Destination Unknown: Embracing the Indeterminacy of PhD Life

As a PhD student, working from home never turned out very well for me. I found that no matter how good my intentions were and how caffeinated by body was, I needed an atmosphere of productivity in order to be productive myself. Therefore, every morning, I picked up my flat white and caught the 76 over to the Maughan library. Now, anyone that takes the bus on a regular basis, particularly any route that passes near Bank Station is a person willing to roll with the punches because this is a journey riddled with the unexpected. Most of the time, getting from point A to B involved a C and a D, with the occasional #, !, and ? being thrown in the mix.

On the theme of tangents, I relay this memory because I feel it an apt metaphor for the trajectories life takes us along as we progress from milestone to milestone in our own personal and professional growth. In the UK, the term used to describe this occasion is ‘diversion’, but in North America we would use the word ‘detour’ instead. I started thinking about the colourings of these words and the insight they offer. Where the diversion is the positive workaround to a negative obstacle, the detour is the negative digression impacting the positive outcome. Detour, Sign, Warning, Signage, RoadsignI think that students sometimes fall into the trap of seeing the ‘curve balls’ that hit them during their professional journey as evidence of failures on their part – detours that delay the goals by which they define themselves. However, sometimes it’s these interruptions that teach us about ourselves and enrich our lives. Diversions don’t always carry much in terms of guarantees, sometimes these delays result in the driver telling everyone the journey is terminated and they’ll be let off at the next stop. However, our outlook regarding these instances can be an optimistic one, for among these foreign surroundings are new and unexpected experiences

We all know that it takes a certain kind of person to pursue graduate studies – the journey to earning a PhD reflects a marathon not a sprint. Furthermore, many of us have learned the lesson not only that such an achievement doesn’t necessarily secure a career in academia, but also that this isn’t the only purpose of a PhD. All the same, pursuing these alternative trajectories need not come at the end as we ask ourselves what now? Embrace the diversions along the way, as sometimes they take us to destinations we didn’t know we wanted to go to in the first place.

The author is a former PhD student now living in Canada.

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