This is not a cry for help. These aren’t my thoughts on the difficulties of managing money, time, kids, spouses, visas, conferences, the thesis, the job, or the dog, real as all these pressures clearly can be. Rather I want to share some of the impacts of early PhD studies on me, invite reflection, and offer a note of caution.
I am enjoying my doctoral studies more than any before it. I regarded my admission to the degree as a licence to read widely and write wildly. I’ve engaged with discourse from classical philosophy through neuroscience to behavioural biology, all through the lens of jurisprudential enquiry. I’m enthralled by it all. The possibility of realising nascent knowledge drives me forward. I feel accomplished when an idea reveals itself as a clear, sometimes seemingly novel, pure thought. If it does so at the right time it can manifest as a sentence or two which sparkles with satisfying clarity. Such is the evolution of a thesis, I hope. And a mind.
My supervisors are quietly encouraging. Nevertheless, in their presence, I can feel woefully inadequate. I have said things to them that are just plain dumb, and other things just plain dumbly. An example of the latter kind was my remark that I found the PhD experience somewhat ‘destabilising’. When probed as to what I meant by that, I could offer nothing adequate.
Where do we find a safe harbour?
Stumbling over the words of my attempt at an explanation, I muttered that everything was becoming less certain; I was less clear about what I knew, what I didn’t, and even about who, what and why I was. The global health pandemic didn’t wholly explain the phenomenon. No, I continued with deflating confidence, there was something in what I was reading, and in the process of learning itself, that was impacting me in ways I had simply not anticipated. I found it confronting. And I still do.
My research leads me to believe that our earliest hominin ancestors lived free of overt construct. They behaved first according to instinct and departed from it only when cognitive ability enabled them to believe that they had the choice to do otherwise. They resolved the existential problems with which they were confronted and, it seems in the process, transcended the objective fact of their entity as beings, to actually being. Our ancestors quite literally did ‘awaken’. I am left wondering if they did so in ways that I never have, can, or will. Thoreau said he felt as though he never did meet a person who was “quite awake”. It seems that, like me, he doubted that he was. His solution was Walden Pond.
There is perhaps an assumption that we, as modern humans, living as we do in this busy and sophisticated world, start from a position of self-awareness; with an understanding of what and who we are and the rules of our own existence. My doctoral studies suggest to me this isn’t so. I don’t understand very much at all. It is this knowledge, as much as any, that I can experience as destablising.
Bertrand Russell validates what I feel. He wrote that philosophy ‘raises doubts’. It diminishes our feelings of certainty as to what things are. Russell regarded the doubt as liberating, enlarging our thoughts and freeing them “…from the tyranny of custom”. I agree. But when we are buffeted by those newly freed thoughts, encountered as part of the rigours of PhD study and life besides it, where do we find a safe harbour?
I wonder if, more than any other course of study, the PhD doesn’t inherently involve breakage at some level, like a vase might as it smashes on a hard floor. For a time, there is only mess; scattered broken pieces that are disconnected from one another, such that the entity as a whole no longer exists (assuming that it ever did). Instead there are shards of sharp material that, if mishandled, will cause injury. The PhD candidate must confront that mess, all that ‘liberating doubt’, and try to understand what it represents. If the pieces are put back together so that something is (re)formed, better or differently understood, that is perhaps the true mark of a Doctor of Philosophy. But inherent in the journey, I think, is the possibility, and indeed the risk, that the vase will smash and that the candidate won’t be able to put it back together. It remains a broken mess which might never make sense again. Doubt prevails.
Doubt doesn’t always feel liberating. It can be crippling, isolating, scarily confronting and personally challenging. Doubt is a frame of mind wherein feelings of being unsupported, anxious and depressed more easily surface, where we can feel deficient as researchers and our efforts pointless. We know that PhD candidates are susceptible to all these feelings, contributing to what Inger Mewburn has recently described as a “…frightening epidemic of mental health issues among PhD students.” No such epidemic has yet claimed me and one reason it hasn’t is because of my university. Increasingly I rely upon it as a space within which I can safely expose myself to ‘liberating doubt’. My supervisors are my ‘port of call’. For me at least these are important aspects of the value proposition of the university – it will provide me with the support I need to ‘break’, as it were, and then to try and reform. It will lessen the very real risks inherent in the process of my doing so.
These are the risks about which I would caution new PhD candidates. They should be considered and reflected on more explicitly and universities could, I believe, lead and facilitate that discussion more than they do. A consequence of doing so might be candidates who are more resilient and better prepared to confront the all-pervasive and, yes, potentially destabilising doubts of the kind that go to the very core not only of who they are as researchers, but as persons. When properly supported within the educational setting of the university these same doubts are better able to become truly liberating and, in that form, are perhaps our best chance of moving toward that state of being “quite awake”.
Richard Stewart is a practising lawyer in Melbourne and a confirmed PhD(Law) candidate at Southern Cross University. My research concerns the capacity for property law to be used as an agent for behavioural change. LinkedIn