Temptation is a Doctorate

I often feel compelled to write two or more blog posts in a day, and have to restrain myself from sitting down to type out the words buzzing around inside my brain. It’s a therapy, it’s an outlet, and it helps me to resist temptation.

What is this 23-year-old female being tempted by? You might wonder as you sip a beverage and skim through this post. The answers are plentiful and all statistically likely: new shoes, a delicious cake, a vacation, a new friend, an attractive man. But, right now, temptation doesn’t stare out at me from the shelves of a top-rate shoe store or from any of these other likely possibilities. It stares at me from my inbox, when I’m sitting-standing-walking-thinking- and, well, doing pretty much anything else. Because temptation is a doctorate degree.

I’m still wrestling with the ‘what next?’ question in life, and this weekend I relapsed into considering doctoral studies as the next available option. It seems logical; I have all the necessary prerequisites, support networks, and personal drive. Any external observers might say that I’ve been continuously enrolled at the University of Waterloo for six straight years almost as preparation for doctoral studies. Remaining a student would be a comfortable, tractable, well-understood self-identity. I know how to write arcanely-worded academic papers, shape my words to appeal to the lofty goals of financial grants, and interact with academically-minded colleagues. Although everyone tells me that I can always go back to do the PhD in future years, I imagine that returning to this obscure culture would be more challenging than most believe.

Peter Bentley, in his PhD Application Handbook, identifies some of the wrong reasons that people go into doctoral programs, including (see a brief overview of these points in this article):

  • Peer pressure from social circles
  • Personal insecurities
  • Fulfilling the ambitions of others
  • Keeping a work/study VISA
  • Problems in current workplace
  • Rebelling against society
  • Misplaced genius complex
  • Assumed familiarity with the doctoral process

I would add to that list the vapid desire for prestige – certainly, doing a doctorate rings with the weight of history and hard work (henceforth, please refer to me only as Doctor Legault, you peon).

Some of the more positive reasons one might consider doing a PhD include (thanks again to the work of Bentley for this list): achieving a significant milestone, learning new things, improving yourself or your life, or simply ‘fitting’ into the culture. When people passionate about their work are in the process of researching, writing, and teaching about that subject, they are in their element. The negative downsides of PhD life, well documented in forums such as Phinished or humorously in comics like PhD, are borne with an eye to accomplishing and achieving a long sought-after goal.

I think that the major stumbling block keeping me from blindly accepting this lifestyle is my lack of questions and frankly, my lack of curiosity. I’m not consumed with a topic enough to read everything ever written about it – I shift uncomfortably between subjects and more often lose myself reading a silly sensational novel. I caught myself yesterday trying to fabricate questions intriguing enough to warrant my passion over four years, as well as pertinent enough to garner funding (unfortunately there are ‘trends’ in research from which we cannot escape in a bureaucratic system).

I’m wildly jealous of those lucky individuals who sit down every morning with passion for a subject thrumming through their veins. I desperately wish that I could be fascinated with the advance of postcolonial criticism and its implications for subjugated aboriginal peoples; the intricacies of Kant’s aesthetic theory; or how the interconnections between sex, nature, and politics have implications for environmental studies. Although I could never be (nor do I wish to be) a pure scientist, I also think that the humanities need to lighten up. Probably due to the passion of its adherents, the subject takes itself with dead-seriousness. But, honestly, no great global changes are going to be made by chanting the word hegemony and combining it in new and fun ways with the words ‘cultural’ ‘dichotomy’ ‘pedagogy’ or the dreaded ‘postmodern’ (see the full list of overused academic words here).

So, to add insult to injury, I’m not only lacking curiosity but also jaded and angry with the academic world. I questions its value to society and am troubled at its often blind disregard to its own short-comings and preconceptions. Individually, I’ve met many wonderful people in the academic world that I’ve been humbled and honoured to know. Collectively, I find it a huge turn-off.

So even though I’m tempted by the persistent, tantalizing emails sliding into my email inbox reminding me about the potential security of my future as a student, I must resist. And I know for a fact that I’m not the only one who thinks and feels this way.

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