Phantasy, a spelling variation of fantasy, has many definitions; one I like particularly is “the free play of creative imagination” (Merriam Webster Dictionary), a simple sequence of four powerful words.
The more I think of it, the more I find the concept of fantasy leaking in nearly all aspects of a PhD. First of all because a “fanciful design or invention” (another definition of fantasy)—with just a minimal basis in reality—is what one is supposed to deliver at the end in a dissertation. A dissertation that lacks the “fanciful design” or “invention” side will be seen inevitably as bringing little novelty, lacking in sharpness and originality.
Another point is that, although hard work is a good card to play, sometimes too much focus can drive one in a tight corner, and can make one push hard against too tough an obstacle. In those cases fantasy helps to get around the problem, to reinvent a topic or see new ways to take. I have seen or heard of people that after being stuck for a while with their research, got out of those tight corners with admirable manoeuvers and a lot of imagination, ending their PhD with a different topic than that they started with, or changing perspective, focus or direction of their studies.
Some PhD positions are project related, meaning that the topic is given by a sponsor (that provides the funding) and often leaves little room for change. Does that mean little fantasy? Maybe it’s just the contrary, when the constraints are strict one needs more imagination to find a novel, shrewd idea, or more likely, to convince one’s supervisor to change view. Other PhD positions leave it entirely to the student to find a suitable topic. One cannot deny that here too a good imagination is essential to foresee what idea will be a successful topic.
Finally, fantasy is fundamental to make up for lack of work. When meeting project or business partners, fantasy, in the form of last minute unlikely ideas, makes one look inspired, ingenious and visionary despite lack of results due to extreme idleness in the previous weeks. Also to meet one’s supervisor and describe him all the work done the previous week—when actually one has been on holiday/ partying / depressed at home/ in love/ doing sports just to mention a few—is something that requires remarkable levels of imagination and fantasy.
In conclusion, fantasy is somehow an important keyword. Despite the whimsical tone of this post, the word fantasy on dictionaries is related to other very academic words such as creativity, imagination, design, invention, freedom, just to mention those I came across above. The drawback is that it is hard to keep up one’s fantasy when all around is destroying one’s enthusiasm by means of negative, sceptic feedback. It is indeed not easy to convince one’s supervisor, or the reviewers, on the soundness and quality of one’s latest, incredible, fantastic research idea, Yet, I think one must keep trying, over and over, fighting the pessimism and working on one’s belief, until in the end and after much effort, one is awarded a PhD, and becomes a Doctor, or better a Teacher, of Phantasy.