Josh Cowls
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Josh Cowls

Four Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting a PhD (Some Of Which I Probably Could Have Guessed And Most Of Which I Was Probably Told At Some Point, But Now Know For Sure)

I’m coming to the end of my first year* as a PhD student at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. It has been a challenging year, in ways both foreseen and not, but it has also been an endlessly fascinating, thought-provoking and perspective-shifting experience. Doing a PhD is such a personal experience that it may be difficult to generalise any lessons from my time so far in a way that would be useful to someone soon to get underway with their own. But it is precisely because of the highly individuated, and therefore introspective, and therefore often isolating nature of a PhD that sharing experiences, however imperfectly transferable they may be, might nonetheless be of value.

At least that’s my starting hypothesis. So, with sufficient epistemological caveats laid down — as every PhD student is taught to do — here are four things I wish I’d known before starting a PhD.

1. Don’t sweat the elevator pitch, at least for a while.

Being in the world means running the risk of facing unintentionally cruel questions. There are plenty out there, like, “how long ago was your profile picture really taken?”, or, “when did you last drive, again?”. But the one that strikes the most fear into the heart of a first year PhD student may well be, “what are you doing your PhD on?”. The problem with this question is that it can be asked at any time and by literally anyone, from a parent to a partner to a passing acquaintance to a talkative passenger on a tightly squeezed train carriage.

The other problem is that, for a few months at the absolute minimum, it can feel almost impossible to answer in a way that makes you, as said PhD student and child/partner/acquaintance/passenger, feel good. I am not a parent myself, but the best analogy I can offer here to the feeling of not really knowing what your PhD is about when asked would be if you were spotted carrying a not newborn (c. 6–9 month old) infant and, when asked its name, replying that you haven’t figured it out yet. It’s not (probably not?) illegal, but the encounter would still leave both you and your questioner feeling… odd. Feeling like there should be a really simple answer to this question. I have a friend, who will remain nameless, because he really did, and to this day does, remain nameless — at least in regard to his middle name, which consists of the single, never formally elaborated, initial B. Fortunately he has an A+ first name (to clarify, his first name is not actually “A+” — he wasn’t named in honour of algebra), but you get the idea. Nameless babies are cute for the first few days and fine for the next couple of weeks but thence perhaps a cause for concern or at least curiosity. PhDs feel similar. If you haven’t got it nailed within the first week or two, then what have you really been doing here all this time, and so, what are you really doing here at all?

Mercifully, however, the people asking the question don’t generally actually seem to mind very much either way. They were probably just being polite. (I’ll withold judgment regarding whether this strengthens or weakens the analogy with questions about babies.) Since this realisation has set in, my approach has become increasingly honest, along the lines of “still figuring that out”, interspersed with some vague description of the fields I’m working in. (NB if it’s your supervisor asking, you should probably be prepared to be somewhat more specific, or at any rate apologetic.) In my particular case, I then mentally prepare myself to again explain that the singularity/the trolley problem isn’t actually the *only* thing the field is working on, and that yes the social credit system in China is Quite Bad but also fairly nuanced and highly dependent on where you are and which if any God you pray to, and there’s actually a ton of messed up stuff happening with this technology almost everywhere, but anyway how was your day?

2. Social media giveth and taketh away.

If you have reached this article after I shared it on social media, you are hereby permitted a wry chuckle. While it is true that social media can be an incredible boon to the up-and-coming scholar, the same rules apply to us as apply to everyone else online: social media giveth and taketh away. This is perhaps especially true for PhD students studying the internet, as my cohort does. It would be quite obviously foolish for someone studying the transmission of a pandemic disease to assume that they were immune to the disease purely by dint of studying it. But it is with this false sense of immunity that I have often found myself walking into online spaces. To be sure: social media, particularly Twitter, can be great for highlighting important new publications, opportunities to present and publish your own work, and maybe someday even ways to get paid to stay in academia. There may also be some value in watching academics whose work you admire crystallise their life’s work into micro-abstract length, and verbally spar with their peers. But social media costs a lot too, and knowing that this is true doesn’t do much to stop it happening to you too. Above all, the toll it takes is an inordinate amount of time and energy. This is true in the purely subtractive sense that a minute spent on Twitter is a minute not spent reading, writing, exercising or socialising. But anecdotal, experiential evidence (n=1) also suggests that it can change how you perceive these other activities when you do commit time to them: I’ve found my attention span for reading a journal-length paper shredded if I’ve been on social media immediately beforehand. Again, I make no claim that this is generalisable to everyone (that is the job of full-time time researchers), but for me at least, starting a workday in the world of 280 characters doesn’t tend to put me in the best frame of mind to work towards eventually writing 100+ pages. I’ve also found that continuous exposure to a rolling stream of keywords that might or might not relate directly to my research creates a kind of academic FOMO which is unsustainable in the long term. And this is not to mention the incomparably graver problem of abuse, up to and including death threats, that some of my peers sadly face, or have to prepare to face, on these sites. For the banal set of issues I face, I’ve had partial success using tools like Nuzzel to flag the most important links that I would otherwise miss, and have made liberal use of tools that limit screen time.

3. The line between distraction and inspiration is thin and hard to see

Part of what makes sites like Twitter so irresistible is the possibility that every tweet *might just* be that singular paper that becomes the intellectual True North for your own work for the next three years. To be fair to Twitter (a phrase I find myself using with ever-decreasing regularity), this isn’t just confined to that, or any other, social network. It’s just as true of wading through journal articles or library bookshelves. I try to be an empathetic reader: I think the best way to understand someone’s point of view is to attempt, as far as possible, to see the world through their eyes, as expressed on the page. But while often illuminating, the downside of this approach is that getting in someone else’s shoes can lead you down their own intellectual path. I’ve often found it a challenge to remember that in purely pragmatic terms, 99% of the papers you read will not be — cannot be — the central idea, approach, formula, hypothesis or perspective that you end up embracing and adapting in your own work. Wonderment at the galaxy does not and should not imply visiting every star. A stance I’ve had to embrace more emphatically than I expected is critical distance from the author, less as a point of principle and more for the practical reason that academia is 1% inspiration and 99% perspicacity.

4. Many hats makes a warmer but weightier head

I’ve been really fortunate to maintain several of the affiliations I had in pre-PhD life, including continuing work with brilliant colleagues in the public policy programme at the Alan Turing Institute. And of course starting a PhD often brings entirely new networks as well — cohorts, research groups, colleges or house-shares — on top of existing relationships and interests. There is clearly a trade-off to be struck here: between taking all the opportunities you can for personal and résumé growth on one hand (particularly at a time of increasing pressure for early career jobs in academia) and ensuring enough time and energy for the most important stuff, including the small matter of writing a PhD, on the other. I suppose this was obvious even in foresight, but it takes discipline to turn down potentially exciting opportunities in favour of investing time in incremental progress measurable only over the course of several years. Regardless, everyone has to strike their own personal balance here, which will inevitably be dictated by academic, financial, emotional and psychological circumstances. However (breaking my own rule not to offer any general rules), if there is a particular set of people that it would be unwise to be without, it’s my cohort, and the wider group of PhD students in my department**, for the support and insight that sometimes only shared experience can bring.

Of course, I learnt much else besides these four things during the past year as well. But if wisdom is simply knowledge worth sharing, these are the things I’m wise to now that seem most worth passing along. I’m looking forward to a second year that is just as eye-opening and mind-expanding — at which point this list will undoubtedly be much longer.

*For reasons that resist terrestrial translation, Oxford’s calendar rolled over from “16th week, Trinity Term” to “-7th week, Michaelmas Term” this past Sunday, August 18th, heralding a new academic year.

**To several of whom thanks are due — appropriately enough — for looking over a draft of this blog post.



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Josh Cowls

Josh Cowls

Writing about the ethics of data and AI; political communication; civic technology; food.