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May 17, 2012
Today, I found a letter from my younger self which shook me to my core. Leafing through my laptop’s myriad folders, I came across a file entitled ‘PhD questions I have to answer right now!’. Curious, I opened it up, expecting to find absent-minded ponderings like ‘What shall I have for lunch?’, ‘When is the U1 arriving?’, and ‘Where did all my pens go?’ Instead, I found some rapidly written queries which I had clearly rattled off after a few months of research. They were good questions, thought-provoking and incisive. I tipped my hat to my younger self.
Then I sat back and realised the terrible truth. I had a handful of excellent questions…and absolutely no answers. Zilch, nowt, π-π, a grand total of zero.
Indeed, I have been stumbling in the dark for almost a year, making a mental list of things I would like to find (a lamp, a torch, a light-switch!), but instead of finding a way out, all I encounter is more darkness. Now that my eyes were accustomed to the gloom, all I can tell was that the forbidding shadows stretch further than I can see, further, even, than I could walk in three years.
How is it that I am now comfortably easing myself into research life, and yet I have no response to the eager questions of ‘me-but-six-months-ago’? I’m not even any closer to working out how I would even go about finding an answer.
I wonder if this may just be the plight of the humanities student, but I suspect not. Pretty much every research student I talk to reports the same feeling, the sensation that one is just a machine for producing questions. It’s that odd tree-like structure whereby every article leads to three more, every experiment invites another five, and, yes, every question splits into a veritable network of others.
I started with one big question: now that single specimen has multiplied like a rabbit, its offspring scrawled onto pieces of loose paper which populate my desk. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Whatever it is you’re studying, you are always going to find that your brain keeps taking your hard-earned new findings, and saying, hey, what if?
And, frustrating as that may be, I’m beginning to think that it may be the whole point. I have yet to meet a PhD student who has completed their project, sat back in their swivel-chair, and muttered to themselves, ‘Well, that’s an academic field done and dusted.’ We would be lying to ourselves if we did believe that the whole point of these three years was to calmly take a subject, and then completely wrap it up for all time.
So, I say embrace the questions! Yes, they are never-ending, and it can be dispiriting to constantly prove to yourself your ignorance…but every question is a future project, whether it can be solved over a heavy session in the pub, or takes someone’s entire career to answer. No-one else may understand why you asked the question in the first place (I have found that different disciplines take very different things for granted), but in asking it, you have taken the first step on what may be a very productive journey.
It may not be your journey to make, of course, but even better: inspire someone else to head to the archives, return to the lab, or get out the atlas. To find something dazzling and new that no-one knows – that seems to me to be the highest aim of the lowly researcher.
Now…where DID all my pens go?