Friday, February 01, 2008

Three years

Ah yes, and so it has come, the email. When you embark on a PhD there is an initial flurry of interest on the part of the university, mainly to ensure you have paid all your fees, filled out your scholarship forms, and been told how to sit correctly in your office chair. They spend a bit of time explaining how this whole PhD thing works, drag in some senior students to tell you all about it, and then, nothing. You're on your own. Apart from the fortnightly bank statement telling you your scholarship payment has arrived, and an annual letter informing you that according to the university's records, you are indeed still a university student, that's about it. No "hi, how's it goin'?", or "what have you been up to?" emails. Not even a Christmas card. Nothing. Then, three years down the track, after all the trials and tribulations, journal club meetings, conferences, lab visits, seminars, pub sessions and introductory yoga classes, an email arrives.

Dear Chris,
remember us. We're the Australian National University and your time is nearly up! If you're a slack arse student who won't be finished in time, fill out this form to beg for our mercy.

ps. merry Christmas

You see, in theory, a PhD is supposed to take three years. There is a legend often told at the Uni house pub on Friday's, and in the tea rooms of many a research lab, that once upon a time, somewhere, a PhD thesis was submitted in three years. No one knows his or her name, or what the topic was, but I suspect they studied at The University of Fairy Land, where supervisors have inifinite time to talk with you, trained monkeys run your experiments, and ready to submit PhD theses grow on trees. The fact is, despite the university's admirable attempts to put some curry in the PhD sauce, and get students to complete quickly, very few achieve this. Why is this you ask ?

Well, for those not familiar with the wonderous world of the PhD degree, let me explain. A PhD in its classical form, has little to do with lectures, exams, lab classes, semesters, prescribed text books and to be honest, anything else you probably attribute with a university undergrad degree. It is a student, a desk, and the none too small task of coming up with something that prior to your work, was not known, designed, created or explained before. You do get some help though. A supervisor for one, who can be quite useful, although less effective as you progress and realise after a couple of years that you know more about your topic than they do (this is expected by the way). You also have hundreds of papers, articles and other forms of media that provide a seemingly endless supply of material that may or may not be related to what you're doing. Of course, the relevance and accuracy of this material varies, and so a significant amount of time is spent trying to sift through and find papers of use to you, while at the same time hoping not to find something so useful as to render your own work obsolete. It can be as frightening as it is enlightening.

The summary of all of this is that tangible outcomes can be few and far between, and in general, the structureless nature of the degree means much of the motivation to get work done, work that is often highly brain intensive and not particularly enticing on a Friday afternoon (or any afternoon for that matter), must come from within. Of course, choosing an interesting topic to begin with definitely helps this. Although, this is also akin to choosing a song you really like, and playing it over, and over, and over again ... for four years. Sometimes you just wish you could skip to the next track.

This probably all sounds very negative, but it is somewhat ironic that the one thing that causes much of the stress and pain associated with a PhD, is also the one huge motivator to keep going with it ... intellectual freedom. An academic once told me that he really envied his PhD students, and yearned for the time he spent as a PhD student (admittedly it had probably been at least twenty years since he completed his, giving him ample time to forget the pain). What he missed most was the opportunity a PhD offered to emerse himself so thoroughly, and without obstruction, in an intellectual interest. To spend day upon day researching a topic that genuinely excited him, with a real purpose, was a luxury he had not experienced to the same degree since. I remember telling myself I should talk to this guy more often - I hadn't felt this motivated since getting my pen license.

So three years in, and I am happy to say that I am still pretty excited about the work I am doing. Equally though, I have never been more motivated to get on with things, and get this thesis out the door. Like the vast majority of those before me, I will be applying for an extension, otherwise I would have to pull out the most productive February on record. I'm motivated, but not that motivated.

In any case, it's nice to hear from the University after all these years. I look forward to hearing from them again. Probably in 6 months time.

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