Doing a PHD is like childbirth for the brain
People often say that writing a PhD is like giving birth to a baby. Having given both these projects a whirl in recent years, I’ve decided that some parts of the analogy are more apt than others.
Like making a new human, enrolling in a Doctor of Philosophy program often seems like a good idea at the time. It is frequently accompanied by thoughts such as “how hard can it be?”
The answer in both cases, of course, is “mind-meltingly, stomach-churningly, sleep-deprivingly difficult”. In fact, I wonder if any sane person would ever knowingly embark on PhD study or biological reproduction if they were fully cognizant of the hard labour that was actually involved.
I’ve lost track of the lunatic number of: weekends I’ve relinquished to study; journal articles I’ve read but failed to understand; sentences I’ve written and discarded in existential funks; and exotic European theorists whose names I’ve mispronounced at annual reviews.
Thinking back over these brutal statistics makes me feel like sleeping for a week then reading nothing but pulp fiction for the next century.
It’s erudite alright.
Like many other students, my doctoral difficulties began with conception. This is because PhD candidates are required not simply to learn stuff but to make an original contribution to their field.
In other words, you’re supposed to come up with something that is both brand spanking and new.
Human propagation is a cinch in this respect. Prospective parents do not have to wrack their brains formulating an innovative combination of outer and inner characteristics for their offspring. They are able to outsource this part of the process to the magic of DNA.
(And here I also note that accusations of plagiarism are rarely hurled at those parents whose biological compositions show signs of uncited genetic replication.)
In PhDland, however, you can’t enrol until you’ve come up with a proposal, and you can’t come up with a proposal until you’ve absorbed everything that’s ever been written on the topic in which you’re interested.
It is then necessary to devise a research question no-one has ever asked – quite a feat given the extent of human curiosity and the surfeit of PhD students.
The imperative to find avant-garde inquiry angles helps explain the delightfully specific nature of many PhD titles. One of my personal favourites is The Biomechanical Effects of Acute Fatigue to the Lower Extremity in Female Kentucky High School Cheerleaders.
I’m also a big fan of Relaxation Processes in Semiconductor Quantum Dots and Using a Controlled Lagrangian Drogue to Document Plankton Patchiness.
(Easy to mock. Very hard to do.)
Once deciding on your bizarrely narrow topic and having it cleared by the relevant authorities, you must then commence the lengthy task of PhD gestation which – at between three and five years of full time study – is positively elephantine.
Here, PhDancy has distinct advantages in that it is possible to reduce your workload or take official breaks. (Pregnant ladies, on the other hand, do not have the option of gestating only at nights or on the weekends. Neither can they temporarily suspend their candidacy in order to visit Venice or fall in love with someone from the dog park.)
As with human propagation, some theses don’t turn out to be viable and may miscarry under tragic circumstances.
Complications during the first trimester of PhD-ing include what the 2007 book Supervising Doctorates Downunder refers to as the inertia caused by “an orgy of reading”.
Failure to read can also be problematic. In his paper Diseases of the Thesis, Chris Fleming from the University of Western Sydney notes that acquiring a library’s worth of books is not necessarily an incentive to read any of them.
He writes of the belief that mere proximity to books in a room can be absorbed by some mysterious process of osmosis: “Who has not, at one time, breathed a sign of relief after copying a long article, momentarily forgetting that one then has to read it, and feeling let down by the banality and drudgery of it all?
“Now, this all seems to be produced by the vague feeling that you “don’t know enough” (indeed, this can grow into an almost zen-like absoluteness of a mantra like “I don’t know anything”).”
Other PhD-related pathologies described by Fleming include Fraud Paranoia (characterised by the conviction that your intellectual ambitions are an elaborate con), Never-ending-story Delirium (in which you become convinced you will never finish your thesis) and Motion Sickness (involving the endless postponement of study in lieu of tea preparation and house cleaning).
To these, I would add One-track-mind-eosis in that PhD students are required to think about the same subject for years on end. Forget the aphid-sized attention spans required for modern media forms such as Twitter.
Doctoral research requires fixation in extremis, an obsessive focus I suspect may be more detrimental to the human psyche than the much-discussed inverse.
The final processes of labour involved in the birth of a PhD share many similarities with those involved in the birth of a child.
Both can involve pain, panic and a feeling of profound alone-ness (despite the attendance of various loved ones and assisting specialists). And both may be followed by an inscrutable, post-delivery melancholy which is exacerbated by outsider assumptions that you must be feeling only unmitigated joy.
So why do it? Why make babies or embark on long degrees? Are these acts of unadulterated masochism that would die out if any of us ever had the benefit of hindsight?
When it comes to parenting, the ceaseless slog makes sense because of the crazy love we feel for our children. A similar attachment can form between a student and her dissertation – and, indeed, between a student and higher education in general.
I am on the cusp of formally submitting a PhD thesis after five years of study (all of which also happened to have been spent either being pregnant with, giving birth to or raising a tearaway daughter).
And as I strain away in the academic delivery ward, I’ve concluded that – like parenthood – studying brings with it great exhilaration as well as great exhaustion.
Education is aerobics for the brain. It might hurt at the time but it affects the way you perceive and think about things long after you’ve stopped reading the theory, writing up the paper or mispronouncing Foucault.
Will it leave you time take a shower, do something fancy with your hair or interact with other actual grown-up humans? No, it will not. But, like making babies, it does make the world a far richer and more complicated place.
Want more Emma Jane? Here’s her page at The Australian.
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