The Spark

I’ve told this story before, but not, I think, on this blog. I share it to offer a short piece of a life, and to maybe spark reflection for you. I hope it entertains 🙂

I did an easy undergraduate degree, dominoed into a testing Masters, and before I knew it I was finishing my dissertation and wondering what to do next.

I was 22, nearly 23; I thought I knew so much about life and the world, but couldn’t make up my mind about doing a PhD. I had friends doing them in my department. They seemed to have it easy, but I was stressed out at the end of my Masters: almost stretched beyond my limits, so I decided to postpone deciding. I could always take a year out from studies and come back to it.

I started a small, safe job and started thinking.

Two weeks later I was missing maths, but still not convinced that a PhD would be right for me. Should I apply? Three or four years was a long time to invest in another degree. I might get funding, but what if I didn’t like it? I liked maths. I liked learning. I liked the department. I had friends there. I knew the way things worked, but what if…?

I was stuck.

By chance, one day over lunch, I got talking to an older person. A woman who had spent decades working as a missionary. She lived overseas fifty weeks of the year, and I happened to bump into her on one of her fourteen days visiting the UK. I don’t remember her name, just a little of what she did, but I have a lot to thank her for.

There were many, many good reasons I had carefully arranged into a pile that told me doing a PhD was a good idea, but it was her thoughts that sparked the decision to actually apply.

She told me of her work, how it helped people, the importance of mission. A life’s work. It was impressive. It was inspiring.

“And what are you doing young man? What are your plans?”

I told her of my new job as a study assistant, how I’d finished two degrees and loved learning, how I thought I might find something interesting in maths. Maybe I would be a lecturer after I’d learned more, or a teacher. I had ideas, but I was unsure which way to go. I told her this in the hope I would hear some wisdom.

Her response was not quite what I was expecting.

“What?! Another degree?! Wait. You’ve spent four years at university already, another committed to now for work, then maybe FOUR MORE for a PhD – that’s almost a decade at university!!! Oh! Oh! You’ll have no experience of the real world! What a waste!!!”

This, understandably, derailed our conversation. I made my excuses, left…

…and started my PhD application later that day.

The spark from her comments lit up all my reasons for doing a PhD and the fire caught. I realised, only when someone showed how strongly they disagreed with my ideas, just how strongly I was in favour of them.

“What a waste!!!” – but learning, discovering, hopefully making a contribution – that could never be a waste of time for me.

I knew for my viva that I had to be careful if asked about why I had started a PhD.

I chose my field because it sounded interesting. My supervisor and I chose the topic together because it suited my talents. I narrowed down my projects because I got results and built on them.

But I chose to do a PhD because an old lady told me it was going to be a waste of my time.

Why did you start your PhD? What were the reasons that pushed or nudged you? You don’t necessarily have to tell your examiners all of your reasons, but unpicking the threads of your own tale can help remind you of your beginnings – and how far you’ve come. What sparked your PhD journey?