I love learning – I always have – I remember in primary school being the kid that never wanted to go outside at lunchtime and recess to kick around a ball. I wanted to stay inside in the library and read books. I was perfectly happy thumbing my way through the Encyclopaedia Britannia, rather than sloshing through the mud and the snow after some stupid ball.
Unfortunately, I usually lost that battle and was forced outside.
But I never lost my desire to study.
I managed to stretch my ‘undergraduate’ studies out to about 7 years.
Then I did several more years as a part-time grad student.
Eventually, I went back to do a full-time MA.
But I still wasn’t satisfied.
I decided to go for the ‘big daddy’… the PhD.
I began my PhD (in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London) in January 2014. So I am now 2.5 years into my part-time PhD.
What have I learned from the experience?
- It’s harder than it looks – my previous degrees were largely practical in focus. My first degree, a BFA in Interdisciplinary Studies allowed me to combine practical work in acting and singing and come out with a degree. My MA in Creative Entrepreneurship was also quite practical and my dissertation was an Ebook. None of this previous work prepared me for really immersing myself in academic literature. I managed to get through those degrees without ever really reading academic literature and certainly without ever grappling with questions of epistemology and ontology. Nor with having to navigate my way through so many big words. I think it took the first year before I even understood 50% of what I was reading.
- It’s easier than it looks – once you learn ‘the lingo,’ once you decipher what the patterns and structures of academic writing are, it isn’t that difficult. There’s a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors’ that occurs to make it seem more impenetrable than it is. A lot of it can be skimmed through to glean the one or two nuggets that exist. Once you get over the intimidation factor of the writing style, it’s more straight forward than I first assumed.
- The need to corroborate everything – One of the ways I’ve changed on this journey is I can’t take anything at face value anymore. In academic writing you always have to offer support for any of your statements. If I want to say the moon is made of cheese, then I need to be able to offer some evidence to support that statement. I either need to refer to previous studies that show that the moon is made of cheese, or I need to undertake my own empirical study to prove my theory and offer you my evidence, which you can scrutinise. If I don’t do one of those things, then I can’t really get off saying the moon is made of cheese. It’s pretty clear – you need to back up every statement you make with evidence. But as you proceed on this journey, you start to look for the evidence everywhere. And you discover that most people babble all kinds of nonsense without offering any evidence to back it up. And that just doesn’t fly. So I have become acutely aware of my own, and other’s, habits of making unsubstantiated claims, or opinions, without offering them up as such.
- The specificity of language – in reading academic literature, I have come to appreciate the exactness with which it uses language. For academics, words are the only real means we have to convey our thoughts, our research and our conclusions. And there is no room for error. Words must be used with a sense of precision so that the meaning is crystal clear. My vocabulary has grown and my need to find the most appropriate word to express something has also grown. I feel this has made me a stronger communicator.
- That is isn’t about smarts, it’s about endurance – this game isn’t about whether you are ‘smart enough’ or not. It’s about whether you can sit with your butt in a chair for years on end working your way through a series of tasks: mastering an existing body of knowledge, identifying where you can contribute to it, figuring out how you are going to make a contribution, undertaking some form of original research, then writing up and submitting your 80,000-100,000 words describing every step of this journey. This has nothing to do with being smart. It has everything to do with sticking with one thing for years. I’m 2.5 years in and I suspect I will probably have at least another 3 years. That’s years, not months. Prior to this experience I have never stuck with anything so long. So it has been about learning to put the blinders on and focus on the next step of the journey.
- The only way it gets done is if you make it a priority – I have had to forgo many things of late in order to work on my PhD. Like blogging here. I have always enjoyed writing for The Thriving Creative, but it, like many other things, has had to take a back seat to my PhD work. Otherwise it’s never going to get done. I have had to skip social events, give up most weekends, get up at 5AM most days in order to have time to write before I go to work, give up almost all reading that isn’t related to my topic, etc. But actually I don’t begrudge most of them. I do sometimes, but the rewards are that you get to immerse yourself in on line of enquiry. I am learning everything I could ever want to know about creative careers by delving into cultural economics, cultural studies, entrepreneurship, psychology, sociology, etc. This is a rich vein of material to delve into. And I have to trust that at some point in the future I will circle back around to some of the things I used to do and have much more to contribute to them.
- Doing something a lot, makes you good at it – in this case, specifically reading. I used to be a slow reader. I liked to savour and pick my way through words. Now, I don’t have time for that. I have a mountain of reading to get through. So I’ve learned to read quickly. And one of the great things I’ve learned to do is skim and not feel guilty about it! This has been so liberating – like eating chocolate for breakfast. Knowing that it’s okay to pick up a book, or article, and to read every other paragraph, or the first sentence of each paragraph, or to skip the methodology section, is totally liberating. I can always come back and fill in the details if I need it, but I am allowed to skim through it in order to get the gist. This has been a huge gift.
There’s more. Much more. But you have things to do and so do I.
These are a few of the key things I’ve learned from the journey so far.
Maybe I’ve inspired you to consider your own academic journey? I can assure you that it will change you in ways you never even imagined. Oddly enough, it has allowed me to thrive in ways that I didn’t anticipate.
Here’s to your thriving wherever that may be.