PhD Fraud #02: Chapter Next


I sometimes wonder what I’m doing, and where I want to go in life. By ‘sometimes’ I do, of course, mean ‘all the time’, and that’s largely because I have absolutely no idea at present. As I’m heading towards (potentially) the last 3-6 months of my PhD and then (potentially) the world at large, I’m currently left with a whole bunch of questions as to where I want to go with my career, and the inevitable questions about whether doing a PhD has/hasn’t helped toward that goal.

The role of research, at least in academia, is significantly blurred between that of Employment and Study. Sure, technically I’m still a student and studying for a higher qualification, but the manner by which I go about is more like a job: I’m not being taught, I’m learning by doing, in an office with my own PC to which I turn up to every morning and leave every evening. It’s very different from the surroundings I inhabited in my undergraduate studies: Primarily my own student room, and only occasionally working in a mixed computer room or the library. Certainly, the attitude I have towards it is that of ‘work’, not ‘study’; I’m working for the University on research, not studying to become a doctoral researcher. At least, that’s the mindset that I have towards my research.

In that respect, the term ‘job satisfaction’ has a somewhat confused meaning. Am I enjoying what I’m doing at the moment? It’s difficult to say that I enjoy what I do day-to-day, but slightly more easy to say that I tolerate it. Many students take up a PhD project to challenge themselves; others wrap them up in their research because they have a genuine passion for their field. Me? Well, I certainly came out of my degree with a certain fondness for the space industry: Having jumped aboard the astronautics bandwagon mid-way through my degree, it was definitely a subject that I found interesting; but not one that filled my passions, or which I was instigated to pursue in my spare time. I’ve even forgotten a lot of my undergraduate teaching, which leads to me consider myself something of a fraud when I say that I’m a ‘space systems engineer’. Certainly, when I compare myself to a true engineer with a grounded knowledge of the subject, I feel awfully naive and inexperienced. The potential for me heading into the real world into a ‘real’ engineering position is bloody scary. And, I’m not entirely sure it’s what I want to do.

Truth be told, what initial enthusiasm I had for my PhD topic has long since dissipated: One can only go down so many failed avenues of research before the passion to pursue them all begins to dissipate. I’ll still press on and (hopefully) get it done, but perhaps not with the relish that true job satisfaction brings. Some of the stuff that’s gotten me through the rough times is the extra-curricular work I’ve been doing: Teaching undergraduates, being involved in a lot of outreach activities for our department, and most recently, personal tutoring. Certainly the ‘outreach’ strain has eaten a lot of my time: In 2012 alone, I’ve been involved with taster days for young secondary-schoolers using simple experiments (with stuff like iPod Touches) to teach about space, the University’s ‘family’-based Science and Engineering Day, and the Research Roadshow that’s about halfway through its run and has further events at InTech Winchester, Cheltenham Science Festival and Bestival on the Isle of Wight. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both preparing for and running these events, and its refreshing to interact with a ‘new’ audience, attempting to encourage kids to get involved in science – I guess that somewhat hints at the ‘dream’ scenario I could take after my PhD: I’d love to be able to do that kind of thing full-time, but alas I fear no-one would be able to pay me to do it as a career.

If anything, my PhD has taught me that, while financial reasons are worthwhile enough in the short-term, I’m not sure if I could deal with a career which provides adequate monetary return but little job satisfaction. At least with a job, if things were truly not working out then you’d hand in your notice and find another. In the PhD regime, while it’s possible to drop out, change topic or study elsewhere, you feel far more the commitment to the three (or more) of study, and supervisor relationships, to take that as lightly. For me, I find that ‘satisfaction’ is the key motivator:  I certainly know when I’m in a rough spell, as I lose all motivation to keep going and fall prey to lethargy, procrastination and depression.   In the real world, you have the rest of the hierarchy around you ready to shape you up or ship you out, but in the lonelier world of academia and research, you’re more like your own ‘boss’ with only sporadic supervision, so problems can go unregulated: A lack of job satisfaction can therefore fester unmonitored for significant periods of time without being addressed, which can become an unwelcome feature in a job that can be, by definition of ‘research’, frustrating and intensely disheartening at times.

Perhaps my desire to leave research and head toward more straightforward roles is a reaction to that frustration; a need to have a more well-defined job where you know from month-to-month what you’re going to be doing, and that you’re (relatively) sure won’t veer off at a wild tangent at a moment’s notice. Or, perhaps, it’s just the comparative euphoria provided by my other activities that I’ve developed ‘grass-is-greener’ syndrome of pretty much everything else; when in reality everything is plighted by stress, anxiety and frustration. At the moment, I don’t know. Thoughts are (kind of) stirring in my head as to where to take this all once I’m finished with my PhD, but I’m not really in any rush to second-guess them before they’re ready. Certainly, while I’ve got a big ol’ Doctorate yet to finish and the prospect of a thesis to write, I’ve got just about enough on my plate as it is. Speaking of which, this post has gone on far too long, so I shall depart. Godspeed.


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