A Tale of PhD Rivalry

For well over ten years now, I have been locked in an intense and ceaseless battle with my father for dominance…of the squash court. Every time I return home, our eyes invariably lock, and it is understood: we shall take to the car and head to the local sports centre, where we shall engage in a fight to the death…or to three games, whichever comes first.

I am the younger, quicker, fitter version of my old man. In fact, that’s the reason why I refer to him as ‘my old man’, because he is like me if I had an upstart twenty-six-year-old blogger for a son. But my father, he is the patient, considered version of me, a man with guile and wile to spare. Inevitably, there are some rallies which I am destined to win: if it requires a sprint to the front corner or a deft drop-shot across the wall, then I’m yer man; if it requires a game-plan, a dash of experience and a perfectly-timed drive, well, look no further than Mr. Bray Senior.

At the end of the day, when all is said is done, in a game of two halves where the boy done good, who is to say who is the better squash player? I dunno, and if I did then I wouldn’t find myself so often sat in silence while my father careers along Suffolk lanes brooding on his narrow loss or victory (and they are always narrow, never more than a hair’s breadth between us, a misstep, a casual flick of the wrists which turns the Last Chance Saloon into a Mount Olympus of Victory). The father admires his boy’s enthusiasm and energy, the stomach full of beans and vim which keeps him fighting despite an obvious deficit in the skills department; the son admires the man’s focused intelligence, his astute judgement, the wealth of squash savoir faire gainfully employed to make up for the creaking joints, the aching back, the loss of speed to the ravages of time.

There is, as the old adage says, more than one way to skin a cat (really? We’re still skinning cats? How have we not made the idiomatic advance as a nation of cultured folk?). Sometimes slow and steady wins the race, sometimes Usain Bolt downs nuggets and is finished before the humble tortoise has even put on his running shoes. The important thing, however, is to stay true to your own style: the steady Yorkshireman opener does not win the Test through a moment of flair (‘e by gum!) and the plucky upstart of a snowboarder does not take top points by sticking to the same old aerials which carried his forefathers down the slopes. I wanted to include the England football team in this analogy, but I cannot work out what they do, far less how they do it, so Messrs Baines and Berkley, Sterling and Shaw will have to take a seat on the bench of this particular match.

If you have yet to work out where this article is heading, then you are as unperceptive as the author when his housemate steps forward on the court for a surprise volley (the author is me, you see! My housemate so much better at tennis than I can hope to be!). We are all engaged in our own specific PhD work, all of us plugging away on diverse projects united only by our idiosyncratic attitudes towards innovation and commiseration. You may look around once in a while and wonder why others seem to succeed with methods which seem so very alien to you; you can rest assured that others will likely look at you and feel the same way. Me, I’m a sprinter, one prone to wandering and wondering where the next line is going to come from, and then sitting down one evening and releasing a blaze of ideas. I am a restless thing, skipping and twirling in search of a way into the next chapter. And yet, I know of those who will place themselves down calmly of a morning, and will work to the clock, carefully measuring out the sort of insight and clarity which I spend both my waking and my dreaming life trying to catch.

In short, I manage the PhD much like I play squash, in a flurry of waving limbs and faltering steps, always in danger of falling over and yet managing to find a way to return the ball (and get my drafts completed). My father, ever the artist, is possessed of a grand vision, no doubt about it, but he entertains himself chipping away (no, I mean literally chipping away, he’s a sculptor), a little bit closer every day, until finally he can step back and admire the whole, and then ask me to help him load it into a van (he is always asking me to help him move large blocks of wood to and from vans). It’s just the way we are, and it is strange indeed that we, two people cut from the same cloth (albeit at very different times) should approach the project, the big piece, the exhibition of talents in such markedly different ways.

Each to their own, I say, sometimes your way works, sometimes you need to diversify. What you certainly shouldn’t do is fall into the belief, understandable but mistaken, that there is only one way to do a PhD and that it most certainly is not your way. It is often forgotten that recognising your weaknesses and working to mitigate them is not the only way to self-development; taking a good, hard look at your strengths and realising how you can contribute to the grand academic project is also a grand journey worthy of your time and energy.

There is one glaring issue with my long-time-rivalry-with-my-father analogy, and it is that the research thingmajig is not a competition, where only one can emerge victorious at the expense of the other. No, not at all, it is your own endeavour, a Tour de Thesis where you are cheered on by many and yet ultimately riding on wheels of your own making. You will see others off in the distance, postdocs, lecturers, professors, the truly world-class thinkers who cast shadows far beyond the ivory tower and the superconductor particle collider. With time you may well join them, but for the meantime you have to focus on your own ascent. Continuing on the sporting line, I have been humbled on numerous occasions by my opponents in the staff squash league in which I occasionally dip my trainered feet. These people are the real deal, the complete package, and they tend to gently yet unequivocally thrash me. And yet they are the first to admit that with time and concentration, by recognising those few aspects of the game at which I might possibly develop an advantage, I might take them to the final few points, and then, just maybe, sneak the match.

I don’t believe that this PhD will beat me, but I have come to see that it will leave me bloodied. I would like to think that, as with my father, we will be able to shake hands and sit down for a curry and a pint, and the thesis will congratulate me on my late charge. It is perhaps a perverse characteristic of the final-year doctoral researcher to view their research as a living creature which might break bread with them after a hard-fought contest, but there we are.

Maybe this is a good line of enquiry: if your PhD was a sport, what would it be? Mine would be cricket: slow and lengthy, with flashes of intense energy, and the pervasive fear that rain may stop play. Is the whole thing a wee bit of a sticky wicket, hitting me for six over and over, every over? I’ll say…

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Image Credit: Life Mental Health/Creative Commons

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