PhD, Bloody Hell!

Doctoral students are a curious breed. Some will make a mark on their chosen field. The rest, as someone eloquently put, will transfer bones from one graveyard to another. Indeed, one of the things you learn very early during doctoral studies is that no one other than you, your supervisor and your examiner is likely to ever read your thesis.

However, that’s not the attitude the typical PhD student has at the beginning. First semester parties, yes we did have parties, are filled with people boasting about their respective research topics. You have the physicist who’s working on the next ultra-light material for airplanes, the musician who wants to create music through gestures rather than instruments and of course the historian who wants to study the progress in Anglo-Irish peace talks between April, 1981 and June, 1983.

What none of them knows is that each of them is going to be humbled over the next 3 years. Some will give up. Some will go insane. Every one of them will age very rapidly.

Because, one thing that comes guaranteed with doctoral studies is insecurity. Once you realise that your work is unlikely to shake the world, you start doubting yourself. You question the genius that is your ego.

The first question which inevitably hits you towards the end of the first year is, is my topic even worth researching? I am an engineer. I have the comfort blanket of knowing that a thousand other researchers are trying to do the same thing I am. We can’t all be wrong.

Soon after you have accepted the relevance of the research topic you begin to question your ability. Is my work good enough? And this is where PhD students earn their corn. This question is what drives you to spend 14 hours a day working in your lab for the whole of the second year. I haven’t yet met a second year PhD student who is satisfied with the quality of his work.

And then there is the final year when you don’t care whether the topic is relevant or if you are! You just want some results so that you can start writing the damn thesis. And once you start writing the thesis, you lose touch with everything and everyone around you. You give up Beatles songs in the shower for the introduction to Chapter 3. You forget which of your friends was recently engaged, had a kid or came out of the closet. You stop shaving because you rarely leave the house. And when you do, it is to celebrate a completed chapter. Everything in your life revolves around that bloody thesis. That beautiful thesis.

Because the day you print your thesis and submit it to the university is the most beautiful day you will have known for nigh over 3 years. It’s the day you welcome friends back into your life. The day you sit in the Botanical gardens sipping 5 year old Chardonnay. The day our historian friend cherishes and dreads in equal measure. You see, while the rest of the doctoral students toil for three years knowing that they will have a job lined up, the historian knows that his job prospects are worse than that of England winning the next football world cup. That is to say, not very good at all.

The sad truth is, here in the UK, historians who have picked up undeniable project management skills and proven them repeatedly over 3 years have been squeezed out of the job market. Too inexperienced to teach or research, too qualified to sit at receptions. A well-regarded English historian is said to have lamented that Indians have no regard for history. It is a poor state of affairs that the British today have too many historians and no regard for any of them. How an upstart 21 year old adrenaline junkie gambling with the world’s finances is worth £50000 a year is something I will never understand. At the same time there are thousands of qualified social scientists out there serving fries or working the tills at Tesco.

So the next time a PhD is packing your groceries, spare a moment to discuss the socio-economic impact of the cucumber e-coli saga. Or better still, offer them a job.

This essay is adapted from a talk I gave at my erstwhile Rotary club — Melton Aurora.