Reflections on a journey

The 20:40 Virgin Pendolino Service from London Euston to Wolverhampton left the station in perfect time. Heavy clouds filtered the dim light of the fading day. The convoy proceeded at a sluggish pace for a while. After twenty minutes a voice from the loud speakers informed the passengers that there was a delay. A wooden step ladder, so the voice said, touched the overhead wires along the railway. A couple of passengers sitting in front of me frowned. I imagined an old retired man walking along the railway and getting his step ladder entangled in the wires. Presently a new message announced that the obstacle had been removed, and the train gathered speed. I got pen and paper from my pocket. Then paused thoughtfully. The landscape was running fast outside the window.

It must be roughly a thousand days since I moved to England, I thought. A field scattered with white sheep went past at a ridiculous speed. A power line ran along the railway, the cables oscillating obsessively up and down as the train went. I stared back at my notebook. Such a long time has already passed since I started this strange activity, which some  refer to as “Ph.D.”. I recalled those early days. Now, whether I liked or not, I had no much choice but to go on with this adventure. I am a student. Technically at least. That is equivalent to say that I don’t pay income taxes, nor the council tax. Practically, I see myself more like an employee. I have been a student for long enough, first as an undergraduate, then as a master student. Now I am well paid as a teaching assistant. I don’t take exams, I’m autonomous in my research.

Even after so long, immersed in the academic world,  I still felt uncertain about a great number of things. I felt I still had to discover the core of my  Ph.D, as if the very secret of it was still far from my reach. I was pursuing something, an idea, a concept hidden under the fancy three-letter word “Ph.D.”.

I have just been at the Exmouth Arms, drinking a pint of good ale with a couple of colleagues. I had to rush out at half eight, knocking a chair down not to miss my train. I got at the station without a spare minute. As soon I jumped on the train, the doors closed behind me. Five seconds later and I would have missed it. It thrilled me. It’s like meeting a deadline just in time. It is something that excites me. It gives me feeling of time and synchrony with the world. But above all is the idea that the winner is not the first who comes. The real winner is the last that catches the last train on the last day with an handful of seconds to spare. Then is when you say to yourself, I made it, and you walk confident to take your sit next to the average bore who has been sitting there for ages wasting his life. I would probably be less bold had I missed the train. In reality it was simply hard to leave colleagues and friends at the pub. I had been absorbed in conversation, brandishing glasses of ales and feeling strong about papers, scientists, conferences and life in general.

The Exmouth Arms near Euston Station
The Exmouth Arms near Euston Station

The conversation then expanded on more general topics. Soon the whole world and human nature were the subjects of our debate. This is a common way to end my conferences. I was slightly excited—a thing that can happen when not sleeping much–but that’s not why I felt in the need of being assertive, compelled to state my ideas. Often, I believe, is  my nameless job than pushes me to declare my doings and intentions. The fact that my official occupation is so unclear maybe creates the need to identify myself with something more specific, like an idea or belief.  When asked what I do, I am inevitably in trouble

‘I’m doing a Ph.D.’, I say when I’m introduced to someone.
‘Oh, ah’, is a frequent answer to my declaration. Then, after a pregnant silence, ‘ A… Ph.D., ehm… right, what kind? I mean… in what?’.
‘Well’, I start, and stop immediately. ‘It’s about… it’s a bit difficult to say, really, something in betwee this field and that field, you know…’.

‘Oh ah’, is often a second eloquent comment, sometimes followed by,  ‘Interesting.’. Some approving nods might follow. But no one in the audience seems very convinced. Am I studying? Am I working? What sort of things do I really do? Do I know really know? Someone may venture to say, ‘I have a friend who does something similar, I guess, just not exactly, I’m not quite sure…, I suppose it’s quite different actually, down in Sussex, anyway.’

No doubt, the general feeling is that of being at a loss. Suddenly the solid ground of small talk vanishes. The weather, and other lesser topics don’t seem very profund and elevated topics for discussion with student of science. With my declaration, I had decided to step out of the real world and set myself on the unfathomable plinth of the Ph.D. institution.

Sometimes I wish I could say I’m a lawyer, I’m a physician, or anything else that describes a profession. It happened once, while out one evening with my friend Ben, that we asked some random people to guess our jobs. No one got close, but someone suggested my friend Ben could be an hair dresser. I roared and rolled with laughter for a long time, while Ben actually got cross. He then dropped any regional accent, and now speaking in a high register, endeavoured to explain that we were actually scientists. I told him I didn’t see anything wrong with being an hair dresser. They probably make more money than us, go around in sport cars and have plenty to talk to with girls. Anyway, those people in the pub wouldn’t believe a bit of us being scientists, especially after I produced the membership card of the Birmingham public library as a possible proof. When I think back of that episode, I cannot help but see the irony in it. We struggled to be something. We weren’t hair dressers, quite clearly, but we weren’t scientists either, or at least we could not show it.

People do not understand because we do not know ourselves what we really do. If I knew well, I would just explain it an few well chosen words, make everyone satisfied, and pass on to the next topic without wasting time. A real scientist, while addressing a group of average Joes in a pub, would say, “If there is anything unclear, gentlemen, please do not hesitate to ask questions”. On the contrary, given my confusion, I cast confusions on everyone else too. I am not sure what skills I am acquiring, if any at all. I don’t know what my duties are. I don’t know exactly what ought to be in my thesis… this thing I have to write in the end, nor I know how precisely I will go about to write it. I don’t know when I will finish, if I will finish one day, and I don’t know what will come after. Some of my colleagues ahead of me have given up the idea of explaining what they do. I suspect that some of them might not even be doing much, after all.

Yet I do not believe that the meaning of a Ph.D is diminished by the difficulty in describing it. It could be as well the opposite. Recalling many pub conversations, hard-working weeks, frustration and achievements, I feel that a Ph.D. is not all about confusion and vagueness.  I see principles and ideals lurking around it. It is perhaps difficult to follow principles, I admit that, and not everyone sees and likes the same principles. Still, one should not  consider principles and ideas as pure twaddle, frivolous baloney that anyone with common sense should be be aware of. On the contrary, I give much importance to the ideals I perceive behind my work. Reality might never be like the ideal model one wants to follow, but if one can see where to go, where to aim and strive, one can at least push hard in that direction.

Presently the train came to a halt for no apparent reason. Dusk had been replaced by a thick moon-less night. I looked out of the window, but all I could see was the foliage of a nearby tree and the reflection of my face on the window. A drop of water trickled down outside the window. I followed its irregular path until it disappeared on the edge. I had been musing over those Ph.D. issues and lost track of time, I had no idea where I was, nor how how long it was to go. I looked at the notes I had taken so far. The paper was full of small boxes and circles, and arrows connecting them into an intricate network. At the top of the page there was a title, “Ph.D. – What?”, followed by scattered clusters of writing:?“aspirations, goals, working patterns, life style, freedom, flexibility and drawbacks, conferences, private life and work, money, success, future, who… “

If one works well enough, I reckon, in the end he or she is awarded a Ph.D. And in practice? Who does one become in the end? Certainly one is four or five years older, but what else?