The P in PhD: getting your hands dirty

Philosophy is tough stuff. We all experience life but when it comes to the consideration of knowledge, reality and existence, we tend to hand responsibility over to others. Instead of thinking it out for ourselves, we let those considered to be expert advise us on the nature of our own scientific and social reality. The P in PhD changes this. It’s about getting your hands dirty. It involves research into yourself as much as your chosen subject.

How do you know what you know? Seven is a magic number. These seven single-syllable words sum up the hugeness of doctoral research. Deceptively simple, they’re a doorway to a different world. A multi-syllable landscape with different ways of seeing and being. Working out your ontology and epistemology and defending your position in the face of opposing views, creates confidence. A PhD is an opportunity to confirm your world view. It does this by shifting you from what Larkin calls the unique distance of isolation – with all its subjective connotations – to a more objective reality, one shared by those with similar ways of being in the world.

There are no definitive answers. The first thing philosophy teaches is how life views differ. The choice is confusing but you need to find a path through the philosophy forest. A PhD is an authenticated journey. Taking up a position and defending it. Locating yourself with authority; becoming research engaged and informed. At first, if you want to explore a seemingly practical topic, like online learning, the P for Philosophy feels like the wrong direction. If you lean towards a world view diametrically opposed to your supervisor, you’re in for a bumpy ride. But when you read something which resonates, discover similar but authenticated interpretations of the complexity of social reality, it begins to fall into place. Althusser writes about appellation; the process of recognition whereby we are hailed by a subject position. It’s a bit like this. You collect similarities and discard differences. Eventually you’ll reach a place where you can justify your own approach. It takes time. The literature review will help but ultimately you’re on your own.

It can be useful to think of the PhD as a ritual or rite of passage; one where enough people have survived to be reassured it is possible.

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