Monday, April 2, 2012

The Things They Don't Tell You

There is a very long list.

When you apply for a PhD programme at a university, you focus on the practicalities of it. The references letters you need to get; the previous transcripts you need to track down; the proposal that has to be crafted and perfected and, rather more importantly, the research question that you really need to think of. And it really needs to sound good.

After this, when you are accepted into your university of choice (one hopes), you are so thrilled that the practicalities of what is about to happen end up forgotten for a good few months. And then you become so busy with moving to a new place, administration, familiarisation and meeting people that, once more, you forget why you are there in the first place.

For the first week or so after you begin your PhD programme, things chug along like any other degree. It is only after a week or two goes by that you realise that you aren’t actually attending classes. This is the biggest difference from any previous degree. Another week or two after that, and the introductory weeks of meetings and seminars and mad scrambling to figure things out wears off and you have a sudden epiphany: you are going to be here for the next three years with your nose in a book, your fingers on the keyboard and, if you are very lucky, occasional breaks for fieldwork in a city that is not this one. Somewhere about November , the reality of the situation sinks in. It is at this point that all the things that you were told in the first few weeks become completely meaningless.

The first thing that they tell you during orientation is that doing a PhD is a 9-5 job. This is truth. What they don’t add to that statement is that, outside of those hours, there are departmental obligations, teaching, admin work, independent projects, research that is not your own, volunteer jobs, actual jobs, and an endless list of things that, although not mandatory, you really are supposed to show up for. Quickly, your 9-5 Monday to Friday week becomes your 8-8 Monday-Saturday week. Other weeks, there are no Sundays either. Sometimes there will be so much work that you will go weeks without taking more than a few hours off one afternoon to run into the centre for a few things of importance. You will exhaust yourself. You will never take a holiday unless you specifically plan one. Christmas is meaningless unless you go somewhere else where you are completely unable to do work. When the undergraduates and graduate students get reading week and Easter holidays, you will quietly glare at them behind their backs and go back to reading the stack of books on your desk.

But that’s alright, because you will quickly find that any attempts to actually take a holiday that does not go to the extreme of going away and leaving your computer behind, will not amount to anything. You will not be able to turn your brain off. Half-way through your Christmas holidays you will wake up at 2am one day with a brilliant idea of yet another aspect of your thesis that you need to research. And all you will want to do is research it right that moment. We do not do a PhD thesis because we are bored. We do it because we are passionate about the topic, we believe in its importance to the industry or even the world, and we enjoy it. You live, you breathe and you sleep your research questions.

It’s not a 9-5 job, but I quickly realised, around about my third supervision meeting in as many weeks, in the third week of October with a 5000 word paper due already that that was completely okay. I’d be bored otherwise. 9-5 leaves a lot of free hours to twiddle your thumbs. No doubt many of you would argue that that leaves a great many hours for a social life, but that is what undergrad is for. Your social life quickly steps aside in the face of a burning research question that may change your chosen field of study. Occasionally you will miss it, and that will lead to dinner or a quick coffee with someone who is also so busy with their own research that finding a moment that you are both free will take weeks to organise. And neither of you will actually mind this fact. You will live with people for the sake of your sanity, because otherwise you will go days without seeing another human being. You will go to the office, not because it is conducive to work, but because every once in a while you really do need to remind yourself that there are dozens of other people in your department in the same boat as you. Most days, that is all the comfort you need.

There will be days where you absolutely love what you do and what you are researching. You will remember why you wanted to spend three years doing this in the first place. There are other days where you will question everything; your sanity and your thesis question included. And there will be a great many middle days. That is the rollercoaster that is life. And it is a thrilling ride.

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