Saturday, 1 November 2008

Because I like it

Thanks to modern social networking web pages I have recently gotten back into contact with old friends from high school with whom I’d lost touch due to frequent moves in a pre-internet era. During our obligatory “what have you been up to for the past couple of decades” exchange of notes I’d described myself as “enjoying life as a PhD student”. This caused one of them to enquire if I had been under the influence when I wrote that, because by the time she’d reached the final write-up for her PhD she was so sick of the project that she was considering something more pleasant, like tearing out her eyes. This exchange brought to mind the advice I’ve heard often for people considering doing a PhD “pick something you love, because you are going to hate it by the end of the project”.

Why? What is it about our system of “higher education” which makes people think that we should hate it? I’ve met some people whose approach to life is to choose to do only things they enjoy; others of us choose to enjoy whatever we do. To my mind, there is no better thing I could be doing with my life than learning and/or sharing knowledge. Why am I enjoying life as a PhD student? In part because my schedule is my own—there is no employer standing over my shoulder saying “you must be at work between the hours of 9 and 5”. If I happen to feel like working at midnight, I do. If I happen to feel like working at 07:00, I do. I am free to set my own schedule, and to make it as random, or as consistent as inspiration makes it. This is a wonderful feeling. I may have a lot to do, but I am the one to decide when to do it.

I am also very much enjoying the project itself. My rocks, particularly as seen through the microscope in thin section, are pretty. They are pretty because of the changes to the mineralogy as a result of their metamorphism. My project seeks to understand those changes by using the chemical composition of the minerals to determine the pressure and temperature at which they must have formed, and then to use that pressure and temperature to tell a story—what happened to that mud to bring about its current beauty?

To do this I get to play with spreadsheets and graphs. I get to run computer models which take input and convert it to data from which I can make more spreadsheets and graphs. And you know what? I like playing with spreadsheets and graphs! It is actually fun to compare sets of data in a graphical format and see how they are the same, or how they are different, and to seek out patterns. I enjoy this so much that one of my biggest distractions from my project is keeping track of my personal data. To help keep me on track with the uni work I track how many hours a day I spend on various activities, so when I’m not playing with my uni data making graphs and looking for answers to questions, I often play with personal data, making graphs and looking for answers to questions. How many hours a week do I spend exercising? Doing e-mail/blogs/social networking? Can I make the graph change in the direction I want it to by changing my activities?

Enjoying the processes and day-to-day tasks required of my project helps keep me enthused. However, as I explained to my friend, one of the biggest reasons I’m still enjoying my PhD project is that there simply hasn’t been enough time elapsed for me to be sick of it yet. Because my goal when I first enrolled in University all those years ago was “to be a student forever” an entire decade elapsed while I was an undergraduate taking classes full-time in anything and everything which sounded interesting. When I did my Master’s degree four years slipped by between enrolling in the first class and handing in the thesis. But here in Australia the university system seems to think that a PhD is a short term project. They give students 3 years in which to complete their projects (note: no classes are taken—this is three years of pure research), and if you can show good progress (and demonstrate that any delays are due to circumstances beyond your control) it is possible to apply for an extension for an additional six months. After that your funding is cut off and you are on your own. So, here I am in that final, extra, six months of my project, not sick of it yet, still enjoying the work, and content to be working away. Speaking of which, time to get back to it…


Anonymous said...

I think that it is the write-up at the end that can be the killer.

I have a theory that PhD theses are not finished, they are abandoned (in the sense of "right, that's it, I've had enough of writing, rewriting, re-rewriting, it's going in now").

A Life Long Scholar said...

Perhaps I will get to that stage yet. In theory, I'm in the write-up-at-the-end stage of my project. However, I keep finding places where I want to do more calculations because I'm not happy with the results which went into the first draft.

As a result it isn't getting to the second draft stage very fast, but the quality is improving markedly. It is also getting shorter, as I delete the long-winded explanations as to how and why a technique doesn't' really work and replace it with a briefer "this is what finally worked" summary.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent (and positive) post. I'm not sure I was quite "sick of" my dissertation by the time it was done, but I certainly could see that being possible. I think any long, drawn out, high-pressure, largely individual project will have its excruciating moments. It's wonderful to see someone list *positive* things about being a graduate student. :) One aspect of it that I appreciate even more now, looking back, is that when I was writing my dissertation, I was solely focused on that one thing for months on end. That purity of concentration and determination just isn't possible in my current job, and I do miss it.

Good luck with your ongoing progress!