Doing a PhD: The pleasure and pain of ambivalence
Renelle McGlacken reflects on how entering a perpetual sense of questioning can challenge the sense of self
In the months between being offered the PhD position and my official start date, I realised how little I knew about the practicalities of the role and what a PhD actually meant.
Naturally, I searched online for the stories of other PhD students and the trials and tribulations of their PhD journeys. Dark tales told of workloads that quickly consumed any shred of life outside of the PhD, the precarious balance of helping others in the university and saving time for yourself, breakdowns in relationships with supervisors, breakdowns in relationships with loved ones, and even breakdowns of the much-needed willpower to finish the PhD… But luckily there appeared to be high notes too. Intellectual stimulation and development, the freedom to follow your personal interests, flexible working, and opening doors to careers in academia and beyond.
However, one thing I hadn’t braced myself for was such a fast-acting identity crisis. Before starting my PhD, I thought of myself as an open-minded person but, like everyone else, I held certain things to be solid and dependable in my life. Of course, we must take some beliefs as reliable in order to function, but one of the most striking consequences of studying an issue as contentious as animal research is the wide-reaching impact it can have on your ethical foundations and the identity entangled within these. Researching an area of personal interest can often mean that a researcher’s identity is tied up in the object of inquiry and this can bring challenges in maintaining a clear sense of self. Losing the security of a way of seeing that has provided answers and a distinct moral compass forces the return to a state of questioning and, like much of the PhD, this doesn’t end when you leave the office or turn off the computer.
After much muddled reflection on this issue, I think my initial period of confusion is a glimpse into one of the most special parts of the PhD process – a continuous state of questioning. This may be a notion of academic development that is particularly suited to the social sciences, but intellectual growth is not simply an accumulative process of learning more and clarifying ideas. Rather, the most valuable intellectual opportunity offered within a PhD is the obfuscating of what we already claim to know. Fostering a reflexive approach and being attentive of how we are affected by and simultaneously have an effect on our research is key to recognising the ethical challenges experienced by all who grapple with an issue as complex as animal research. In the first five months of my PhD, having the opportunity to engage with a wide range of perspectives has re-introduced a sense of doubt into ethical questions I had previously taken as answered. Although this might not be comfortable, it allows for issues to be re-opened and placed back on the discussion table, at which the conclusions are no longer obvious