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?


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.


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.


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?