Friday, April 22, 2011

Interest and Attitude

I was reading someone’s statement of purpose (the clichéd bullshit you concoct for the Ph.D. committee, marketing yourself as the best thing that happened to humanity since Einstein) with a somewhat sardonic expression. Don’t get me wrong, I did the same thing 6 years ago, and again 2 years ago, but when you are sitting at the other end reading stuff, you see through certain things downright. The person wrote, “I am really interested to know this and that”. Perhaps yes. However, I have realized over time that interest is not what will sustain you through your Ph.D. life. It is attitude that is going to sustain you.

Don’t get me wrong, you cannot be not interested in something, and still study it. However, interest plays a very basic, introductory, and minuscule role to sustain your academic life. Let us put it this way. In the process of doing research, there are many innovative ideas you think of. That is why it is called a Ph.D., because you do something no one in the world has done before. However, sustaining the travails of a Ph.D. life on a daily basis is not possible with interest alone. You don’t keep thinking of new ideas everyday for 5 years straight. It is here that attitude comes into play. Many of us live with the misconception that doing a Ph.D. means sitting in plush offices and thinking of innovative ideas. That just happens for 1% of the time. What then? What do I do with my ideas? How do I execute it? What I do in my day-to-day life is not innovative research. What I do every day is mundane work, that might lead to or that might be a product of an innovative idea. Every day, I do stuff like getting printouts, making photocopies, taking lecture notes in class, making presentations, editing papers for spelling and language errors, grading exams of undergraduates, replying to emails, learning to use new statistical software, and digging out research papers for literature reviews. I go to the gym to keep myself fit and thinking. I buy groceries and cook to feed myself. I figure out maps and make decisions about the mode of transport to take that will get me to the department quickest. I travel and attend conferences and listen to stalwarts share their ideas. I organize team meetings and document the meeting minutes. I do homework and assignments, with data that belongs to someone else. I learn new skills like organizing conference calls and making posters. I solve analytical puzzles to sharpen my brains. I establish good relationship with my batch mates to see how they do their research. I write blogs to be free flowing in my thoughts. I talk to school administrators, network, communicate, write institutional board review protocols, and make up questionnaires. I learn to think of intelligent research questions. All this is a part of my Ph.D. process, little steps that will hopefully earn me a degree someday. But is this innovative or interesting work? No, all this is very mundane work, no different from what an office secretary would do. The difference is, I am my own secretary, managing my own academic life. That innovative spark of an idea I got 4 months ago was a brief moment of eureka. But in order to materialize that innovative idea into a tangible research product or publication, I have to go through all these mundane things I just discussed. I need the tools to help me think in the right way, for which I take classes and often piggyback on my advisor’s knowledge base. Sustaining this and still remaining focused has nothing to do with interest. It is all about the attitude to work hard. Ph.D. needs interest as a trigger, as a starting point, as much as that match that lights the fire. But attitude is that oxygen that sustains the fire through years. And do you think my advisor is sitting in his plush office and thinking of new ideas with an interest all the time? He is a stalwart in the field, with an Ivy League tag to boast of and all that jazz. He is bright, successful, tenured, and often awe inspiring. Yet he doesn’t spend his time sitting in his office thinking. What he does is mundane work like writing grants and proposals, making phone calls, giving lectures and presentations, bringing in the money home so that we can do the research and get paid, and of course advising and motivating brain dead people like me. And it is not interest that sustains us. It is the attitude to keep going. If a simpler analogy works, let us say doing a Ph.D. is like learning to make an innovative dish that no one has cooked before. But to be able to do that, we must decide on the ingredients first, and then start with tilling the soil, growing the crops, picking the crops, milking the cow, making the curd, extracting the oil, culturing the fish, growing the spices, cutting, chopping, grinding, and take the other mundane steps that leads to the finished product for food.

If you came into a Ph.D. program with the expectation that your interest will sustain you through the bumpy ride, chances are more that you will end up frustrated and go back to what you did before this. However, if you come with the right expectation that for the next few years, you are going to work your ass off doing all the mundane things that eventually lead to innovative work, it is more likely that you will actually enjoy the ride. So come prepared not with the interest, but with the attitude to hang in there and keep working hard.

If you know of a person who is planning to start a Ph.D. and might benefit from this perspective (which is solely mine), do share this writing with that person.

sunshine

10 comments:

Abhishek Mukherjee said...

You know something, kid, eleven years back I had to decide between a PhD and a job: mind you, I had already had nice, lucrative jobs on the campus, and a PhD seemed an improbable option for me.

At this age, when I look at myself, I get surer and surer that I wasn't cut out for the life that I'm currently leading. I should have gone for a research.

But, I suppose, with people financially dependent on me, that is not really an option any more.

Whenever I get this PhD-fever I suppose I shall get back to this blog post of yours. Thanks, kid.

Abhishek Mukherjee said...

You know something, kid, eleven years back I had to decide between a PhD and a job: mind you, I had already had nice, lucrative jobs on the campus, and a PhD seemed an improbable option for me.

At this age, when I look at myself, I get surer and surer that I wasn't cut out for the life that I'm currently leading. I should have gone for a research.

But, I suppose, with people financially dependent on me, that is not really an option any more.

Whenever I get this PhD-fever I suppose I shall get back to this blog post of yours. Thanks, kid.

Anonymous said...

have seen many people as smug or even snooty in the P.H.D prog,and have started thinking a lot about death lately,how my work will go waste if I were to die tomorrow,and if this REALLY matters.

Badri said...

Excellent insight! Will keep my expectations in check if I am applying to a PhD.

Same holds true for jobs is what I think.

I do understand that one requires more than interest to start of PhD but will the committee share the same sentiment? I mean will they accept if I highlight my willingness to perform mundane stuff in SOP more than my interest?

Anil P said...

Right on. Attitude. Applies to most things that look great upon finishing but can be a trudge along the way to getting there.

Beyond a point there's only so much a person can think in isolation. Needs to be steeped in the daily, at times at least.

Biddu said...

Ph.D. needs interest as a trigger, as a starting point, as much as that match that lights the fire. But attitude is that oxygen that sustains the fire through years....

very nicely put! you are already a philosopher before that PhD...

Vaibhav K said...

The same applies to work life as well in general. I work alongside people who have stellar capabilities and talents. Yet, a large part of what they do in their day to day life is quite mundane in comparison to their actual elements unique to them. But you very rightly point out that the attitude and daily conduct they portray is something that makes them carry the influence they do. As they say, success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, being accomplished and a pioneer in your field will give you that 1% spark for a brilliant idea, but then you need to follow it up with 99% of grunt work. This is especially true in the corporate environment, where no matter how great your idea is, you need a team to execute it and even with a great team, there are several uncertainties which you cannot directly influence. The supreme element you can control is the attitude you carry and sometimes that turns out to be the most important differentiating factor to success, especially during tough times.

rgb said...

Excellent post. Post this realization, most manage to come to grips with this. And if one feels that the interest is strong enough that this monotony is worthwhile for a life, one can plung
into it past the Phd.

Kolor said...

A brilliant article. Such clarity of thought. Clearly these were one of the good days ?

jenibug said...

I read this one too. Very, very helpful to me at this time. Thanks again! Now I need to do some more mundane work and take another look at my statement....