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?


2.1 A difficult choice

It was a bright summer day in Lausanne. I left the office earlier in the afternoon to spend some hours with N. We enjoyed a long and relaxing stroll on the lakeside from Saint-Sulpice to Ouchy. The air was warm. It was difficult not to feel on holiday despite the large amount of work I had. Swans and ducks seemed to share my mood, dawdling on the beach, looking at people with idle detachment. Towards evening N. and I reached the city centre, and were making our way home up the steep Rue du Petit Chêne, when I caught sight of T. hurrying down the street in opposite direction.  I called him out loud, lest he would pass by without noticing us. He stopped abruptly, looked confused, and in no time presented us with his bizarre mishap. He had just realised that earlier that day he ought to have been on a plane from Geneva to Eindhoven for a job interview the morning after. How on earth he forgot, or messed up the day, he had no idea. We believed him instantly from his bemused expression. Presently he rushed home to pack and think of a way of getting to Eindhoven in time for the interview – if that was possible at all. We bade good-bye and wished good luck to my baffled friend, and continued walking up towards Place Saint-François, thoughtfully and slightly amused.

T., just like me, happened to be in Lausanne for a few months for an internship at a research lab. During my half a year stay, I lived in a small studio flat in Avenue de France. The flat, although rather decent, was small and essential, and did not quite offer much excitement. I had no TV, no phone, no Internet, and my general policy was not to spend there more time than what was necessary to sleep. The rest of the day was dedicated to work, and social activities; the regime went on for seven restless months. In a short time I got acquainted with many people, exchange students and interns especially, and their stories, doubts and hopes for the future. T. was no exception, and his quest for his future job was uncertain as many others’. He received an offer for a PhD position at the lab where he was doing his internship. He liked it immediately and was very close to accepting it. The offer had undoubtedly a certain appeal, even if only for the lab was internationally renowned. Previously to that offer, T had scheduled a job interview with a large company in the Netherlands. Now, while seriously considering of starting his PhD in Switzerland, the interview in Eindhoven didn’t fill him with much enthusiasm. Of course, having two job offers rather than one could be a good point, but if one knows that is to no avail, having settled on one of the two, a certain listlessness could prevail. Whether this mood contributed to missing the flight, the fact was that the evening before his interview in the Netherlands, T. was still in Lausanne.

It was a couple of weeks later that I met T. again. He did manage to get to Eindhoven after all, travelling on a night train through Germany and arriving just an hour before the scheduled interview. They made him an offer, explained the conditions, future possibilities and so on.  And that was a critical turning point. Despite his initial propensity to start a PhD, the new possibility of a job in the Netherlands threw T. in a difficult situation. With two offers, two jobs—a PhD and a research position in industry—two countries and one choice to make, T.’s decision was not about little details or money, but about his future identity. Was he going to be a PhD student in the French speaking Switzerland, or an industry researcher in the Netherlands?

The moment of choice that comes after a master degree is often difficult. Up to that point, I could always look up on my study plan to know which module was next. When all the exams were passed and the master thesis delivered, no one would tell me what I was supposed to do. When in search of a job, the wider are the choices and range of possibilities, the stronger are the doubts and questions. Perhaps what got me interested in T.’s dilemma was that his choice was not between two similar jobs, but rather between two different worlds: academia or industry. Going into the private sector would most certainly mean to drop any hopes of ever obtaining a PhD and embracing all the possibilities that the degree gives. For someone with certain ambitions or keen of intellectual challenges, a PhD is probably a good ground. On the other hand, aspirations and challenges are possible outside academia as well as inside, and to drop a sure position and a real, rewarding job in industry is not easy altogether. T. surely knew that after some years in Eindhoven he would have gained a certain status, a precious working experience for a renowned company, and secured a stable job with good future expectations. Starting a PhD in Lausanne implied many uncertainties, only counterbalanced by the hope of achieving a PhD. But what then? And what possibilities would he have? Who was he going to be? A brilliant, emerging researcher, a future professor? An open-minded young academic? An old student, grown timid and frustrated with little money and satisfaction? An unemployed, 30-year old PhD without working experience?

On the whole, my impression is that while certain jobs let you see to a certain extent who you are going to be in a few years time, a PhD study programme promises big achievements looming far in a haze of unpredictable troubles and uncertainties. A PhD then hides an important fact: who are you going to be? Then the question is… PhD who?


2.2 PhD Who

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.