Nothing like a shocking subject line to capture attention. As counterintuitive as this may seem, I request that I be given the consideration to argue my case. I do assert that my PhD Candidature will be both: one of the hardest and one of the easiest endeavours I’ve ever attempted to conquer. This post is meant to shed light on the pursuits of all students and what it means to identify as an academic. A subtitle of this post might read: why my PhD candidature is worthwhile, or how to thrive as a student. Hear me out.
Recently a colleague of mine and I attended a seminar on how to be successful as a graduate student. The seminar was titled “Surviving your Candidature.” The title set off immediate alarms. “Surviving.” Does any one else think this warrants concern? By proposing the inherent property of survival the graduate student thus is primed to expect aversive struggling. Not to say there is no struggling, or adversity to overcome— but is surviving the proper framing? A few suggested alternatives might be: thriving, exceling, shining, flourishing, etc. The immediate negative connotation associated with surviving has the ability to set an ill fitted context for the time spent dedicated to a research project.
I wish I could say the problems ended with the title. The talk very much so lived up to its name. This pow-wow of graduate students embarked on an hour- long session of complaints and discussions of ways around the heavy lifting of quality work. Don’t get me wrong, sprinkled here and there were a few pragmatic tips to aid in productivity; however, upper echelon researchers should have already known most of these tips before aspiring to be a doctor. Statements included things such as: just get your candidature done, put in two hours of work a day, and don’t procrastinate. Internal, non- verbalized, and slightly aggressive responses included: I rather care about the projects I’m doing and produce quality work, I want to put in more than two hours a day, and I could have figured out the necessity for diligence on my own, thank you very much. Needless to say, my colleague and I left slightly bewildered. It seemed counterintuitive that individuals pursuing the highest degree of academic stature seemed to be repulsed by the idea of the academic process. I wish I could say that this was an isolated occurrence, but a basic Google search suggest this is a prevalent mentality. This seminar seemed to provide comradery and emotional support above all else. My lab and I deduced this had to be sustained by some underlying force.
This stemmed intense discussion in the office about the student condition.
A Better Way to Approach Being a Student
There are qualities of an academic journey that can make the experience, not only bearable, but also enjoyable.
It is important to have quality outcomes in mind. It seems rather futile to work tirelessly at a task that you find no merit in the final consequence. If you struggle to answer, why you go to class every day then it may be time to re-evaluate.
It is important to have a support system. A primary reason I feel so confident in my abilities is because I work amongst a collective of competent and magnificent individuals who respect my faculties and expect me to produce first- rate material. They are huge contributors to the way I set expectations for myself and the way I interact with my work—all of them constant models of enthusiasm and excellence. The innovation precinct (my lab) pioneers a reinvention of the graduate experience.
It is important to be engaged and constantly growing. I understand the notion that a degree— whether it be undergraduate or graduate— can be viewed as a training ground to be a professional. Nevertheless, it is imperative that said coursework is exciting and has esteem for the world around you. Of course, not every paper or project can be reality- shattering, but to some degree we owe it to ourselves to pursue reality- shattering on a frequent basis. I rather fail chasing a utopia than flounder in a sea of commonplace. Treat yourself like the professional you know you can be. Create and innovate with an engaging approach to being a scholar. I wholeheartedly understand we often get caught up in the landscape of stress and the expectancy to be under pressure. The quest for knowledge should be fun. I think a social contagion to reinvigorate that ideal is along the horizon of potential.
So Erik, tell me one more time why a PhD will be easy?
Well, it won’t be. I’m sure I will have my fair share of challenges. The difference between my mentality and the “survival” mentality is I invite those challenges. I see merit in my work. I see potential to change the world with valuable conclusions. My support network makes my projects things to anticipate with exuberance, not dread with repugnance. My candidature will never be about drowning in too many tasks to function properly; it will be about producing well-regarded knowledge and outcomes for the world around me. My challenges will have a common foundation in a constant effort to surpass my predecessors and my own limits. My challenges will not revolve around the ideology of ‘just get it done.’ In essence, I see my candidature as thrilling and gratifying. This is the cornerstone of sustained motivation and quality work.
I recently listened to a podcast that featured Cory Brooker, a junior state senator of New Jersey. Among the many gems of insight he provided, a few resonated particularly strong. One being that there are two types of people in the world: thermometers and thermostats. Thermometers are merely reflections of the temperature in their environment. They are volatile and lack any ability to regulate the external circumstance. Their only function is to echo what already is. Then there are thermostats: those who set the temperature. Thermostats intelligently control the space in which they occupy. Despite fluctuations of temperature, the thermostat can always set a direction that is more suitable for an ideal environment. I choose to be a thermostat in my education.
Brooker also ended his segment with a bit of motivation, “hope is confrontational.” I found that beautifully, encouraging. The eradication of maladaptive circumstances is a battle on the frontier, not a complacent sentiment. If you wish to see changes in your perspective, it requires active changes in behaviour and choice architecture. Finding meaning in your work can be rewarding for both: you and those around you. This is not to say every task will be so captivating you can’t stop thinking about it. That doesn’t mean that every assignment, paper, project, meeting, etc. can’t have significance. School can be fun.
So when you ask me how difficult completing my dissertation will be— I’ll respond, “slight work.” The real conversation starter is a discussion about how to best innovate the field and change the world. To that end I say to thee, “game on.”