I am content

From Birmingham New Street station, trains to Hereford, Redditch or Longbridge stop at University train station after a short 10-minute ride. Once there, at a very short distance to the left from the little station, two fairly new buildings, and a modern-looking statue, mark the West entrance to the university campus.   One of the two buildings is my department. On the first floor, room 117 is my office. From what I have seen, I  think the building is most decidedly above the average for university standards.


Here is a picture of my department.

Office 117, I should mention, is the best student office in the building. It used to be even better once, when we had a small, round coffee table in the centre of it. By a swift rotation of my office chair, I could forsake my work for a while and easily land my feet on the coffee table. From such position, I could address my office mates with confidence. In that way, we often held ernest speeches on the importance of being Teaching Assistants—a sub-category of Ph.D. students with certain teaching duties; once a prestigious position, it has recently fell out of fashion due to threats from above to make us pay income tax on the extra money we earn from the teaching. Anyway, we did knock a few cups of coffee on the carpet, and now that the table is gone to some meeting room upstairs, only the brown stains linger unperturbed in the middle of office. Yet office 117 remains, in my view, the master Ph.D. office.

What has my office, or my department, to do with my essay on Ph.D.? Perhaps not a great deal, but surely my office and department are important in my Ph.D. experience. More than my office, my entire life-setting is playing an important role in biasing, as I will point out in a future post, my considerations, analysis and moods on my experience.  So why not to indulge for a moment on some aspects of the environment where the author lives.

When I moved to Birmingham, after a depressing period in the dingy Selly Oak—an area of Birmingham  that never inspired my imagination, though inhabited mainly by students—I moved to the sparkling city centre. Perhaps too sparking at times: I do have reasons to complain, but in general, my mood and general state of mind have improved considerably.


From my flat just behind Sherborne Wharf (here is a picture of the living room), I have measured the average time I take to walk to a number of useful places.

  • 1 minute and 40 seconds to the Crescent Theatre, a lovely, cosy theatre.
  • 2 minutes and 40 seconds to Broad Street (see on wiki), the kitsch capital of entertainment of the whole West Midlands region.
  • 3 minutes and 50 seconds to Cineworld.
  • 6 minutes to AMC, another cinema.
  • 5 minutes to the big Tesco superstore, open until midnight nearly everyday.
  • 4 minutes to Saintsbury, open 7-11 everyday.
  • 5 minutes or less to reach any location in the whole Brindley Place, a new development of restaurants and bars, and more.
  • 4 minutes and 45 seconds to the Symphony Hall. For the important concerts, I usually leave from home ten minutes before the start, so to have the necessary time to leave my coat in the cloak room, and find my seat without haste.
  • The Hippodrome, the most important opera theatre in Birmingham, unfortunately is not very close. Perhaps it takes 25 minutes by foot. But the tickets are so expensive that when I go there, I call a taxi, and in total is nearly the same price.  The Bull Ring also, a world-famous shopping centre, is more than 20 minutes walking, but I guess I can live with that.

Here is a picture from the inside of the Symphony Hall.


I was nearly forgetting, behind the Symphony Hall there is a little pub, the Prince of Wales. Every Sunday afternoon, live music is played by rocking bands like Pete Hyde and Friends, the Juke Joint Jammers and many others. If I can help it, I won’t miss good music, a pint of Deuchars, my favourite ale from Edinburgh, and a chat with the cheerful lot of habitual visitors, Mike Holyoak the ever young and tireless dancer from Sutton Coldfield, Fitz Yeaboah in his gangster-like attire, Larry, the baker from the Mapleleaf in Walshall, and so many others.

There would be more than that to say about my life, but I guess this would do for the moment to give the idea that I am indeed pretty comfortable at present. I do not feel the strain, nor the need to write long philosophical considerations on my misfortunes, nor to linger on the reasons of hypothetical frustrations and unstable moods. I cannot think of anyone who has done me much wrong, nor anything I’m dreadfully annoyed or discontent about. Perhaps the worst thing that happened to me were two bicycles stolen at a distance of few weeks, which made me give up altogether the idea of biking to work. But that twist of fate might have save me from a deadly accident on the roads… who knows. In conclusion, my life is fine without unleashing hidden feelings on an internet blog. I want to make this clear because I know some colleagues of mine who struggled during their Ph.D and their accounts are inevitably tainted by bad feelings.

So why am I not enjoying the dashing concerts and theatres, and instead choose to ramble about my work? No matter how good things are, there is something that bothers me. Something that pushed me to get this all down in writing. Something that occupies my mind even when I stroll along the canals on a Sunday afternoon. I should confess I am no entirely settled. I’m not perfectly tranquil. I feel I’m in transient period, on the go, and that my Ph.D., no matter how happy, gratifying, or maybe disappointing at times, will lead me elsewhere. But before I grow old and tired of all that, I shall endeavour to recount my Ph.D. considerations.


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.


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.