Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Virtues and Vices of PhD Students

by Brennan McDavid, PhD Life: 
What can we learn about PhD students through the lens of Ancient Greek Philosophy? In this two-part series for PhD Life, Brennan McDavid asks us to reflect on our PhD habits…
As someone who spends their mornings, afternoons, and evenings thinking about ancient ethical theory and the concept of a virtue, I often find myself identifying virtue in peculiar places. One such place is in the life of an academic. Just like piano players and dressmakers and chefs, academics can be better or worse at their jobs, and it usually comes down to whether or not they have cultivated the virtues that are necessary for doing their work well.
These virtues come in the form of habits—the habit of taking notes while doing intensive academic reading, the habit of circulating papers among peers even if the draft doesn’t feel quite perfect (what draft ever is?), the habit of saying what you mean in your writing and avoiding the siren call of tangents.
PhD students have their own distinctive set of virtues to cultivate. These are the virtues of young academics who are still finding their place in the academic landscape. I am a couple of years out from the completion of my PhD (July 2015), and I now advise some students who are working on their own theses, so I thought it might be helpful to point out some habits that I view as being virtues in PhD students.
Here I’ll discuss two virtues that you can cultivate and practice in seminars and colloquia and the hours that stretch between them—all those opportunities for exchanging ideas and for creating them.  And then next week I’ll discuss a couple that relate more to your thesis-centric activities—the hours in the library and in front of a word processor.
The habit of asking questions.
If you’ve ever been to a conference or a colloquium or even just a causal lunch time talk, you will have noticed that there’s a certain kind of person who most often contributes to the conversation. This person is usually not a graduate student, and they often ask questions and engage critically in a way that is aspirational and, ironically, easy going.
That person was once a graduate student, too, and they weren’t born with the ability to grapple with an academic discipline. They learned how to do that by testing out what it feels like to ask certain kinds of questions (including “dumb” questions) and what it feels like to raise a challenge against another academic’s work.
The only way to learn how to be that person is by getting in the habit of doing the things that person does. This means that you must test out what it feels like to ask questions. Aristotle says that “we become just by doing just things; we become courageous by doing courageous things; etc.” We most certainly also learn how to ask questions by asking questions.
Not every question you ask will be a good one. Sometimes you may feel frustrated by what you take to be an inability to articulate yourself. But practicing the art of crafting questions will transform the way that you engage with your discipline more generally. You will begin to see opportunities for better and better questions. Your research program will expand. You will flourish. Start with dumb questions, but understand that it is through asking dumb questions that you will come to ask better ones. The virtue is in the habit of asking.
The habit of carving out time to be alone with one’s thoughts.
Creative energy is an elusive thing. It is likely you are someone who has a great deal of such energy and a healthy dose of ability to harness it into something interesting and worthwhile. After all, you are in a PhD program, and such places are not for the uncreative, energy-less types. Academia selects for people like you.
Nevertheless, nurturing creative energy is a difficult task. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimulating apps and social media platforms and really, really excellent tv programming, it is staggeringly easy to become passive consumers of other people’s creative energy and fail to exercise and assert our own.
You need space to let your creativity find its own limits. Expression on Instagram and Snapchat and blogs, even this blog!, has its value, but time spent with these tools for expression means time spent being creative on someone else’s terms. You owe it to yourself to carve out some time to be creative entirely on your own terms. This means being undisturbed and unstimulated in that spooky space of your own mind. The virtue is the ability to be comfortable in entirely self-guided thought.
These two virtues have the potential to transform your relationship with your thesis, and so focus on these will be richly rewarding. Nevertheless, there are virtues you can develop for the research and drafting process as well. Tune in next week for a discussion of those.

Why Education is Better Than School
Many people describe school as the best days of their lives. They remember the fun and the friendships – but how much do they remember about what they were taught?
At its core, school is intended to transfer knowledge and prepare young people to participate in society. Now, while there’s no doubt that schooling intends well, I’m not convinced it delivers on its promise.
Let me explain.
Since we were small, we were told that going to school is important and essential. You probably heard similar lines to me: “don’t miss school”, “attend your classes”, “do your homework”, “listen to your teacher”…
With this endless pressure from parents and teachers, it’s no wonder that dropping out from school has always been seen as a bad thing. Failing to graduate from school is classed by almost everyone as a disaster and often leads to difficulties in finding work.
However, as you’ll see in a moment, some of the most creative and successful people in the world dropped out of school.

The Better Alternative

While school appears to be important, it should never be confused with education.

Education is more than school.
If you put aside your preconceived notions of education, you’ll see that education is simply the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits.
Education frequently takes place under the guidance of educators, but – and this is key – learners may also educate themselves.
School is a specific place, but education can take place anywhere, at any time and with anyone – including yourself.
Education can occur in any setting. And any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational.
In short, education is a limitless form of learning.
As I mentioned in the introduction, some highly successful people were school drop-outs. However, they certainly weren’t dumb or uneducated. Instead of school, they learned on their own through self-study and life experiences.

For example, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, failed to finished high school. (He dropped out at age 16.) You may already know that story, but did you know that Branson also suffered from dyslexia and had poor academic performance? No doubt his teachers wrote him of as failure. Today, however, Branson is worth an estimated $4 billion!1
Clearly, education can be above and beyond school.
At school, you learn theories, but you often lack opportunities to apply the knowledge. And without the latter, have you really learned something?
To succeed at school, you need to be obedient, and whether you’re good or not very much depends on your teachers’ expectations. It ends up becoming an aim of fulfilling other people’s expectations instead of really learning what’s useful for living a happy, healthy and productive life.
School and reality are often at odds with each other. To succeed in life, you need to think out of the box instead of simply doing what everyone else’s doing.

There are many aspects to take care of aside from the school subjects, for example, how to form and maintain positive relationships, how to work smart, and how to lead a meaningful life etc. These are things that you’re unlikely to learn at school. But if you keep educating yourself in different ways (from experience and from non-school subjects/books), you’ll keep learning and applying your new knowledge.

How to Utilize the Better Alternative

Hopefully, I’ve given you an insight into why education can be better than school. Now, it’s time to give you some tips on how take advantage of this.

Firstly, don’t limit learning to school

If you want to progress in life, don’t rely on learning from a standard institute/place/educator. Instead, explore ways to learn and apply knowledge that is actually useful in your life. This can actively contribute to what you want to have and achieve the most. This ‘extracurricular’ learning could be through books, videos, courses, conferences or life experiences.

Read outside your interests

If you stick to what you already know and have an interest in, you’re unlikely to experience significant personal growth. Instead, look for ways of learning outside of your normal circle. For example, if you currently work as a writer – start learning a musical instrument. You’ll be amazed at just how much this helps your writing, and you’ll have a brand-new hobby to enjoy!

Talk to smart people

Have you noticed how successful people tend to hang around with other successful people? It’s no coincidence. High achievers are always networking with others and learning from them too. You can do the same. Lift your self-confidence a little higher, and start spending time with creative, positive and successful people. Once you do this, in a short time you’ll start to pick up on their ideas, their mindset and their action-orientated way of living. Let their success rub off on you.

Question things and think beyond the obvious

Break though your mental conditioning and start to think for yourself. Do this, and you’ll immediately begin questioning things you’ve been taught when you were younger. A new, super-sharp perspective on life will open you up to ideas and goals that could be the trigger-point for success and fortune.
If you take a look back at recent history, the great achievers all did something differently. Counted among those individuals would be: Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Education is not only about learning and consuming

Learning should not be a one-way street. In fact, experience shows, that you’ll learn much more through teaching, tutoring and mentoring others. Even if you don’t think you have a high level of skill – there’ll always be someone less skilled than you who would love to learn from you. My suggestion is to actively seek out opportunities to share your skills and knowledge. These are likely to be win-win situations.23456

Keep learning. Keep experiencing. Keep applying yourself.

When you put yourself onto a never-ending road of learning, you’ll discover so many things about life and yourself that you’d never have thought possible. You’ll also easily out perform your peers – even if they previously achieved much more than you in the way of school grades.
Education is bigger than school. It’s a way to keep learning, growing and enjoying.
So, what will it be? Are you going to rely on your past academic achievements, or will you take control of your life right now by learning and developing through everything you encounter?
I recommend the latter.