Monday, 25 March 2013

Why I decided to do a PhD

When I first started this blog back in 2011, I wrote a post about how I'd come to the decision to do a PhD.  There are a lot of posts from those early days that might be useful to new PhD students.  However, sometimes I think that a little experience, a little time and the benefit of hindsight can bring a new perspective on past decisions, and while the reasons I cited in that post still stand, I think there are some I didn't mention or didn't even realise I'd considered.

Some of you may think this post is a little strange.  I wasn't hugely motivated by grand sentiment; instead my motivations had smaller beginnings.  When you put them together, they become a stronger and more cohesive foundation.  But sometimes I think it's important to highlight the little things, because sometimes it's the little things that get you through.  I also think that you can feel a little inferior if you don't have a 'big' reason to do a PhD.  If that applies to you, I hope this post makes you feel a little better.

First of all, I think my personality had a lot to do with it.  From a very young age I was very driven by academic achievement.  Gold stars were my be all and end all.  I am also a completionist - I like to get all of something.  In gaming terms, that would be all the achievements for a game.  But in 'Real Life' terms, over the years that included colouring in, badges at Brownies or Guides, exam grades, Pokémon...  I get this buzz of fulfillment from completing something and from growing a collection of achievements.  In some ways, I think this contributes to my 'need' to do a PhD.  I won't feel properly fulfilled until I have reached that pinnacle of academic qualification, until I have 'collected them all'.  

I'd also add that this slightly (cough) neurotic tendency is helpful when it comes to the more mundane side of research.  The desire to see something finished or completed is helpful when faced with a mind-bending counterbalancing problem or 350 image files needing coded.  My brain is wired to give me a sense of reward just for finishing the task.

Another reason I decided to do a PhD is because I liked the idea of being a professional scientist.  I had this vision of myself in a personalised office pacing about spouting ideas and having eureka moments left, right and centre.  The thought of seeing my name printed on something I'd written almost produced a wriggle of glee.  In reality, my PhD is nothing like this.  I do have an office, granted, which I have decorated, but there's no pacing, no spouting of ideas.  I've learned that ideas grow slowly.  You have to nurture them.  Tend to them.  And also that the customary attire is jeans rather than lab coat.

When I really think about it though, I think my main reason for wanting to do a PhD is because I needed a sense of purpose.  I wanted to be something.  Now, I'll make it clear I don't think you should wander blindly into a PhD because you want to do something with your life but you're not sure what.  I fitted a lot of the requirements of someone wanting to do a PhD academically, and there were a lot of practical reasons why it worked for me (which I discussed in the linked post, so won't go into here).

What I mean though is that when I started out, I didn't really know what being a PhD student was like or the realities of academic life.  I felt like I wanted to be someone reasonably clever, who learned things and researched things and taught things.  In a nutshell, that's still what I want to do, but I have a clearer sense of what that means for me.

I decided to do a PhD so I could learn reach my academic potential.  So that I could be 'Dr Katy' and a scientist and researcher by trade.  I decided to do a PhD so I could teach people, so I could be paid to ask questions about the world and discover new things about it.  I think a quote by John Green says it best:

I decided to do a PhD so I could be a nerd forever.  I could get excited about small things, which can translate into bigger and more meaningful things.  That's the sort of person I am - the sort that gets excited about little things.  Gold stars and badge collecting.  For me, that's what a PhD is.  It's the chance to learn how to professionally get excited about these things.  And at the end of the day, that's all I need.

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