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?


1.1 Teachers of Philosophy

Ph.D. means literary “teacher of philosophy”, from Latin Philosophiae Doctor, abbreviated  to Ph.D, sometimes, as at Oxford, also D.Phil.

With this definition in mind, and a practical approach, I started a careful examination of everyone I knew to be a teacher of philosophy. In the following days, I observed lecturers, researchers and some professors strolling around, going to seminars, gathering for meetings, having a coffee break and casually chatting in the corridors. It didn’t take me long to perceive a certain discrepancy between the observation and the image I had in mind of teachers of philosophy. Such image was somehow impressed upon me by the famous painting ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael, which depicts a hall in which Plato and Aristotle are surrounded by other famous ancient philosophers.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. The detail is from a picture of the whole painting available on wikipedia.

The inconsistency grows even more when scrutinising the teachers-to-be, or Ph.D. students, who on average—although there are exceptions—cannot be seen during morning hours, walk around with music players, wear trainers and sloppy T-shirts, and have a cheerful and carefree, only occasionally downcast, appearance. One of course must take into consideration that music players and trainers did not exist in the ancient Greece, and fashion had not produced fancy T-shirts yet. However, even making allowances for all the aspects that modernity has introduced, it seems still clear that the current meaning of Ph.D. does not match the literal meaning of teacher of philosophy.

My first attempt to find out what Ph.D. is then appears to have gone amiss. Yet, the fact that the term Ph.D. does not match well the current, practical meaning is a possible source of confusion itself. After such investigation, one feels that universities ought to provide some further definition of Ph.D., there must be some general definition that describes the real meaning, or core, that makes a degree be called Ph.D. And that is what I’ll try to find out.


1.2 Panta Rei

In the previous post, I summoned the ancient philosophers in my apparently catastrophic attempt to explain the term Ph.D. My succinct analysis is however not entirely fair; although it seems clear that modern doctorates are not best described as teachers of philosophy, or even just philosophers, the term derives from the academic tradition and should not be seen just as a pretentious label attached to a university degree. After an investigation on the historical course of the degree, I discovered the motivations that caused such denomination to arrive to our days. An important fact to be considered is that the term philosophy itself has changed meaning during the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the disciplines that were not classified as theology, medicine and law were all defined as philosophy.

At a more informal level, a wit comment posted by Stian after my previous post outlined how philosophers and modern academics have more in common than one could initially think. It is true that ancient philosophers were in fact the first academics.

Then, it is perhaps worth casting a further glance at the painting “School of Athens” before moving forward: on the lower left, another famous philosopher, Heraclitus , is taking some notes after a sudden inspiration that apparently came upon him while looking at his knee.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. Detail depicting Heraclitus .

This is an important moment; here at the very school of Athens we find already the seed of change, or at least the awareness of such change: Heraclitus’s philosophy was later encapsulated in the famous aphorism “Panta rei”, meaning everything is in flux, everything changes constantly. There is little doubt that if Heraclitus could see Ph.D. nowadays, he would be utterly dumbstruck to discover how right his theory was after all.

It was a long way though, and the Ph.D. title didn’t just came into being one sunny morning while a yawning professor stared at his knee. It was in the Middle Ages that the European universities started to award the first Doctorate degrees as forms of habilitation for teaching. The records tell us that Bologna University awarded the first Doctorate degrees in Civil Law at the end of the 12th century. But it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the Ph.D. awarded by German universities was adopted by American universities as well. In that period, American bachelors, attracted by the prestige of German universities, would travel to Europe to earn a German Ph.D. The influence was such that in 1861 Yale University awarded the first Ph.D. and in 1876 the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore set rigid standards to make the U.S. Ph.D. comparable to the German degree. From the U.S. the degree spread to Canada and back to Europe in the 20th century. Although Ph.D. is a rather popular degree nowadays, there are many kind of Doctorate degrees: the Encyclopaedia Americana reports a list of 20 Doctorate degrees, from Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L) to Doctor of Science.
The history of Ph.D. is indeed a jungle of degrees and conventions among many countries and universities. I shall inevitably refer to the many accounts on encyclopaedias for further details.

At this point, after a bit of historical background, I’m somehow pressed to leave the past and dive into the current life, hoping also to keep up the interest of my eleven readers. In the next post I will crawl the Net in search of hints on the modern Ph.D. world.


1.3 A definition of Ph.D.?

By searching define PhDdefine PhD degree, define doctorate, PhD definition, and other combinations on major search engines, I was prompted with a number of dictionaries, university pages and reference web-sites. By reading those that appeared more relevant, I gathered that a PhD—from now on I will omit the dots—“normally follows a Master’s degree; it can take several years to complete, depending on the area of speciality; it’s the highest academic degree offered“.

Keywords such as degree, academia, and several years to complete are probably enough to convince most readers to click away in less than no time. Yet, for those that are still interested, the few lines above leave the reader with much uncertainty. For example, a PhD follows a Master’s degree in the majority of the cases, but this is not always true. We learn that it can take several years, but that sounds more like a foreboding warning rather than a precise information. The only positive aspect is that a PhD is the highest academic degree offered, which is undoubtedly appealing.

Sometimes an appealing feature such as “the highest academic degree” could represent a  sufficient and obtrusive argument to shadow other questions. If my highest ambition was indeed to obtain the highest academic degree, or my objectives in life could be achieved only by means of it, other aspects and details would become of secondary importance, and I would be prepared to undertake anything that comes with it. When important achievements are being pursed, one cares less for the detail. Perhaps it is due to this, to the charm that transpires from the degree of doctor of philosophy, that critical quests for the meaning of PhD become blunt in a hazy cloud of glamour. Our need for a better understanding saps in the varnished light of the highest academic degree.

In the attempt of describing and understanding the meaning of PhD, we must disregard the alleged prestige of the doctorate degree, and continue critically our investigation. I found it surprisingly difficult to gather more established information that was not tailored to a specific program, subject or university. Collecting bits of definitions here and there, I managed to draft a longer description of PhD:

a PhD degree is intended to teach a student to carry out independent, autonomous research in a specific field. The minimum duration of such training is three years. On completion, a student should present and defend a dissertation or thesis before an academic panel. The content of the dissertation should constitute novel and original research that advances the knowledge in the specific field, and as such proves the capability of the candidate to carry out independent research.

The concise description that I have attempted is an average of many scattered documents that do not find an official and unanimous ratification among universities. Therefore, PhD degrees are put into practice according to a wide variety of procedures and requirements. For instance, Wikipedia pages offer a list of descriptions of PhDs in many countries, from Australia to the U.S. After perusing a number of documents, I was convinced that each country, each university, and even each supervisor, have their own interpretation of PhD.

A reason for such diversity could be sought in key-point of the description above: what does it mean actually to be able to carry out independent research? What is the procedure for achieving that, how different it is from other jobs, and what does one really need to learn? It is from these questions that a multitude and divergence of opinions arise. Nearly everyone I interviewed on the subject seemed to have a slightly different belief on those topics. How to educate a student, how to transfer knowledge, methodology and skills is not easily agreed upon. It is perhaps from these diverse views and opinions that PhD studies inherit that mark of vagueness, and so long as two supervisors will think differently, there will be at least two different ideas of PhD.

Defining the meaning of PhD in a precise manner does not appear a simple task, and perhaps it is not the best way to understand its meaning and implications.


1.4 Doctor of Phantasy

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.


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.


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.