To be, or not to be doing a PhD (that is the question?)



I’m constantly surprised (although I don’t know why) at the ability of a PhD program to trigger a full blown existential crisis. While most of the time the feelings will pass, sometimes the crisis is a good thing – it’s your subconcious speaking and you’d be advised to listen.

Last week an ANU student, let’s call her Lisa, visited me during my scheduled office hours (it’s from 4pm to 5pm on Mondays for any ANU students reading this). Lisa wanted to see me because she was wondering whether she should quit.

As I usually do in this situation, I asked her why she had started the PhD in the first place. Lisa explained her situation as one of inertia. After finishing undergraduate studies in the humanities she’d only been able to find clerical or call centre work. After a year or two of being bored out of her mind, she went back to the place where she had always been intellectually happy – the university. Lisa was attracted to the research work of the PhD, but only had vague thoughts about what she would do after it. Perhaps she would be an academic and live the life of the mind.

Big mistake.

As Kate from the Music for Deckchairs blog recently said to me, a PhD is the worst back up plan ever. Joining the department enabled Lisa to come face to face with the reality of academic work, specifically how little of it resembles the life of the mind she’d imagined.

As you have no doubt worked out by now, an academic life is not one of leisured reflection. When you are not in the class room you are in committee meetings, or in marking hell. Research time tends to occur in snatched moments or on the weekend and half of it is spent dreaming up the next grant application. You are likely to be on some kind of contract, at least at first, which means you have to keep building your networks so you will remain gainfully employed.  The best ways to to this are through collaboration, conference travel and social media – all of which involve interacting with a large variety of people.

I don’t really believe the introvert / extrovert thing as a binary divide, but if I have to commit to being at one or the other end of a spectrum, I definitely identify as extrovert. I love the people part of academia, but Lisa clearly identified as an introvert. While I see social media as fun, Lisa sees it as a boring waste of time. She likes reading, writing and thinking, but discovered she hates teaching. Actually, any form of public speaking made her feel anxious. She has some close friends in academia, but collaborating or co-writing is just not her thing. I suspect her worst nightmare was to be trapped in a three hour committee meeting or making small talk at the conference dinner table.

It seemed clear that academia is not a good career choice for Lisa, but that’s not a deal breaker for the PhD itself. Lisa had come to the right place because, at the moment, my research is all about PhD employability. I told Lisa that it’s more normal not to become an academia after your PhD: 60% of graduates leave academia and do all sorts of things. I talked enthusiastically about the value of the PhD outside of academia and how much more money non-academic doctors earn. I rattled off a list of other jobs Lisa could do with her qualification, but she looked unimpressed. All of those jobs involved dealing with lots of people.

We sat in silence for a while before Lisa same out with the statement that made everything clear. “I prefer plants to people,” she said. “I really want to work with plants.” I was a little taken aback, but when she started talking about her secret ambition to open a nursery she became truly animated.

It was clear that the PhD was not going to help achieving this goal, so I suggested that it was perfectly OK to quit. Sure, she’d wasted a year, but as that old proverb goes “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time to plant a tree is now”. But, as usually happens when I validate a student’s desire to quit, Lisa started to back pedal and talk herself out of it. She listed a bunch of reasons to keep going, all of which were about what other people would think.

I’m not trained to unpick the workings of the mind and motivation, so I sent her straight back to counselling. I hope she works it out.

The PhD existential crisis doesn’t have to come from within. It can be provoked by people around you. In my experience this kind of crisis is not necessarily your subconcious sending you a message, but some kind of emotional contagion. For example, the other week I got an email from a student, let’s call him Ching.

Ching was rattled by a conversation he’d had with a group of academics from his department at lunch:

“We were talking about my project and one of them, who is normally super positive and super supportive, started asking me questions about what I was trying to achieve with my project, which I thought I was answering okay but it quickly became quite aggressive and confrontational – she was asking me why I was doing something that wasn’t going to help anyone, or make any difference…”

Oh boy.

The last thing you need while you are up to your elbows in doing a PhD is for someone to say something like this. That it came from another academic gives it a real sting, but it probably says more about that academic’s state of mind than Ching’s work.

Look – it’s unlikely that your PhD will change anything about the world. Mine didn’t make much of a ripple, but that doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It depends on what you think is the most important product of a PhD: the dissertation document or the person.

Most of the time I prefer to keep my focus on the person. What did they learn about the topic? Did the process empower them in their work, in their life? Have they reached an understanding of how they work best and how they need to be supported? How can the knowledge and skills they have developed be transferred to another setting or problem?

Personally, my readings in material semiotics and assemblage thinking help me cope with committees and the paperwork. I’m more patient because I understand exactly why we find change hard inside a bureaucracy. My reading on habitus and cultural capital help me understand how PhD students adapt (or not) to life inside the academy. With that knowledge I can create novel ways to assist through programs and interventions.

My knowledge of research methods on gesture research are not much good to my present work in PhD employability, but I understand the principles of how methods produce knowledge and I can read really fast. But if I had to name the very best outcome of the PhD (besides being greeted with “Welcome back Dr Mewburn” while boarding airplanes) is that I am not afraid to appear stupid. When I discover my ignorance, I know how to fix it.

I’ll just research the shit out of it.

Honestly, people should fear my mad skills of research. I apply them at work, certainly, but they are effective outside too. When my last landlord tried to deduct money from our bond for the state of the garden at the end of the lease, I researched the law and presented my case in the form of a table of carefully curated information. That bit of research saved us $1200.

Besides the person, the writing is the main outcome of a PhD program. The humble dissertation is now the most downloaded kind of document from our university repositories, so we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but usually the knowledge usually has to be translated before it can be useful. This involves extra work (which I never bothered to do with mine).

You could turn your dissertation into a book that will change the way the reader thinks about the subject. You could boil down the findings into your teaching and inspire your students. You can write articles, position papers, make documentaries or even museum exhibitions. You can design public health programs, a speaking tour, a festival…. My point is you’ve finished a PhD. You can turn that incredible creative energy and dedication to any number of projects if you want to.

So next time you have an existential crisis, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why did I start a PhD? Was my decision to start a PhD just inertia and now I’ve run out of puff? Or have I lost sight of my original motivations?
  • What is my subconcious trying to tell me? Could I really be doing something more productive and interesting? If so, what does that look like?
  • If the end point of my PhD is not academia, what are my other options? What do I need to do now to ensure that alternative career is a possibility?
  • How am I different today than I was before? What have I learned about myself?
  • What’s the best way for me to make a difference to the things I care about after I have finished my PhD?

So, what do you think? Have you had a full blown existential crisis during your PhD? What triggered it? How did you overcome it?