This week’s featured blog post is by Monika Kukolova who writes about dealing with those awkward questions…
Her bio: “I am doing a PhD in French studies at the University of Manchester, and my thesis looks at how films portray the influence of globalisation on the identity of Mande people of West Africa I also enjoy knitting, sewing, baking, blogging and hiking. You can find out more about my crafty adventures on www.needlesandrambles.blogspot.co.uk.“
It’s a sunny afternoon in late September and you are resting on a bench in the garden, after a family lunch. All of your uncles and aunts and cousins are there and as cups of tea and biscuits are being sent out from the kitchen, the conversation moves slowly but inevitably from your brother’s promotion to your employment prospects.
“Actually, I started a PhD two weeks ago. I want to do further research in my field.”
You may get some impressed nodding and a pat on the back from your mum but I guarantee you that one wisecracking member of your extended family will disarm your sense of achievement with some version of the “Haven’t you got enough degrees?” riddle.
Yes, Uncle Bob (let’s call him Bob for the purposes of this article) has opened a game of ‘Defend Higher Education’ and he has scored top points with his first question. What will be your move? You can be cheeky (“Well, I still have some space left on my living room wall.”) or you can use this to your advantage and explain to Bob exactly what motivated you to do a PhD and what your topic is. Apart from preventing him from asking you the same question ever again, you will also be practising for what Patrick Dunleavy calls the ‘dinner party test’ in his book on authoring a PhD. Basically, you have to summarize your research aims and objectives into a 2-3 minute speech, so that even Bob understands what you are talking about. If you are able to describe your topic in a succinct style without too many umms and errs and scratching your head, it will help you to define the next steps in your research plan. Well done, have a biscuit!
“Alright,” says Bob, “but is your PhD research going to be useful for anything?”
While it is highly unlikely that your thesis will provide a solution to all the world problems, which is the kind of thing Bob is getting at, you can still claim it has potential to contribute to progress in your area of study. A PhD is about identifying a gap in academic knowledge, however small, and attempting to fill it with an answer. In other words, it is a bit like making a brick and then donating it to the construction of a vast bridge that will improve many lives in the future. Aside from the external impact of your PhD, those three or more years of focused research will also become an essential life experience, training you in anything from resilience to stress and networking to project management and public speaking. This is a very useful skill set to have on your CV.
“So what are you going to do when you finish?”
If you are in the early stages of a PhD, this question is probably somewhere at the back of your mind but at the moment, it is barricaded in by all the research-related questions that you have to find answers for first. Do not panic though; there is still a way for you to beat Uncle Bob at his game. You can prepare for this by chatting to your supervisors, fellow postgraduates in their final year, career advisors or professors and other professionals at networking events in your field. Gradually, you will find the material to kick-start your thinking about the future and answer the question to your satisfaction.
Hopefully, you will find some of these tips useful when you are next challenged to this game. It has helped me to look at it in a playful way because from my experience, the questions mentioned above can often be quite discouraging and make you doubt your decisions. So keep playing the game and good luck!