A fine Saturday afternoon of mid September I landed at the Lisbon International Airport, Portugal. A short bus ride took me to city centre, I dropped my luggage at the hotel, and went straight out exploring the city equipped with map, a booklet with some Portuguese phrases and my camera. The conference was due to start on Monday morning, so I had sometime to get familiar with the city, find out how the transport system works and walk around a bit. On Sunday afternoon, I was making my way up Rue Garrett, in the quarter of Chiado, when I hear my name being called out. Hard to imagine that I was being recognised by someone in the streets of a capital I had set foot in for the first time 24 hours earlier. But as I turned, there I saw P., a friend of mine from Germany whom I met a few times before at other conferences. I get along quite well with him, so I was very pleased at the unexpected encounter. He was also going to attend the same conference, and like me, he was just going for a walk around the city.
We spent the day catching up with things and describing the latest development of our respective works. In the evening we dined at a fine restaurant in Chiado, then we walked to a nearby bar. There was a terrace with a great view on the city and on the 25th of April Bridge. I always get a nice feeling in these situations. The late summer air in Lisbon and the relaxing atmosphere made me feel elated. My mood was that I would have when on holiday, but the professional profile of the trip gave me a feeling of importance and much motivation. As I stared in the distance at the shimmering lights on the bridge, I imagined that with an expensive suit and a glass of Martini, I would have matched well some bookish stereotype of posh character. But I felt pretty cool even with jeans and a bottle of beer.
After a moment of silence, during which our glances hovered lazily on the roofs of Lisbon, I ventured
‘Do you know whether R.S. is coming to the conference?’.
‘Ah, I was about to tell you. I got an email from him, he’s not coming. He’s got a paper into the conference all right, but didn’t get funded! So he’s not here.’
‘What? but… this is quite an important conference, and after all the effort for the paper…’
‘I know, its sucks.’
‘Surely there are low cost flights, and cheap hostels. I would have come anyway with my own money. I just cannot miss a conference,’ I went on.
‘It depends, it might be cheap for you. RS has been now without funding for nearly a year, and it’s not that easy’.
I wasn’t aware of that, and it took me aback. But I suppose one doesn’t go around telling everyone else how broke he is because they stopped paying him a scholarship. ‘Why, he is in his last year… why is he not being paid? How does he manage then? One year is not a very short time to go through without money’.
P shrugged, then said, ‘I don’t like his supervisor at all, I think he didn’t manage to get RS’s scholarship renewed for the last year… though at first he assured R.S. there weren’t any problems. Then RS went on for a good while with some saving. He’s got a room big as a hole in a shared house with 5 undergrads. It’s dirty cheap student house, I visited him a while ago. An OK place to trash it with parties at every week end, when one is undergraduate, but not for a writing up 27 year old PhD, with a part-time job on top of everything.’
‘Has he got a job? What sort?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure, but he hinted it’s some sort of lousy underpaid administrative job in an office. He had to find something when he run out of money. He works two or three days a week’. P.’s expression grew darker. ‘It’s not really my business, but I think he’s getting rather frustrated. He’s writing up his thesis, but he’s not getting anywhere far, and he’s surely going to take six months or one year longer than expected. This job is rather disruptive. I know he’s at uni all week ends, that’s when I have a chat with him occasionally — if I’m not out of town. But that’s what it is, I don’t think he fully realises his situation. I’m nearly always away during week ends. I cannot have a fresh start on a Monday if I don’t get the week end off, either travelling, or anyway having a break from work. But he’s on his computer every evening, and every week end, and he still doesn’t get enough done.’
There was a heavy silence. I pondered for a while on R.’s situation. I saw that P. was feeling rather strong about it. P. and R. were good friends. I considered my bottle of beer, refraining myself from removing the label. It was nearly empty now. I went inside the bar and got two other bottles for P. and myself.‘ You don’t have problems with your funding P., do you?’ I asked when I returned, ‘I heard you are well treated by your sponsor.’
‘That is very true. For example we have a secretary who makes all the arrangements for conference trips. I quite like it, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for hotels and flights.’
‘You are quite spoiled really, but I see the point on saving time. Actually it took me forever to find a decent hotel, the flights, make the payments and so on… They actually make a fuss about expenses at my department, and often I found myself really stopping my research to dedicate days to searching flights and hotels.’
‘We don’t have that problem. We get the most convenient flights for timing and route. We fly business and that’s all easily arranged.’
‘What?’, I exclaimed, spilling some beer from the full bottle, ‘You fly business? That seems to me a bit of an exaggeration.’
‘Well, there is a point, actually. Our company treats the employees well. We are supposed to be very productive, so arrangements are made to have comfortable trips, sleep in comfortable hotels and work full time very efficiently even when we are at conferences… The company focus a lot on our research.’
Now P. looked serious, and I could see that he wasn’t bragging about his condition. Something in his tone told me that he really felt the responsibility.
‘I know what you mean, but… I was thinking of R. again. His works is just as good as ours, isn’t it? He works in our field, he’s got his paper accepted, and for what I know him, he seems to me really clever. Still… he must not feel very important from the way they treat him… What kind of other job is there that you get supposedly only if you show outstanding skills, that you have to work really hard, and that you don’t get paid for? ’
That night I thought a lot about R., broke and frustrated, and about P., well treated and confident. P. and R. are two friends of mine, but later on I met other PhDs, some in situations like P. (very few I regret to say), and more like R., and although in the end a PhD title looks the same on all CVs, the way we go through it affects us greatly. That is to say, the trip is just as important as the final destination. And if the trip is truly miserable… what and who do we become? Can we still preserve a high confidence, self-esteem, determination and awareness of our power and skills? When one needs to check carefully the price of food, lives in a dingy room, and spends nights and week-ends on a computer, can one still think of being a devilish clever, brilliant, exuberant mind? Can one still think of changing the world, can one still emanate energy and wake up at 6AM to face yet another exciting day? Perhaps yes, perhaps one can, but I would guess, with much difficulty. Our lifestyle, success and power do slip into our mind, and do convince ourselves of who we are.
PhD who depends on the lives that PhD students have throughout their programme. There might be an exuberant, excited PhD student starting. One needs to be careful not to get a low-key, subdued and tired final-year PhD.