1.4 Doctor of Phantasy

Phantasy, a spelling variation of fantasy, has many definitions; one I like particularly is “the free play of creative imagination” (Merriam Webster Dictionary), a simple sequence of four powerful words.

The more I think of it, the more I find the concept of fantasy leaking in nearly all aspects of a PhD. First of all because a “fanciful design or invention” (another definition of fantasy)—with just a minimal basis in reality—is what one is supposed to deliver at the end in a dissertation. A dissertation that lacks the “fanciful design” or “invention” side will be seen inevitably as bringing little novelty, lacking in sharpness and originality.

Another point is that, although hard work is a good card to play, sometimes too much focus can drive one in a tight corner, and can make one push hard against too tough an obstacle. In those cases fantasy helps to get around the problem, to reinvent a topic or see new ways to take. I have seen or heard of people that after being stuck for a while with their research, got out of those tight corners with admirable manoeuvers and a lot of imagination, ending their PhD with a different topic than that they started with, or changing perspective, focus or direction of their studies.

Some PhD positions are project related, meaning that the topic is given by a sponsor (that provides the funding) and often leaves little room for change. Does that mean little fantasy? Maybe it’s just the contrary, when the constraints are strict one needs more imagination to find a novel, shrewd idea, or more likely, to convince one’s supervisor to change view. Other PhD positions leave it entirely to the student to find a suitable topic. One cannot deny that here too a good imagination is essential to foresee what idea will be a successful topic.

Finally, fantasy is fundamental to make up for lack of work. When meeting project or business partners, fantasy, in the form of last minute unlikely ideas, makes one look inspired, ingenious and visionary despite lack of results due to extreme idleness in the previous weeks. Also to meet one’s supervisor and describe him all the work done the previous week—when actually one has been on holiday/ partying / depressed at home/ in love/ doing sports just to mention a few—is something that requires remarkable levels of imagination and fantasy.

In conclusion, fantasy is somehow an important keyword. Despite the whimsical tone of this post, the word fantasy on dictionaries is related to other very academic words such as creativity, imagination, design, invention, freedom, just to mention those I came across above. The drawback is that it is hard to keep up one’s fantasy when all around is destroying one’s enthusiasm by means of negative, sceptic feedback.  It is indeed not easy to convince one’s supervisor, or the reviewers, on the soundness and quality of one’s latest, incredible, fantastic research idea, Yet, I think one must keep trying, over and over, fighting the pessimism and working on one’s belief, until in the end and after much effort, one is awarded a PhD, and becomes a Doctor, or better a Teacher, of Phantasy.


2.4 The Search for Happiness

Life and experience of each of us can be so diverse that is often difficult, if not impossible, to describe them in general terms. It is only by drastic simplifications that we can describe general reasons and motivations for important choices, such as that of choosing to pursue a university degree, choosing a new job, or moving to a new town or country. Rational motivations are often present, but can be also biased by less  fathomable aspects. Important choices are often influenced by a complex web  of personal experiences and factors. Unconscious feelings, hidden aspirations, subtle external pressures, our family, moods and one’s temperament all act as driving forces in deep, unsuspected ways.

Despite such an intricate picture, an important principle that can be found often and drives the choices of many is the search of happiness. We apply this principle nearly every time we make a choice, from the small choices of everyday to the big important  steps in our life. What wine should I buy for tonight dinner? Will a certain red wine meet with the taste of my guests and therefore satisfy my need of appreciation? If I make the right choice, my guests will be pleased and in turn I will feel happy by the end of the evening.  On a grander scale this happens for more important choices.  Will I be happy if I move far away from my home-town to take a job or study at university? Will I still have the chance of being happy by making new friends and inviting  them for dinner? Or will I be happy in different ways by pursuing and studying the subjects of my interests? Will I be happier if I stay here where I have already all I need?

When we think of starting a PhD, a many-year project that will drastically change our lives, are we considering only aspects such as the topic of our study, the salary, the facilities at university? Or do we interrogate ourselves on deeper questions  such as that of whether our choice would make us happy? Very likely, a well-pondered choice is based  on general issues related our general mood and happiness more than a number of details. When choosing to start a PhD, in many cases it is because we think that, with respect to other options, that is what we feel will make us happy. I asked the question to my friend T, whose story was told in a previous section. I asked what were the aspects he had considered when he was choosing between a PhD position in Lausanne, and a research job in industry in the Netherlands. Was it about career prospects? Money? The country where he would have preferred to live? The type of job? He said that he considered all the aspects I mentioned, but in the end, he confessed, he chose what he felt  would make him happier. Another person at his place might have made the opposite choice for exactly the same reason, for the way with perceive happiness is different for each of us.

Here one could ask if happiness could  not be more easily achieved by other means than doing a PhD. For example one could imagine that a happier life would be associated with jobs that pay more money, or that allow one to have long holidays in beautiful destinations, or jobs where one meets successful men and women, or travels much, or again where one is respected for covering an important position. Those jobs could be certainly appealing, but happiness is not always achieved with precisely the same means by everyone. Indeed many different jobs, even simple ones, have appealing sides, and thanks to the diversity in taste and inclinations, young people can pursue happiness along very different paths. Doing a PhD, despite some drawbacks, could represent for some a way to happiness just as much for others could be to posses money or driving an expensive car. Appealing aspects could be the challenges felt in  being appointed a position where the main task is contributing to human knowledge in some original way. A researcher strives to discover new things, wants to use his or her skills and intelligence to assert ideas, believes, personality. A researcher can see oneself as an artist, as a creative mind, as an independent thinker and free mind, as a member of an advanced scientific community. A researcher could draw pleasure from reading and discovering new concepts, from understanding how certain things work, from discussing and brainstorming with people with similar interests. All those ideals commonly associated with academia could be appealing beacons to attract people in their search for happiness

If the choice to start a PhD is then driven by evasive reasons such as the search for happiness, how can we hope to draw a general principle that capture the essence of such an important choice? The answer is perhaps that there is no essence or general principle, but rather there are many situations, many stories that constitute small pieces of a greatest puzzle. Each story is an interesting human story, and each contributes to unveil facts and contingencies. It is worthy sometimes to leave a descriptive, general approach and delve instead into particular stories and cases, to ask our friends and be amused by how differently everyone thinks or acts for their own happiness. The example I know best, and the one I can more carefully report here, is that of my own choice.