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.


2.3 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.