2.3 On the Status – A Chat

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.


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.


2.5 A vicious cycle

From the transcript of my undergraduate studies, anyone would have guessed I was a mediocre student. My marks were in the average. After three years of studies, I lagged considerably behind the schedule with my study programme.
Despite all that, I never considered myself dull. On the contrary, I liked to think I was quick in grasping concepts. I often found myself catching the meaning of the lecturer’s words with ease. I enjoyed attending many lectures: understanding new concepts and ideas made me feel elated. Classes were very large, with hundreds of students. Occasionally I would sit in the rear of the room, among the less interested part of the audience, sharing their boredom and dejection. Other times instead, I would advance to the first rows, and stuck around the small group of outstanding students, those handful over hundreds, admired and even feared by the others for their unmatched brightness and and unforgiving sharpness. I liked to be among them. They were terribly enthusiastic about everything, and used to discuss all topics at length in the corridors, at pubs, anywhere. They were indefatigable workers. Boredom never touched them. They were simply exuberant. They saw opportunities everywhere. They discussed the power of ideas or how to start a company. By hanging around them, intellectual challenges presented continuously. Their exuberance was contagious, and I shared their enthusiasm.

Yet, exuberance is not all. When facing an exam sheet, more than enthusiasm and intuition, discipline is what makes the difference. The discipline to prepare myself thoroughly on the subject is what I had still to learn. On the exam day, those topics I had not studied would reveal the gaps in my preparation. Insecurity would creep in. Knowing A and B to perfection did not make up for not having considered C. Yet, even with some gaps in the preparation, one can handle and pass exams. What I needed was more trust in the system. I had to learn the power of devotion and discipline to excel in all respects.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, things started to unravel in the wrong way, and before I knew, my university performance was going downhill. As I came to know how exams where conducted, I got terribly disappointed. The procedures during examinations were extremely arbitrary, and marks had a tremendous variation according to chance. A top mark in a written exam, for example, had to be confirmed by an oral colloquium. But if the professor was busy, an ill-disposed assistant, never seen before and never to be seen again, would make his appearance and turn down top marks into fail or low marks. It happened to many of my classmates, and it happened to me too. And it happened more than once. These aleatory procedures were indeed against the official academic regulations, according to which oral examinations had to be carried out by three members of the staff. But those regulations were never put in place. Students had no tools to complain, except that of retaking the exam at a later date. The more determined and stubborn students would indeed often retake exams to compensate ill fortune. But not all had the guts and determination. The struggle against chance soon started to have an impact on me, especially on a subtle unconscious level. Rationally I knew that perseverance and constant effort would prevail, that one bad mark could be fixed by other good ones. I knew that in the end the good student prevail over chance. But the repeating of unfortunate blows, inaccuracies, petty disputes over marks, and the contemptuous attitude of professors progressively undermined my trust in the system. Although I recognised that doubled effort and determination would take me through, a listless attitude and demotivation started pervading my days. My effort would double, but my belief in the effort would halve. My enthusiasm was faltering. In addition to that, as my marks got lower, lectures, who would frequently enquire students on their average marks, would appear more and more unreachable. I often felt being treated with lack of respect, or being dismissed because of my marks.

My exuberant friends of the first years had successfully applied for scholarships abroad, and left. I started devoting myself more and more unwillingly to my studies. I struggled on my books. No matter how much I studied, my mind was unfocused. I drifted away continuously. I did not believe anymore in the educational function of the university. I didn’t believe I was leading anywhere. My effort was now aiming at gaining the degree, the piece of paper. My marks got worse, my dreams of excellence were far gone, far as those brilliant students who went away. I had entered a vicious circle.

In that period, not all was gloomy and sad. When I had no faith in the university, I cultivated a number of other interests. I started playing guitar and improved very quickly. I even made new friends among professional musicians, spent hours in recording studios. I took up the hobby of photography. I read a lot, and wrote poems which I would share with equally minded young “artists”. Without being fully aware, my desire for success and appreciation was causing a change in my interests that shifted further and further from my university courses. Whereas university would give me a feeling of inadequacy and oppression, my hobbies gave me satisfaction.

Yet, my attempts to find an escape in hobbies were risky. I was not a professional musician, nor a photographer or a poet. Those fields take years of dedication. I was simply a student who, as many other classmates back then, had been demoralised and inhibited. My university education had become a battle. Me against the power of lecturers and what I convinced myself was a hideous system. Perhaps I shared some responsibility in this, but I now know that those academics who treat students with scorn, or express careless judgements with disdain and derision, fail miserably in their educational task. Whilst their task is to stimulate the intelligence and desire of knowledge of all students, they instil insecurity and dislike for their subjects. They cause remarkable damage to the lives of their students by dismantling their self-esteem, choking their enthusiasm, and seriously compromising their chances of success. I was surely meant to be one of those unfulfilled personalities, an enthusiastic teenager turned into a despondent, languid adult. But something very lucky and unexpected happened to me. Something that saved me from a mediocre future, and drastically changed my life.


2.6 A virtuous cycle

Escape. That’s the idea that loomed at one point into my mind. But how? Dropping off university was my last option. It smelled too much of failure. An escape was maybe going abroad for a study exchange. Those few exceptional students I had known in my first year had already left. For me, it was more difficult. The opportunities of study exchange abroad are normally given to the best students with high marks, and so I never felt comfortable applying. Not only had I little chances, but the system had made me believe I wasn’t good enough for it. But now I felt cornered. I knew that was my only option left. Against all odds and opinions of lecturers, I applied for studying abroad. Some weeks later, the results of the selections were out. My name did not appear where I was hoping. I found it somewhere else, under the name of a university I had never heard the name of, NTNU, Trondheim, Norway. I went immediately to the international office, and speaking to the lady at the desk, Clara, I learnt that, by a twist of fate, a vacant position remained available at that university. The place was very much in the north of Europe, only a few hundred kilometres under the polar circle, and maybe because it often fell outside most European maps, few European students considered applying there. Nevertheless the university had an excellent reputation. If I still wanted to go, there was a vacant position.

If I wanted to go? No one knows what I felt inside. It was simply terrific. I walked out of the international office my head spinning with excitement. I found a larger map of Europe and I contemplated that wonderful little spot on a Norwegian fjord endlessly for hours and hours. Even before getting there, I was sure that that was the most delightful place in the world. I had viewed many webcams showing the bright summer nights, and I had performed, with a computer flight simulator, many a landing at Vaernes Trondheim airport.

Before my departure, some months of hard work were occupied to plan all the aspects of my exchange. I found much resistance from people in my home university who were mainly concerned that my skills were not sufficient. Most lecturers also objected that the courses abroad were not matching precisely those I was supposed to take at the home university. But the prospective filled me with too much energy to be hindered by those trifles. Eventually I succeeded in obtaining all the necessary agreements and signatures. A few months later, in the middle of the summer, I landed at Vaernes airport in Trondheim, still not believing my luck. All I saw and experienced during those first days is now engraved with much detail in my memory. I remember making my way towards my student accommodation that had been already allocated to me in Arne Bergårds Vei, 18-44, in the Steinan student village. I reached my room late in the afternoon, and loved it immediately. There was a bed that served as a sofa during the day, a large desk, a washbasin, a closet, phone and internet, two windows and, being on the top of a hill, a view on the city and the fjord. I was tired after the trip, and soon I fell sound asleep. When I woke up it was 10:30PM. The sun shone bright into my room. It was a remarkable beginning, and when I think of that day, I find myself engulfed with emotions.

View of Trondheim from Tyholt television tower

Few weeks later, I had already met the people that were to remain my best friends for many years to come. Every minute of every day seemed special. It was clear that my life had taken a sharp turn. But it was the university that gave me the biggest chance of all. I noticed immediately that lecturers were remarkably friendly, and would speak to me kindly. Once a professor even held a door open for me, which nearly shocked me: in my previous university professors were shutting doors quickly not to let noxious student walk into their corridors. On the contrary here professors were easy to talk to, after the lectures, or at any time. The doors of their offices were often open. They spoke kindly to me, showing consideration and attention as if I were an important person. At first I was baffled, were they ignoring what a hopeless and worthless student I was? This was a new experience, to feel relaxed, comfortable and at ease inside university walls.

Even with the renewed motivations I had at university, I did not forsake my role of exchange student concerned mainly with socialising and partying. I had dozens of friends who would call at any time of day or night. It was difficult not to go out nearly every night, and countless barbecues were organised to enjoy every warm day before the winter. I found a music shop in the city centre, the “Tre-Fire-Fem”, and bought an exquisite Landola acoustic guitar that I often played with friends. This is one of the most important objects I still possess, and even now its sounds move me deeply.

When the first term was over, I discovered that exams were surprisingly pleasant to take. Procedures were highly standardised and all possible effort was devoted to make exams fair and equal for all. I did not find tricks in exams, and I was excited to fill in the exams sheets and answer the questions. Shortly after, I found that my marks were getting surprisingly high. Confidence started to build up again. This initial success led to take university even more seriously in the second term. I went on partying and seeing friends, but now the university was a serious thing, and I studied with enthusiasm and concentration. When the year was over, and all the exchange students were supposed to go home, for a moment I saw a dream fading. The dread of going back loomed on the horizon, like dark clouds over the shining fjord. But now I was too bold and proactive. My energy tank was overflowing, and I felt that luck was on my side. I applied again. To stay. I had heard that there was a special agreement between my home university and the new one, thanks to which I could complete my degree abroad. My application was approved. From an exchange student, I became a regular student. This meant I was to complete my degree abroad, never to go back again. I felt as happy as if I had won a lottery. And indeed I had. I had entered a virtuous cycle. Once more, this changed my life forever.

When I think back of those events, I wonder how it is possible that a twist of fate can turn a normal life into an exciting adventure. How is it possible that a poor student suddenly becomes a good one, as it had happened to me? I now think that the performance and results of someone depend greatly on whether one believes in what one is doing. Because we believe in something, we do things that would not be otherwise possible. Because we believe, we have unlimited resources, energy, and exuberance. Excitement, motivations and happiness can change the most listless student into the brightest of all. My academic records show precisely that.