30 seconds – PhD students are used as a source of cheap labour in science) I did feel quite disoriented at times. However, overall I still enjoyed it (one of the best things being the sheer variety – I remember thinking it was great that you could be unpacking a new cryostat one day, sitting in the aforementioned freezing lab the next, and helping an undergrad with quantum mechanics the day after ), I just didn’t realise that havng a PhD would not be enough to get me a job!

    It’s good that you feel you are a contributor. Sounds like you are geting good supervision. I didn’t really get much of that – can you believe that my “supervisor” wasn’t prepared to have regular meetings with me?

    I’ve written a couple of pieces about career and PhD type stuff, both of which are of course written from the perspective of a mature student undergoing (or trying to undergo) a career change late in life. I came to the conclusion that I am not a fan of what I call the “conveyor-belt model of education” where you get all your education in one contiguous block. (But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?) You can find these on my blog somewhere if you’re interested. I’d be interested to know what you think might be the benefits of deferring a PhD, if any. (Of course for most people setting out on a career and having financial commitments etc this is not an option though, at least not in the society we find ourselves in today.)


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