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

Good time for design education and research

Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii System @ Flickr.
Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii @ Flickr.

In 2014 I played a small part in helping a Finnish design university launch their masters programs. This made me think about the current state of design education and research. I must say that we are living in very interesting times.

During the last couple of decades design education has grown immensely around the world. At the same time we have experienced a media revolution with the rise of the internet and various digital platforms. These have changed the nature of design work but also encouraged a general interest in areas like visual communication and usability.

The changes have brought new challenges and also a lot of fresh energy into design. The new media landscape demands a different focus from education as well. While there will always be a need for basic illustrators and image makers, today’s designers often do everything but create images. They create experiences, interfaces, and innovations.

We are now seeing old teaching paradigms giving way. More and more design schools are emphasising information and interface design, service design, digital environments, and other areas instead of classical craft based skills. The schools have realised that designers need analytical minds and research skills in addition to drawing. Students cannot be educated into preset professions like in the past. They need to learn a range of skills and have the flexibility to adapt to whatever changes come next.

The new approaches are not without their challenges. Schools might emphasise conceptuality too much and produce designers without sufficient basic skills. Fresh graduates might find getting employment hard or they might be disappointed when their first job isn’t as a highly conceptual project leader. But in a way, even struggling schools only add to the excitement. We might see established institutions getting left behind while newcomers attempt to become world leaders.

The increase in design education is showing through in design research as well. Around Europe, universities are setting up professorships and other new posts, some of them concentrating purely on theory. There are more postgraduate programs available, with new ones launched every now and then. Also more students progress to PhD level than before.

At the same time with expanding design research, there is a growing interest in visual communication in other disciplines. People in humanities and social sciences are examining both digital and print products with theories like multimodality. While I may not personally agree with all the approaches, it still means there are more people interested in similar topics. This opens up possibilities for discussion and perhaps even collaboration.

Design research and education forms just a narrow branch in the whole tree of academia. But that branch has been growing steadily and is now able to carry more fruit than ever. Spring is in the air!


This article was originally published on page 233 in Kudrnovská, L (ed.) 365typo, vol 1. Paris: Étapes: editions; 2015.