One of the best aspects about doing a PhD is the immense amount of freedom – freedom to plan my own time, to plan my research as I see fit, to decide (more or less) on what I read and what workshops and conferences I attend and so on. I have certainly never experienced such freedom in my own life before – even unemployment can seem like a prison – and, from what I hear from academics, I will never experience such freedom ever again. Also, as someone who is completely self-funded and not reliant on a studentship, I don’t have any obligations to the university. So what I get involved in is totally up to me.
And yet, there is such a thing as too much freedom. With my time stretching out in from of me like a boundless ocean, everything I do to traverse it seems so miniscule. Yes, there are days when the winds of motivation and inspiration have been pretty strong and, by the end of the day, I feel like I have covered a vast distance. When those days come along, I unfurl the sail and let the wind carry me and I get on with all those tasks that I have been putting off, with the occasional nudge of the rudder to stay on course. But, the truth is, I never know when those days are going to come along. More often than not, there is nothing more than a light breeze – or I am in the middle of the Doldrums. So, all my energy is spent rowing forward, and praying for the winds of change.
When there is no wind, then the sight of the endless ocean itself almost feels like it’s blowing me backwards. Now and again, I’ll see a coastline of some island – the impending deadline of a paper or university admin report or an interesting workshop or conference – and I’ll set my sights on that, because then the distance doesn’t seem so vast. I push back any thought that after the island, it will be back to endless waters.
But, you know what, I wouldn’t give up this adventure for anything – not money, not sex, not power, not even the opportunity to meet a real extra-terrestrial. Because, ultimately, I am like Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic. Every centimetre I move, every word I write, is a centimetre, a word, closer towards an undiscovered continent (or, more likely, island). I may still be within the geographic area of the map, but at some point I will get to where there be dragons. Then, I’ll place my flag in the ground.