Making Gold

[This piece is adapted from a similar piece written for the newsletter of Victoria University of Wellington’s Postgraduate Students Association.]

If anyone has found their PhD experience to be entirely fabulous, it hasn’t been me, but I’m still pleased to be doing it. There are nuggets of gold that make the difficulties worthwhile.

The key challenge for me is that, throughout the process, there are those ever-present, gnawing questions, like

  • “Have I read enough?”
  • “Will I have enough / too many words?”
  • “Am I working hard enough on getting published?”
  • “Is my reasoning robust?”

… and so on. Regardless of the answers, the mere presence of these questions is draining.

And yet, during a particularly stressful period a while back, I said to someone in an unfiltered stream of tedium, “I have to work out how to deal with this because, when I’m not stressed, I love my PhD.” 

Do I?!

Actually, yes. But that was an “aha” moment that led me to thinking about why: what is it about my PhD that I enjoy so much? Here are some of the answers; some of the things I think back to when it doesn’t otherwise feel fantastic.

First, the content. I care about what I’m researching, i.e. how to use international law to protect the collective rights of peoples forced to leave their low-lying atoll countries by climate change.

Secondly, the new or enhanced knowledge and skills. Every sentence in those 100,000 words has to be beyond scrutiny. That forces me to read widely and have a full understanding of the methods I need to use as well as the data I’m analysing. No matter how educated or experienced you are, you can’t help but come to understand more about the world—and how to understand it—through this process.

Thirdly, being in charge. I love being the pilot of my journey. My supervisors might be flight attendants (or, maybe co-pilots, if I’m being generous), but the flight plan isn’t theirs; it’s dictated by the problem as I define it, and by the data.

Fourthly, being right. Not always, of course, but it’s fantastic when the data backs up my intuition.

Fifthly, being wrong. Not always, of course, but it’s fantastic to be made to re-examine why I was wrong or, more usually, not nuanced enough to be entirely right. It  forces me to look into something more deeply and more widely.

Finally, above all else, I love seeing my original ideas come together and emerge as tangible, delightful words and sentences and paragraphs. There have been moments where I’ve looked at my work and thought (in private), “This is fantastic”. These moments are real treasures. They’re secret treasures because we tend to value modesty, and because few people really understand my work and the value of these ideas. But that’s not going to stop me from enjoying them on my own.

These are the nuggets of gold that make it an enriching process.

An Alchemist in his Laboratory - by a follower of David Teniers the Younger

An Alchemist in his Laboratory by a follower of David Teniers the Younger [source]