A few weeks back, before I went and had super-fun at Bestival 2012 (my review can be found here), I spent three days or so at Cumberland Lodge in the middle of Windsor Great Park discussing the prospects for a postgraduate-graduate and meeting with a whole slew of people from across the country and a whole bunch of PhD disciplines in a similar situation of pre- or post-thesis preparations. This post partly acts as a personal debrief for everything that I learnt at the event, but also explores a few of my continuing ‘PhD Fraud’ themes that have populated my other posts in this series thus far.
What may be surprising is that it was not the talks from interesting set of speakers, nor the discussions with other (confident) PhD students attending the conference that gave me the most food for thought, but a stimulating all-night conversation with someone who (in many ways) feels a lot like me, and in a similar position through her project, of feeling a complete Fraud at postgraduate research. Usually, I speak to students who’re still passionate and confident about their work, but rarely talk to those who’re happy to admit that they hate their PhD and just don’t want to do it any more. Perhaps we genuinely are the only people out there who are completely at odds with their research (and I don’t believe that for a second), but I was surprised just how much I didn’t feel able to connect with those who were perfectly satisfied (and passionate) about their work: I just couldn’t compute how that felt, to still enjoy what you’re doing, and to be excited each day to get back to work.
It’s no big secret that I’ve (kind of) fallen out of love with my PhD: I’ve misplaced the passion that I had for it, and now merely wish to see the process through and see the ink dry on the piece of paper saying that I’ve been passed and can finally move on to a different project, potentially at a different institution or field. I know for sure that it’s just a cocktail of coincedence: a combination of a topic that’s kept moving out of my grasp, a project that’s deviated considerably from its initial definition and the sheer amount of time I’ve spent concentrating on one, single thing. The chance to get started on something new is something that I will relish, and hopefully on a topic that I find more engaging than my current work. I’ve not lost my passion for all things space and satellites, but I’d prefer to move on from the miniscule little niche that I’ve chipping away at in one of the very lonely corners of that world.
I’m also just starting a course of mentoring to help me work better. A lot of the time, I find I have significant problems gaining the motivation to start work each day, that by the time I’ve raised the courage to really get started, it’s nearly the end of the day or I’m too tired to actually get anywhere. Maybe that’s the stress and frustration talking, but I kind of don’t really feel that there’s anything about my work/daily routine that gets me out of bed in the morning; nothing to motivate me to get working other than ‘it needs to be done’. Many of the other attendees of the conference were students from the humanities: for which they’ve chosen their research subject, presumably, because of some prior enthusiasm or interest for their chosen topic. I imagine this prior passion inspires armfuls of motivation to completely engross yourself in your subject, and pursue research out of both necessity (for awarding of degree) and personal interest. In the sciences, students largely move with the funding, occupying whatever task/project needs taken on at that time: often, passion for the field will reflect in the research, but perhaps less often: fr’instance, I wouldn’t dream of performing simulations of sea surface radar signatures in my spare time, but if I was doing a PhD on The Influence of Star Wars on Modern Science-Fiction Movies, I’d probably spend all my time in front of a DVD player and projector.
That being said, I’m still very aware of being switched ‘on’ all the time; always worried about my work, or that my whole life might come crashing down on me any minute – not necessarily about the work itself (I yearn for the night I bolt upright with some truly world-changing inspiration), but about its impact and on all that stuff I have to do tomorrow. It’s not so much that I’m kept awake at night over it (at least, not yet), but I can never seem to escape the Doubt nor switch on the Conviction to succeed. I’m desperately terrified that I’ll get “found out”, or that suddenly my supervisors/faculty will realise that I’m actually not a good enough student, and I’ll be kicked out into the street. Or worse, I’ll write up my thesis only for everyone involved to go: “Is that it?” and I’ll come out of this PhD journey with nothing; or worse, the ‘consolation prize’ of an MPhil or some other token degree that’s an acceptance that I definitely tried, but that I most definitely failed.
Heck, I even feel such a fraud that, should the stars align and I suddenly become the luckiest bastard alive and manage to pass my viva, I think I’ll probably feel guilty about calling myself ‘Doctor’; like I haven’t really earned it, I was just in the right place at the right time. Perhaps I’ll go the complete opposite way and change my name to ‘Dr. Thundersmash’, then at least my name will be about as credible as I feel.