Pep talk

This is a must-read post from Phil Ford, on the merits or not of pursuing postgraduate study:

There are so many bad reasons to go to graduate school and so few good ones. The bad ones include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • sentimental and idealized notions of what academic life is like
  • a desire to have people call you “Doctor”
  • a feeling that it might be nice to teach, so long as the students aren’t too loud, stupid, crazy, or immature (in other words, just so long as it isn’t high school)
  • confusing the experience of being in school with the experience of doing school work
  • a secret wish to put off the evil day when you’ll have to get a job

I met at least four of these criteria when I started my PhD (no one had ever discussed them with me), and became increasingly aware of them during the  5 1/2 years it took to complete. Psychologically that was tough (still is, if I allow myself too much dark thought about it). By most accepted standards, what I was doing was an expensive and useless indulgence that wasn’t making me happy and was getting in the way of lots of other things that I thought would.

What got me through were two things: a combination of pride and stubbornness that wouldn’t let me leave the job unfinished (finishing, in spite of the cost, had to be better than starting and quitting); and the knowledge that not everything worthwhile can be measured according to those accepted standards. In fact, most things worthwhile can’t be. If you are motivated by things like career, prestige, security and wealth, then studying music is a dumb occupation. But then so is playing music, or composing. Starting a family is pretty unhelpful too, but people do it all the time. I caught up with a conference-buddy earlier this year: “Say goodbye to your studies!” he cheerfully told me when I revealed that I had a young child since we last met.

But where’s the hope? I’m still here, pretty happy, doing what I want (which does not involve a university), no more or less worried about the future than any of my peers. I’d like more time to study (who wouldn’t?), but I’ve not said goodbye to anything. I don’t know if I have a magic formula, or if I’m lucky, or what, but my advice to anyone reading posts like Phil’s (in spite of its excellent advice) who find themselves wracked with doubt is this: decide what it is you want from your PhD, continually remind yourself of that wish, and be prepared to live or die by it. The anxieties that PhD study entails, damaging relationships, health and finances along the way, can be traced back, I believe, to a lack of confidence in why you started out on this path. Hold tight onto that, and none of the rest should frighten you.

4 thoughts on “Pep talk

  1. “The anxieties that PhD study entails, damaging relationships, health and finances along the way, can be traced back, I believe, to a lack of confidence in why you started out on this path. Hold tight onto that, and none of the rest should frighten you.” The best, most realistic (yet positive) advice I’ve yet read on the Ph.D. perplex. I will link soon . . .

    Phil

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