THERE are a number of questions that are best avoided when speaking with PhD candidates, including ‘How long have you left?’ and ‘Where will you work when you’re finished?’
One question that PhD students will regularly ask themselves, though, is ‘Why am I doing this?’ Depending on the stage that they are at in their research and how close to their wits’ end they are on that day, often they will struggle to come up with a satisfactory answer.
There are times when this pursuit can be well summed up by one of my favourite quotes from Malcolm Tucker of the BBC’s comedic masterpiece The Thick of It. “This is the fucking Shawshank Redemption right, but with more tunnelling through shit and no fucking redemption.”
For many of us, working towards a PhD results in a lot of postponing. While your peers start to advance up the professional ladder, get married, buy their first homes and have children, your existence feels a lot more purgatorial by comparison. Constantly scraping pennies means you often can’t even join your friends for a drink, much less consider buying a house.
Relationships can struggle to get off the ground because it might take weeks of saving to cover the cost of a date that you think would be respectable for someone at your stage in life. If you overcome that obstacle, then the stress that comes with your solitary undertaking can often take its toll on a relationship also.
To that unenviable mix, one can add well-founded fears of future professional insecurity, occasionally crippling self-doubt, a fairly constant underlying feeling of imposter syndrome and a creeping intuition that you’re wasting your time working alone on a very, very long book that, if completed, three people will read and nobody will care about.
So why would you voluntarily do this? Is Malcolm Tucker right and there is no redemption?
Thankfully, I have been able to rely upon the wisdom of two very different heroes of mine in rejecting the Tucker-esque pessimism that could so easily engulf someone firmly embedded in their PhD studies.
The first is Hunter S. Thompson, the father of Gonzo journalism, a literary genius with a passion for truth, guns and drugs, and a contempt for authoritarianism, dishonesty and corrupt politicians.
In 1958, Thompson penned a letter to a friend who had written to him, asking for advice on what to do with his life. It is staggering to think that the response was written by a then 22-year-old, who had not only the self-awareness to know giving life advice to someone “implies something very close to egomania”, but also the insight to suggest a philosophy on life that could benefit anyone facing an existential crisis. Please read the letter in its totality here if you are unfamiliar with it.
One should not, he argues, dedicate their life towards reaching a pre-defined goal, based upon the assumption that true satisfaction will come when the task is complete. Because humans change with experience and time, the meaning one attaches to that goal may have changed completely by the time it is attained or it may not have been what one expected from the start. Instead of hoping that salvation lies with the realisation of that goal, one should choose a target that they know they will enjoy working towards. “The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”
In moments of particular PhD despair, I like to go back and reread Hunter’s almost 60-year-old wisdom and remind myself that I still very much love the actual process – the researching, the writing, the searching for new knowledge – of working towards my chosen goal.
Of course, one could easily argue that the angst, the uncertainty, the financial worries and the feeling of being left behind by your peers are also part of that process, but that is something of a misrepresentation. One could – and a lucky minority do – work towards a PhD without any of the above negative by-products. For that lucky few, the essential aspects of the process, those parts that I love, remain the same, regardless.
Nonetheless, these by-products are an undeniable part of my path and that of most PhD students. It is possible, all the same, to find purpose in having to endure them. That’s where Victor steps in.
Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, a short book that should be required reading for all young adults. Drawing upon his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camps, Frankl writes of the importance of finding purpose in all aspects of your existence, including (or even most importantly) in those areas of your life that you find toughest to endure.
One example that he uses to illustrate this method involves an inconsolable man that came to him for assistance in coping with the death of his wife. Frankl asked the man whether he would have wanted his wife to go through the same grief if he had died instead. When the man responds that he would never have wanted his spouse to feel such anguish, he points out that he is experiencing the pain in her place, thus changing the man’s outlook on life by giving purpose to his suffering.
Of course, none of this is to say that even the worst aspects of doing a PhD can compare with such pain but merely to highlight the transformative effect of assigning meaning to life’s challenges.
Thought of in that context, living with the fear of a very uncertain professional future and practicing extreme frugality long after your youngest sister has started out-earning you are just some of the temporary costs of getting to do exactly what you want to do during business hours. These are the cracks and potholes on the path but I’m on the path of my choosing nonetheless and that is not something everyone can say.
That path is about to get very interesting soon, as I leave for a field trip that will span three months and several African states. The purpose of this blog is to maintain a record of what will hopefully be a crucial period in my PhD work. I will be conducting archival research and in-person interviews with a number of different figures, who have each played some role in guiding how Africa addresses matters of security and defence in the 21st Century. More on that in a later blog post, though.
With less than 48 hours to go before I depart, my remaining time in Ireland is going to be spent packing, saying goodbyes, checking and rechecking that I have everything ticked off of several task lists, and trying to repress the feeling that I’ve forgotten something vital.
I get nervous thinking about what lies ahead. I am travelling on my own and organising each interview and appointment by myself. People will no doubt renege on commitments and some of my plans will go awry.
Thankfully though, I’ve got a terrific support network of friends and family at home that are willing to listen to me whinge and offer guidance when it’s required.
In addition, I’ve got Hunter and Victor, two essential allies in the fight to keep my more Malcolm-like impulses at bay.