I was looking through a folder of writing projects recently, and came across 80,000+ words of things which have not seen the light of day. I originally wrote this piece as the first chapter of a book that had a working title of “Stories from my PhD”. I’ve tweaked it a little to share it here, and I hope you find it interesting!
Why Did I Do A PhD?
I love interesting challenges. For a long time I thought that I just loved the challenge of maths, and maths research in particular. Not knowing something, and not having a handy three-times-a-week class to tell you forced me to accept the realities of research. It’s all up to you. If you don’t know something, it’s your responsibility to find it out. That’s fine. It might be difficult, but if you’re going to do research in any area, that’s what you sign up for.
I kept flirting with the idea of a PhD during my Masters. I couldn’t decide on what area I wanted to do research in though. I ended up doing my final dissertation in knot theory. This seemed like a challenging area. There was just one problem: by the end of my Masters I felt totally burned out by the thought of more maths. I was typesetting and bug hunting day after day and it was driving me crazy.
The PhD was moved to the back burner – I wanted to do it, but maybe I needed to take some time in between. This then posed a second problem: what was I going to do instead?
Six weeks from the end of my Masters I realised that I had to find work and soon. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have any income at all, and wouldn’t even have the excuse of study. Fortunately, I saw a job advert at just the right time and before too long I was working full time as a study assistant for a visually impaired student. It was a different kind of challenge and it required me to stretch myself in much different ways than before, but I enjoyed it.
All well and good, except…
I was missing maths. From week one of my new job, I missed asking new questions, figuring things out and working out what came next. By the end of my second week I was thinking “You know, I think a PhD would suit me just right…” Still, I hesitated. It was a big commitment. And I wouldn’t be able to start until the following autumn anyway, so it felt like there was no rush.
Until, one day I met the right person at the right time – even though they probably thought differently. I met an old woman, a missionary, who was on holiday in the UK. I didn’t even know her name. We talked as strangers do: “What do you do?” “Where do you live?” That sort of thing. I, being much younger, was asked what I was doing and wanted to do with my life. So I told her about my education to that point, my job as a study assistant, and the thoughts I had about doing my PhD.
Many people are impressed if you tell them that you are thinking of doing a PhD in maths.
She was not impressed.
“But… By the time you have finished it you would have spent three years as an undergraduate, a year as a Masters student, a year working for the university – and maybe four years in total as a PhD student! Nine years! Nine years at university! You’d have no experience of the real world, none! Nine years. What a waste. How terrible!”
Not wishing to offend her, I made non-committal noises and excused myself at the earliest possibility. All the while her judgment on my plans spinning through my mind.
“You’d have no experience of the real world, none!”
“What a waste.”
I made my decision that afternoon: I would contact my department as soon as possible and set my application in motion.
I am sure that she thought that she was being helpful, sharing her experience and advice with a younger person. And in a way she was: hearing someone else’s opinion forced me to form my own. I had no idea what I wanted to do ultimately, but spending time doing research, finding out more about my branch of maths – this could never be a waste of time for me.
University has a curious place in many minds: seen simultaneously as good and bad, as essential and somehow separate from the world. “It’s good that people go there, but not for too long.” If you stay there as a student then SOMETHING IS WRONG. If you are at university you are not in the real world. That’s weird, right? University is unreal for many people.
As I filled in my application form I just thought, “What’s so good about the real world anyway?”
I like this, personally. I like other blogs where someone shares something of themself, although I find it a little scary when I do it. Would you be interested in reading more stories from my PhD? There are several incidents/adventures/interludes and so on that loom large in my mind from those happy days. I’ve thought for a little while that it might be entertaining but also helpful to share stories – this is partly why I do the Viva Survivors Podcast. Anyway, if this has been interesting and you want to see more, then let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading!