Lately, I have been captured by the idea of putting the philosophy back into the PhD. Not a bad kind of capture 😉 (South Africans will understand). I was doing data exploration for my work and just hit a wall. I could not move forward for the life of me. I couldn’t ask interesting questions. And I thought I was having another dip in inspiration.
Needless to say, I was frustrated. Because with a funded PhD things are time-bound. You want to do as much as you can before your funding runs out. And three years is not a long time to get a whole lot done. I’m in my third year! So you can understand that I am in a slow brewing panic mode. I won’t force myself to rush and finish everything this year… but I want to at least glimpse the peak of the PhD mountain by December. I must keep moving upwards. BUT.
I decided to work on something else, to come back to the analysis later. Dololo.
I started dabbling in some light reading to distract myself from my woes. By “light reading” I mean stuff related to my field, but not tied immediately to my research. And as I read I started thinking more and more about what I was really doing. And the more I thought, the more inspired I became for my analysis work. Yes, one can brainstorm with supervisors and peers but most of the time these people deal with output you’ve already produced, with thoughts you’ve already had. And where do these thoughts come from if you don’t find inspiration on your own? The quiet, BROAD reading is what inspires creativity and reignites that curiosity.
I realize now that since my proposal/protocol was accepted, my reading has been tied to a goal – a methodology to fulfil a specific objective, and the literature (mainly research articles) associated with that. In structured programs it might be easier to achieve a mix of practice and philosophy. But, with a PhD-by-research only it is easy to get away with this sort of thing: Doing only the focused, practical readings needed to get the research done. And we convince ourselves we don’t have the time to spend on “frivolous” thoughts and reading. But I am glad I got stuck, because I was forced to go back and relearn some basics, and do some inspirational, foundational reading. The time I am spending just reading may not have a concrete output tied to it, but it is well spent. The output will be much better analysis I hope; and more interesting and useful interpretation of data. I am doing the reading and the data exploration concurrently, but this time not charging at full speed towards analysis and writing. I spare a little time each day for some reading that has nothing to do with what I am doing but is philosophical enough to make me think deeper about the meaning of my work. It is a constant reminder that I am part of a bigger picture and that there is more than one way of looking at things.
So, if you are a PhD student like me and analysis/any stage is a drag, I recommend it. It really helps you become unstuck. I will take longer in this phase but at least I no longer wake up dreading the work ahead. I have regained my sense of what I am doing. It is like opening a window to let the fresh air in. Up until then, I didn’t realize how stale the room was.
The pure intellectual pursuit of things is an important part of being a scientist. The other half is the daily grind of applying experimentation and making observations. Besides the experimentation and observations, we must learn how to think about those things. But it is not easy to put a timeline on the thinking part. How do you decide how long to think about something before you can create meaning out of it? It is much easier to slot in time for seminars, workshops, paper writing and submission, data collection and analysis etc. Once you do this you realize the 3 years of a PhD goes quickly. And that’s how long most of us have anyway, given that scholarships don’t go on forever. There a few blogs/articles out there about what putting philosophy back in PhD means, including this blog.
If we keep asking the questions, we will forever stay connected to the core of being a scientist. Running experiments is the doing part. We need both.
Let me end this with this stolen quote: “The key part of science isn’t in finding good answers, but in asking good questions”.