This blog entry is written in memory of David Broomhead*
One thing I forgot to mention in my previous post is probably the most important thing that has got me so far in life – passion.
I remember choosing to do a PhD after taking a year out to ‘assess my options’, which involved a couple of job interviews in the financial world which just weren’t for me – I knew because I felt out of place at the interview itself. I think a parting of the ways was best for both industry and person. I’m a firm believer in things happening for a reason, one door shutting for the opening of another and all those other clichés! Thus, I was led to where my heart pointed me – back to university and mathematics.
I knew I wanted to do a PhD, despite learning from various sources about the typical struggles and uncertainties that were involved. It actually seemed like most people didn’t have a good word to say about it – I can’t forget how a “PhD stall” at a jobs fair sternly told the audience to “not do a PhD unless you’re prepared for difficulties”. Whilst I’m all for ‘straight talk’, I don’t think this is how I’d promote a PhD!
Thus, passion it was that drove me on towards my goal – I scoured the internet for PhD positions at various universities, applied to one or two, but wasn’t thrilled by the project topics themselves. Eventually, I took the bold step of deciding to follow on from my final year project at undergraduate level – I contacted my supervisor, Dave, and simply asked if he would supervise a PhD project of my own choice even though I was unsure as to how exactly I might extend the ideas from undergraduate level.
The uncertainty of research direction was compounded by a major drop in financial help – I would be paid less than half what I would be paid if I chose to do a council (EPSRC usually) funded PhD. In addition, such projects would be well-structured with targets and deadlines, almost guaranteeing a successful thesis in the allocated 3/4 year period. On the other hand, neither I nor Dave had a definitive timeframe in mind for our project!
So how did I get through this? There are actually many reasons, many of which I have stated and others are below, but I think overarching these is passion. I loved maths, and particularly the research topic that I chose. Moreover, Dave was always encouraging of any ideas I came forward with (the nice guy that he was!), and this made life so much easier – I think he understood that a researcher needs time to be creative and to simply think of different directions and solutions. Another supervisor may have (quite understandably) wanted results every fortnight or so, but such a pressurised environment was not my way of working and I’m really very fortunate to have had a supervisor who agreed. I never got to ask him but maybe Dave saw my enthusiasm for the subject and realised it was best to let me work in my own way to see my ideas take shape naturally.
There were many stages during that first year where I asked myself why I was going through such a struggle – both financially and mentally. I used to compare myself with my peers who were all in well-paid jobs, and this did not help – I advise against comparing because the grass really does always seem greener on the other side. I got through it by first writing down reminders for why I wanted to do this – “I enjoy maths”, “freedom to pursue own ideas”, … If one word were to form an umbrella over these, then that would be (yes, you’ve guessed it) passion. Another aspect that helped me was my family – I needed them both for moral support but also to put a roof over my head, for which I am still grateful. This meant that I could focus solely on the work. The bonus effect of all of this was that I developed my organisational skills from the start – it forced me to plan my weeks quite meticulously to ensure I made the most of my time at home, on the train, at the office.
There were other obstacles, including (sadly) Dave falling ill halfway through, meaning I didn’t see him again until after I actually passed the viva. Wow, I hadn’t really thought of how serious this could’ve been! However, I now think that I managed to overcome this because of the autonomy that Dave allowed me to have during the early parts – by now, I was naturally thinking of ideas, deciding which to pursue, when to type up, etc. In essence, I was supervising myself! This has proved to be a valuable skill as I grow towards becoming a more independent researcher in the ‘publish or perish’ world that I’m in now. So, again, adversity created opportunity. In the end, I was forced to submit by the deadline (which was now extended) by my replacement supervisor, Mark – another nice guy but one without whose insistence on my handing in chapter drafts I would have failed. I am eternally grateful to Mark. I’m also very fortunate that I’ve had such good people around me, including my fellow PhD students – although we couldn’t really help each other in terms of the work, the conversations about life were lessons in themselves.
In hindsight I would not have changed anything – the difficulties that I went through were there to make me a better researcher and better person. I really am glad to have gone through everything that I did during the intense first year, the calming middle period and the frantic writing up stage – it has made me who I am now.
There is a message here – if the circumstances permit, then wholeheartedly pursue your passion and never look back or sideways! Sure, things WILL be difficult at times, but what’s the point of life if it’s plain-sailing? It’s MEANT to be about ups and downs. Besides, pursuing your passion also ensures that you’ve been brave enough to give it a go – you would have no regrets. (The following is a favourite TED talk of mine, humourously telling us to have no regrets: http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_smith_why_you_will_fail_to_have_a_great_career) Having said that, the great thing about passion is that, not only does it produce the success, it also eases the mind during the low periods – it reminds you why you are here. It worked for me and I can safely say that it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Pursue your passion 🙂
*Sad note: Only a couple of days after I first drafted this entry, Dave Broomhead, my supervisor, sadly passed away. This was unexpected and so, I have unwittingly paid tribute to him in this post, though I don’t think it conveys exactly how much of an influence Dave was (and is) to me, not only in how I do research, but also in how I live life. His smile and welcoming aura showed that pursuing your passion should not come at the expense of happiness, enjoyment and loved ones around you – involving your family and friends in helping you achieve your passion makes it all worthwhile.