What I talk about when I talk about doing a PhD

I have always been conflicted whether to pursue a PhD. I was never sure, but the desire to do it has always been with me. I cannot remember exactly when it started, but it just lingered. I started applying for PhD positions late 2020, and through the process I learned how not to take rejections personally. Some rejections were system generated, which were understandable given the number of people applying for one vacancy. Sometimes I got lucky with professors who sent personal emails with care and explained why I did not make it to the shortlist.

I have just completed the first year of my PhD, and this is how I am able to make sense of this experience. The next section is a mess of my first attempt to formalize my learning experience.

Expectations and reality

I had preconceived notions of what doing a PhD might be like. Most of these preconceptions were formed based on my research and development work (I worked as a researcher in a university for five years and did development work for three years before doing my PhD). I expected the first year of my PhD to be fast-paced, and intense. I also expected to know most of things already, and just spend the time expanding, and writing about it. On the contrary, I had to force myself to take it slow, and think things through, because I realized I needed to invest time to know most things I need to do.

I expected to be running fast, chasing deadlines, falling over, being jaded, and getting disappointed during my first year. It did not necessarily require me to run as fast as I expected, but it did teach me that some ideas take time before its fruition. And to see its fruition, there can be other ways more helpful than running. Some ideas begged more conversations with different people. Some ideas needed longer waiting period before I was able to make it make sense for my project. Most of the time, I had to set my own deadlines just to tell myself that I am working against time, and that something concrete is being shaped from all the days and weeks I had to spend reading, exploring methods, and writing. My falling came from my self-imposed struggles of pursuing concepts that I thought were nice to pursue, but I lacked the anchor to rationalize what I needed them for.

So far, the past year has been a battle against my own desires to be perfect and steer away from being just good enough. I still set high expectations for myself because this is the only way I know how to effectively motivate myself. However, I also realized that the process is not always about grand days (i.e., submitting excellent papers, formulating concrete ideas, being able to crack problems easily); most days are mundane, and I must live with countless half-baked ideas. Most days are about finding my way out of a rabbit hole that I consciously dug myself, because I thought that it might be the pathway to a eureka moment. I needed to discipline myself that not all rabbit holes are worth taking nor creating.

Decisions over time

What I find difficult with doing my own research is having to make decisions every step of the way and standing for these decisions despite uncertainties. I come from an academic culture where academic independence and creativity can be earned after getting a PhD (as bad as it sounds). But now I have the full academic independence and creativity for my project which means I get to decide what theories, frameworks, and methods I want to use. I was naïve enough to think that these are easy decisions to make. They are never easy to make, as each decision contributes to the larger setting of my research project. Inevitably, there will be outcomes of these decisions that I cannot anticipate, but I must deal with in the future.

One of the decisions I must constantly and consciously make is to take steps towards becoming a scientist that I want to be. I can be passive and let the academic system define what kind of scientist I should become; but I realized that these are critical years when I can (un)learn who I can become. Will I be able to forgive myself shall I turn out to be a scientist dictated, shaped, and molded by pressure from the existing academic system? Or will I be able to shape my own experiences, and choose who to become? I choose to struggle and embrace the idea that I can shape who I want to become, although never fully independent of the system’s influence. This is a painstaking process, albeit fulfilling.

For most part, my struggle came from the fact that in the first three months of my PhD, I told myself I could deviate from how I always envisaged myself to be as a researcher. I kept pursuing ideas that did not resonate with me just because they were interesting to pursue; but I had to make the hard choice of parking the nice things in pursuit of the path that would resonate with me in the long run. I choose to do science with and for people, as I always imagined it to be.

Asking why, five times more

I can always simplify my experience and tell myself that I am doing this because I want to do research. But why do I want to do research? I ask myself why, five times more each day. This is not because I do not know why I want to do this, but this process helps me humble myself. I can choose to be a scientist that lives in an ideal, ivory tower; detached from reality, unbothered, and invulnerable. But I choose to be vulnerable and embrace my humanity. This means that I acknowledge my limits as a researcher, that my curiosity, my questions, and my methods can only take me as far; but not far enough to exceed my expectations of producing something entirely new. This also means that I choose a facilitative role more than a knowledge holder role. This means that I am doing research not to hold power over others, but to be in a position where I can facilitate processes of sharing, recreating, questioning, and learning together. This means that after I finish my PhD, I will be even more conscious about my assumptions, ways of knowing, and limitations.

I thought this will be an easy process, because more and more scientists recognize, and advocate the critical role of epistemic plurality, participation, co-creation, and interdisciplinarity (sometimes, even transdiciplinarity). Sometimes it’s quite the opposite; the room can still be dominated by people who think that knowledge can and should be held.

Your supervisors make a difference

Lastly, I will reinforce the present narrative that the PhD experience depends on the kinds of supervisors you work with. I think I can enjoy this experience not just because it is enjoyable in itself; the experience is never excluded from external factors. It is shaped by dominant cultures, institutions, the people you work with, among many others. I am beyond thankful to be working with the most supportive, caring, and constructive supervisors. I would not be able to (un)learn the toxic academic life I used to have if it were not for my supervisors who stand out, and who go the extra mile to make the journey enjoyable.

So far, the past year has been a long exploration of what I could do and of what I can become. When I first imagine myself doing a PhD, I never imagined it to be like this. As I continue, I will embrace the opportunity to keep reflecting on the processes that can (re)shape me as a researcher. After all, I wanted to do this not for the title, but for the stories that can emerge from engaging in the process and with different people.

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