My Existentialism and Thank you to PhD Supervisors and Mentors

The question I get asked often is ‘Why am I doing it’? My response is that this PhD is at first for myself.

I have taken the time from my life to do it. To ponder upon my own self-development, to emerge as someone new, to reflect and write, to grow personally as well as professionally whilst doing it. It’s an amazing process in itself, although, more often than the feelings of joy, I am struggling with the very beginning of my research. Should we strive for fulfilment now, whilst we are candidates for PhD, or should we be putting the pleasures off to another ‘different life’ post-PhD?

Today I read a chapter from excellent Nigel Warbuton (2011) on Existentialist philosophers. He discussed Albert Camus and his use of the Greek mythology to explain “absurdity of humans” (Warbuton, 2011, p. 200). The image of Sisyphus relentlessly pushing the ball up the steep hill stayed with me tonight. A never ending expedition, a punishment of Zeus.

This is how I feel when writing for my PhD. Puffing and huffing, juggling many plates at once. My research, my part time job, whilst trying to have some ‘life’. Managing 5 inboxes, ‘adding’ things to my to do list instead of crossing them out. One step forward, two steps back. Are we doing PhD because we thrive under pressure? 🙂 Maybe.

When reading the Warbuton’s very accessible ‘story’ on Existentialism (maybe I will beocme a little philosopher 😉 ), something stood out for me. The Sisyphus is smiling according to Albert Camus. How Sisyphus can be happy whilst pushing the ball up the hill, never reaching the top? He is happy, because deep down he believes that his efforts are worthwhile, explains Warbuton.

I am not suggesting that Phd is a never ending journey, rather, that it truly requires a strong will and a commitment to keep on keeping on. When I started my PhD, I had to make several financial cutbacks, new ‘uneasy’ commitments. My income dropped significantly. I moved house. I made sacrifices which seemed incomprehensible to my dearest. But I carried on. I wanted to create something, not just consume life, and become a mere commodity on the employment market. As Tony Hsieh (2010, p.64) would put it: “I had decided to stop chasing the money, and start chasing the passion”. I now realise I am only at the beginning of a huge research project.

The claims of Existentialists are that we are the masters of our own fate. We have choices and we make things happen or not. Indeed, this can be contestable in many areas of life. However, it works perfectly well for me as a motivational wheel on my PhD journey. I can choose to enjoy it, I can choose to do it, I can choose to make the experience worthwhile, or I can call the PhD process a slow death.

And in my low moments, if I think the latter, I look around me. Aside from my dearest, whom I am eternally grateful (thank you Richard), I see my current supervisory team and my mentor. I open my ears, and I listen to their feedback. I open my heart and I let them in. Opening myself emotionally requires a certain amount of vulnerability. For me these relationships become a living personal experience that require the presence of trust. Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl said the same thing about friendship in  Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today (2006, p.67).

Certainly, it is a risk to be vulnerable but the benefits are huge. In return I continue to be inspired. We laugh together, we fight this fight alongside each other, and we keep making sense of my own PhD journey together. I believe we will get there, together.

This blog post is to say THANK YOU to my supervisors Prof Sam Warren and Dr Will Thomas and my mentor Dr Sharon Saunders, as well as all others, who are doing a brilliant job out there and do not get an ‘explicit’ credit from academia for the added value for helping us to get across to the other side.

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Categories: Starting my research | 1 Comment

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One thought on “My Existentialism and Thank you to PhD Supervisors and Mentors

  1. You are very very welcome Jana, its an honour. And thank-you for your vulnerability, we’ll try to look after you as well as push you to be the best you can 🙂

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