The relief of the doctorate

It’s done! Finally! I have finished my PhD thesis – or dissertation in the American academic lingo – and have received my doctoral degree. After years of toiling in uncertainty I can finally move on with my life. Up, up, and away!

Relief. Image by Katia Romanova @ Flickr
Image by Katia Romanova @ Flickr.

If you’ve visited my site this spring you might have noticed that I made the thesis available as a pdf already a couple of months ago. But as I have been busy with teaching and other things, I haven’t had the time to stop to reflect and write anything about it. As I just sent off copies to the university library I now have an excuse to bring the topic up.

What makes a doctorate very different from other degrees is that it is kind of a gamble. You invest years of your life, your future career, and possibly also lot of money into a very difficult and uncertain process. While everyone hopes you will graduate successfully, there really are no guarantees. So many things can happen during your studies: changes in your personal life, changes at your university, in your field, and so on.

For example, I ran into quite a lot of trouble after my first year because my supervisors changed. They simply had important changes in their private life which took precedence over other things. I just had really bad luck as both my supervisors left within a relatively short time.

No one was to blame, but the end result for me was a rather chaotic situation. The collaboration between research students and supervisors often depends on the personal chemistry as well as compatibility in academic specialities and interests. My research topic had been quite well suited for my first supervisors. Now, there was the problem that the remaining staff at my relatively small department simply didn’t have that kind of connection to my topic.

In the end, everything did get sorted out. But I went through a whole year which, now in hindsight, seems mostly wasted. I was quite depressed with all the mess and without a clear direction spent an unhealthy amount of time watching bad science fiction TV series and reading philosophy. Some of that philosophy actually ended up in my thesis but I don’t think those 17 seasons of Stargate contributed much!

Because of the trouble along the way, when I finally was informed that I had been awarded my doctorate, the dominant feeling was not one of triumph. Just relief. The weight of the knowledge that I would never have to go through anything like that again was just indescribable.

The final years of the doctorate are also a really weird limbo. Because at that point you have spent so many months and years as a researcher, you feel like a proper academic already. But without that little rubber stamp saying PhD, you are trapped in a truly horrible form of impostor syndrome. So getting the degree also relieves you of that feeling. It’s almost like you’ve been ‘closeted’ without being able to be openly what you are inside.

And not just that. Actually it’s weirder. (I know I am overusing the word weird, but that is exactly what getting a PhD is.) You kind of go from a loser impostor to an expert overnight. After all, that is what PhDs are supposedly about. You produce new knowledge and prove to your peers that you are capable of doing work in the front lines of your field.

Of course, the PhD is usually just the beginning. Although this is slightly less true in a field like design, where many people, like myself, have already had industry careers and teaching experience before doing the doctorate. But the principle is the same as in hard sciences. You need the doctorate in order to build a proper full-time academic career.

From the perspective that all of this has been for the future, even the troubles I had can be turned into an advantage. If my project would have been completely smooth sailing I would not have gained the experience and knowledge on how to deal with unexpected complications. As I am moving to full-time teaching and research, I will most likely be supervising other PhD students at some point. I think my experiences will help me to guide future research students under my supervision.

But all of that can wait. For now I can simply enjoy living without the burden of the thesis for a little while.

Or I could concentrate on something that really matters, like coming up with my evil supervillain name. After all, what’s the point of having a doctorate if you are not going to be an eeeevil doctor. Hmm…

I always wanted to be Doctor Strange, but now I need a new plan because with the upcoming film everyone would think I mean the boring Marvel-Cumberbatch guy and not the creepy DC villain

Finding your own mediocrity

Find your mediocrity! Photo by Indy Kethdy at Freeimages.com.
Slightly different cliché motivational poster. Photo: Indy Kethdy @ Freeimages.com

A lot has been said about finding one’s own path and true calling in life. In fact, we’re bombarded by all kinds of advice, motivational posters, gifs, and whatnot, set against stock photo sunrises and featuring platitudes from people like Paulo Coelho. If you ask me, if you are in the middle of that search, it might be more important to find the wrong paths than the right ones. You need to discover your own mediocrity.

I have been mulling over this idea of accepting one’s mediocrity for more than ten years now – ever since design college. But I never got around to writing about it. By now you have probably read about the ‘CV of failures’ published by Johannes Haushofer. He got the idea from Melanie Stefan’s 2010 article in Nature, and it’s clear that there are many others who share their feelings. Their point is that coping with failure is an integral part of being an academic, even though most of us tend to hide our shortcomings. I think the same applies also to designers and, especially, design students. So now that the issue is topical it is the perfect time to add my two cents to the discussion.

It was one of those unremarkable days in college when I was studying graphic design. I was headed out to lunch together with my friend Marko and we started talking about our possible futures. It was our second or third year so we already had gained a relatively good understanding of the different paths a graphic designer could take.

I said that I had realised that I could never be a really good advertising graphic designer. I just couldn’t do that kind of cool, slightly arty design. Whereas it was clear that there were other people in our class, Marko included, who produced gorgeous commercial looking pieces. It also didn’t enjoy advertising related courses that much. I was much happier doing everything else. If I had to, I probably could make a career in advertising design. But I would never become one of the gurus. I could only be a mediocre designer in that field.

Admitting this was hard. When I entered the school, I thought that the advertising world was one of those key destinations for graphic designers. I feared that if I didn’t have what it took to work in advertising, I must be a failed graphic designer in some sense.

Of course, at this point, I had already worked in a newspaper as a layout compositor. So I knew there were definitely some paths I could take. But, I laughed a little nervously, I can say goodbye to the world of glamour and champagne at the office. Although it was just a joke, some part of me still believed advertising work to be more glamorous than other design jobs. (Shows how little students know about reality!)

We continued the discussion as we walked, commenting on areas where we excelled or fared less well. In the end we agreed that it didn’t really matter if we couldn’t do everything perfectly. After all, nobody really needs to master all the possible sub-areas of their field. Some designers become illustrators, some work in advertising, and others design books.

The important thing was to find the right specialisation. This meant that trying to master everything might actually be counterproductive. So instead of struggling with advertising, I should put my energy to better use.

But there was a catch. As a student or a fledgling designer it is not easy to recognise what that specialisation should be. So instead, the best thing for you may be to find what you aren’t good at. It might not show you your future path exactly, but at least it narrows down your options. It helps you focus your energies roughly in the right direction.

Therefore, we concluded, the really important thing for design students in their second or third year was to find their own mediocrity. They should look at their own work and experimentations in different sub-areas critically. And admit to themselves the areas they did less well in.

And then we had lunch.

I think that discussion helped me relax about my choices and the possible directions I might take. Of course, all of these worries went away as I grew more confident in my own skills and career. Only a couple of years later, I was comfortably working in the newspaper industry as a graphic journalist. I had no doubts about my specialism because by then I was, even if I say so myself, pretty damn good at my job.

Later I decided to switch to teaching and research, but that had nothing to do with doubts about my skills. I just realised I couldn’t imagine myself working in the newspaper industry until I retired. Whereas I enjoy teaching so much that I might end up doing it until I drop.

Today, I feel confident because I have had two good careers. I have no problem talking about my history in the design industry. I’m just trying to come up with more and more sarcastic replies to cliché comments like ‘those who can’t do, teach’.

And interestingly even advertising appeared back into my life despite my attempts to stay away from it. I never did become a graphic designer in advertising. But as I progressed into more and more theoretical areas in design, I ended up studying and writing about things like branding and corporate identities. Eventually I found myself teaching advertising – conceptually but not graphically. And I am completely comfortable with that. I find it interesting and I have the right kind of conceptually oriented brain for it.

But not everyone has been as lucky as me or Marko, who continues as a successful designer to this day. Some of my classmates and friends didn’t recognise possible dead ends until it was too late. After college they went on to work in fields where they did not succeed and possibly hated every minute of their work. Many got disillusioned, left the media industry altogether, and struggled to find something else. Some of them are still searching for the right path.

Of course, it’s not possible to foresee the future and avoid every bump in life. My life hasn’t been perfect either and I’m not saying I don’t have any regrets.

But I have decided that I will encourage my students to discover their own mediocrity and accept it. Even if they don’t find the perfect path for themselves, accepting problem areas might help them avoid some of the painful experiences in life. Maybe.

At least it can’t be any less helpful than staring at stock photo sunrises and quotes from Coelho.