Piled Higher and Deeper into the Nexus


Retrieved from PhD Comics

Piled Higher and Deeper into the Nexus

by Miles Ten Brinke

Miles, Peak Water columnist and avowed Hydrophilic energy-head, has found his way to Britain where he’s lost his California perma-tan and is now a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester Business School  after studying an Energy Policy MSc at the University of Exeter in Cornwall.  He’s now trapped in the Nexus, researching the transition to sustainability of the global water-energy system.

The life of a 1st year PhD candidate at Manchester Business School is a study in contradictions. The environment you suddenly find yourself in seems to tear in opposite directions, demanding of you a level of knowledge and expertise you never expected to possess and yet ever humbling with just how little you actually know. On the one hand you’re a semi-accomplished student engaged in intensive research training and analysis (everywhere from the most obscure specialist papers only you and a half dozen other people have read to the fundamental epistemology of social science) and on the other you’ve generally no idea what you’re on about and just make it up as you go.
Then there’s the time you spend with your supervisors. The you in that office stumbling over the simplest of analytic details couldn’t be a further contrast from the confident bombast of the Friday intellectual pub talk. Yet you’ve probably said exactly the same thing, only your supervisor knows just how nonsensical it is. Getting to be a PhD candidate tends to mean you do actually know about your subject, can talk up a bit of the arcane and esoteric. Soon as you enter supervisor zone though, at least in my case and with nearly everyone I know, you’re back down to a 1st year undergrad in competency. Every little victory, i.e. saying something moderately inciteful, is hard won and celebrated.
Doesn’t stop there though, MBS adds another layer- oscillating between exhausting frustration and excitement.  The wrenching tug of war between the demands of your own research development and research training, having a life and working hard enough to not be a charade of an academic. An MBS PhD is very uncommon for Britain, a three year PhD where you still have considerable course work. In roughly the first year you work through three assessed core modules, eight research methodology seminars of which three are assessed, and a doctoral conference. Its a hell of a lot of work, and a challenge to balance just right. You’re told at induction to expect spending at least half your time on the work, its often far more time-consuming. Hours go by staring at screen trying to grasp positivism or paradigm shifts, or rational choice theory. Hours you wish you’d spent reading more about your subject because after all you tell yourself that’s the whole reason you’ve come in to slave away for three or four years on an epic work no one will ever read. There’s something you’re curious about, something you think you can shine a little light on. That alchemy of transformation from clueless student to proper academic you think you’ve set yourself up for did not include knowing the difference between epistemological and ontological relativism…
Annoying as it can get though, taking classes like Epistemology forces you to think much more broadly and deeply than you would otherwise. It gives you perspective about where you and your own tiny contribution to knowledge fit in the history of social scientific endeavour, brings to the surface your epistemic assumptions and the under-examined intellectual baggage of your previous training. It means, well who knows if it’ll really happen but its supposed to, we can go into our theses well aware of how we fit into the academic literature and exactly why we make the choices we do on our underlying choice of theories and the methods we’ll use to gather and analyse our data. Might even make that viva somewhere down the line just a little bit less scary, who knows.
For the especially foolhardy among us, its even worse.  RTP and suddenly diving into the deep end of the academic pool not enough for ya, why not take on a part-time job too. Soon enough a fair number of us are obliged or volunteer for teaching positions, often confirming in a few short weeks every little pearl of wisdom Jorge Cham has for current and prospective TAs. Everything from the expectations of spoon-fed answers to the exceedingly creative deadline extension excuses to the lazy obstinacy have been on offer.  Marking seems especially haunted. Something to look forward to for us all.
I haven’t yet taken up the privilege, instead convincing myself that continuing to work a day a week as a policy analyst (at least for a little while, ya know just to see how it goes) will be a brilliant way to keep sharp on that ever more worshiped totem of research excellence- impact. Here we’ve the final contradiction. Academics now must engage with the material effects of their research, the end-product valued as much for its benefit to society or commercial potential as its scholarship. Yet to aim for this you spend years with one tiny slice of social phenomena under the microscope, all to fill a minute theoretical gap in the literature. The more interdisciplinary and practical your aims the more incomprehensible you get as you cross-specialise. Holistic policy research can be especially maddening for this, and its all pervasive.
Anyone who’s applied for research funding or done teaching these days will know what I mean, but I’d like to think in my pursuit of comprehending the Nexus I’ve gone beyond the box-ticking. I’m obsessed with praxis in academic work, so giving up a day a week now to continue honing those skills and get a chance to apply my ideas (I’m even getting in more practice on using scenario methodology in a practical policy setting) seems a fair trade. Hopefully the sum total of what I produce in my PhD is read by more than just me, my supervisors, my evaluators and any poor sap I get to help me think through my ideas.  We’ll see. It’s a struggle, constantly being challenged in new and ever uncertain terms , but no pain no gain.
I love what I’m doing. Let the learning flow, I’ll slog my way through to the end.
~Miles On Water



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