PhD who is a question that — more than PhD what — looks at the PhD occupation from the outside. It assumes the existence of a society, a public, that assigns a role and attributes a level of importance to the PhD candidate. Who we are, from the point of view of the society, is often determined by conventions or tacit schemes that modern society has created to classify professions. Among many factors that make the status of a person are the money earned or possessed, the responsibility that a job implies, and the personal skills that are being acknowledged. Generally, earning good money, being assigned high responsibilities or being known for particular skills are three fundamental elements that elevate one’s status.
Some readers here might object that a PhD is very little about success and money, and that one cannot assume that we grow exclusively to fit into conventions and labels given by society. Undoubtedly, and luckily, human beings are capable of surprising eclecticism that falsifies common stereotypes. So all bank clerks, lawyers, or scientists are not the same, and this holds for all categories in general. Accordingly, besides being a PhD candidate, one can be an excellent mountain climber, a book lover, a surprisingly wit and funny comedian, a good mother or father, and thousands of normal or more extravagant other things. To an certain extent, given the heterogeneous academic world, and a generally good level of tolerance in opinions and methods, outsiders are not less common in academia than in other environments.
Yet, we are not untouched by the stereotyped image that other people have of us. We do spend a good deal of our time thinking of what we are, what role we cover, how we look like and what we are capable of. In the long run, we end up becoming what we think we are. Successful people often become more and more successful because they dare and become confident upon success; shy and reserved people might become more afraid and convinced of their inability of asserting themselves. A troublesome teenage period might trigger criminal behaviour later on. A reasonably intelligent student might become a revered researcher with an impressive publication record. When one is promoted, elected or nominated to cover an influential position in a company, in an association or in politics, they become aware of the importance of their position and consequently of the importance conferred to them. On the contrary, someone who loses their job might grow insecure, start doubting their skills and their luck. Differences are sometimes amplified, and two persons that were initially similar might end up thinking very differently of themselves according to the path they happen to follow. We all like to think that we are unique, adamant to external pressures and extraneous to stereotyped images, but we should not overestimate our strength to escape the role we are assigned by the society. Our forma mentis grows and adapts according to our responsibilities, job, and the way we are treated.
The choice of a job, or of a career as that in university, is difficult because it touches a delicate personal issue: WHO we would like to become, from the point of view of the society, and from our personal viewpoint.