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Why a PhD?

22 Apr

Ok so this is my first day on this 750words thing, let’s see how it goes. I am starting a 4-year PhD in a few months, and I’ve been told that writing a few pages each day is the writer’s equivalent of calisthenics. I want to keep my brain in good shape, and keep the “creative juices” flowing, so this website is a great discovery.

Now, writing 750 words a day is not a simple exercise. As the creator has said, it requires you to make some conscious effort, and eventually tap into the unconscious mind to write something else than the usual, mundane stuff that floats around in our minds. I might have to get quite philosophical at times, perhaps whimsical, and I will certainly struggle at times to make any sense. It’s a good thing that no one is going to read any of this. Or will they? I don’t really care, I won’t be using this as a personal journal or anything.

Perhaps I should explain a little bit why I am doing a PhD. This might be a good way for me to explore my reasons, and make sense of such a big decision. As it turns out, some research has shown that humans are very good at making decisions, but quite appalling at knowing exactly or accurately why they make these decisions. For trivial, day-to-day decisions, the reasons are mainly the results of unconscious processes. I’ll give you an example.

One research I read about presented participants with a choice of two stockings, and asked them to pick one. Then they asked them why they made that particular choice. People would then say they preferred the colour, texture, quality etc. However, overwhelmingly they chose the stocking nearest to their dominant hand: right-handed people tended to pick the stocking on the right side, and conversely for left-handed people. This occurred despite the researchers changing the order of the stockings between each trial.

Conclusion: we rarely reflect on why we make a particular choice, especially if that choice was trivial. When we do reflect, however, we “invent” reasons why we made these choices, because we actually don’t know for sure.

Is this also true for important, life-changing decisions? I’m not sure. We certainly spend a lot more time consciously thinking about the outcomes of these kinds of choices, and we eventually make a decision based on this kind of appraisal. However, when it comes right down to it, can we really say we make a decision knowing with certainty that it is the best choice to make? Most certainly not, there are too many unknowns. Do we then make these decisions in full knowledge of the exact probabilities involved? Again, no, we don’t? So what leads us, ultimately, to make the choice? Again, these unconscious processes are probably at play, and we can’t know for sure why we make certain decisions.

In fact, it’s happened to me quite a few times that someone has asked me why I made an important choice, and often it stumps me, I’m unable to come up with a quick answer to a question that appears obvious. I think the reason is that, when I made the decision, I convinced myself that this decision was based on sound reasoning, and that I didn’t need to go back and re-visit again and again. If I had to do that, I would doubt the wisdom of my choices, and I might live with constant regret of not having made a better choice. I think this happens to some people, and it can cause them considerable distress. So I live with my choices, confident that I made the right ones, even though I can’t know for sure that I did, and I rarely go again through the line of reasoning that led me to making them in the first place.

So, why did I decide to do a PhD? My most common answer seems ridiculous: we’re better off financially being for 4 years on this PhD scholarship than if I were to go ahead with the Masters and be employed after 2 years. Is it just a financial decision? NO! I also love research, and I didn’t like the idea of doing a small-scale, rushed research that is inherent in the Masters program. Is it because of the prestige? Certainly not, I really don’t care for that, and in fact I don’t like the pomposity of it all. It’s just about money and the love of research 🙂
Actually, it’s also about making a contribution to the world. I’ll write about the topic of my PhD tomorrow.

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