Why the hell am I doing a PhD?

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No entry, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Did I mention that I’ve enrolled in a Masters by Research, looking at crowdfunding? No? It must’ve slipped my mind.

Actually, I’m a bit shy about talking about it. I don’t want to jinx it.

I want to upgrade to a PhD, if all goes well. But I’m scared it won’t go well. All my hopes and fears sit within it. I want it to go well, and I believe that I can do it, but I’m still scared.

I’m scared for a lot of reasons. I watched my partner take five years to do her PhD. Five years! She spent a whole year on one chapter. It almost broke her. A lot of my friends have done PhDs and only one of them had a good time. Everybody else hated it, and some of them never finished. So, I swore that I’d never do one.

From past experience, I know that I am, at best, an average student. I love the idea of studying; I just don’t like doing the work. It took me five years to struggle through my undergraduate degree. Too much time playing, not enough time studying! Having no clue why I was there didn’t help either!

My previous efforts to get a PhD didn’t get past the ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I had a PhD?’ burst of enthusiasm.

Oh yes, I’ve been down this road before. More than once, actually. I work in a university. I work with researchers every single day. There seemed to be a million reasons why I should do a PhD.

Nowadays, not so much. There seem to be a million reasons not to do a PhD.

I don’t need it for my job.

I’m an administrator. I work with academics to help them win funding for their research. I get to talk about ideas all the time. It is a job that I love, and a job that I’m good at. I’m relatively senior and have a secure position. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and I get to draw upon that experience to write my Research Whisperer posts. Life is good.

If I wanted a promotion (which I don’t), my next step would probably be to manage a research office. I like to think that I would win that position on the strength of my past experience. While creeping credentialism is a problem in many areas, I’m confident that I could find a promotion without a PhD (in the dark of the night, I might fear otherwise, but who doesn’t?).

I absolutely don’t want to be an academic. I don’t want to be a full time researcher, and I certainly don’t want to be paid by the hour again. I’m comfortable where I am. I’m not doing higher degree(s) for my job.

So, why am I doing it?

In the middle of 2014, I gave a talk about funding research via the crowds. There were several people speaking that had actually run crowdfunding campaigns. I told them that their experience was really valuable. Right now, hardly any academics have done this, so there isn’t much actual experience to draw on.

Later, I realized that I was right. There weren’t many Australian academics who had undertaken crowdfunding for their research. There weren’t many universities that had done it. I knew most of the locals who had done it. I could interview them – all of them. That would be a great little project. It would be a great little PhD project.

It was as simple as that. I had a clear picture of what I wanted to do, and it seemed to be the right scope and scale to be a good higher degree project. I could have done it as a straight research project, but it felt right to do it as a higher degree project. So, I enrolled.

It’s exciting!

At a deeper level, I find the whole area of research crowdfunding to be enormously exciting. It feels new, and there aren’t too many things that are truly new in the research funding space. I hope that it will change some of the things that I feel need to be changed in academia, like the lack of opportunities for early career researchers, and the difficulties of getting funding for purely curiosity-driven research.

Crowdfunding fundamentally changes the relationships between the researcher, funder, and stakeholder (or end-user) of the research. It allows end-users to directly fund the research, while still allowing the researcher to propose curiosity-driven research. It has a fun, light-hearted quality about it that seems completely at odds with the way that most research funding works.

It has the potential to disrupt the way that research funding currently works. Crowdfunding allows space for researchers with less experience to get started. It provides a mechanism where they can describe their research to the public, and ask them to fund it. It is much faster than most research funding submissions, and it feels like there is a direct relationship between the amount of work done, and the amount of funds raised.

It also provides experiential learning (a crash course, if you will) in a range of new skills: research communication, social media, and developing a pitch and asking for funds. Professor Deb Verhoeven, who set up the crowdfunding program at Deakin University, describes it as a training program in the skills that researchers need for this century.

Crowdfunding researchers can build up a group of stakeholders who are truly interested in their research. They can keep them informed throughout the whole research endeavor, showing them how research really works.

It allows the public to allocate funds to researchers and their research directly. It is a simple way for people to experience the joy and satisfaction that comes from philanthropic giving.

All of this is new, and I find it very exciting.

However, the other possibility is that research crowdfunding will die a death. I have already heard anecdotal reports of junior academics being forbidden from undertaking crowdfunding campaigns.

It might become a niche method of funding, useful only for small projects or top-up funding. Universities may find that the small amounts of the donations are not worth the effort that goes into administering them.

There may be a natural limit to the size of the networks that academics can mobilise, which limits the amount of funds that they can raise. People may experience ‘crowdfunding fatigue’ and stop donating.

Organisational cultures and entrenched systems are extraordinarily hard to change. Crowdfunding might have no transforming effect on the overall state of crowdfunding or institutional research culture. So far, it doesn’t seem to be having much effect on the opportunities for promotion for the researchers involved.

On the other hand, if it is seen to be successful, it might become an unspoken expectation that post-doctoral fellows raise their own funds through crowdfunding, whether they want to or not.

At this very moment, the future of research crowdfunding is uncertain. It is this uncertainty that makes it so interesting. Wish me luck.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

37 Responses to Why the hell am I doing a PhD?

  1. Anastasia Mihailidou says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Enrolling in a PhD has its struggles but also its rewards, which are the buzz of a new finding. It is also about learning the skills for invention and perseverance.
    If you are not passionate about what you are doing whether it is research or vocation then you will always find the negative. If you enjoy the thrill of discovery at any level, then you should not be discouraged by the small hiccups along the way – Keep going since you have a very important question to answer.

    Without research we would not have this medium or many of the luxuries we enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good luck Jonathan!

    I loved doing a PhD – every bit of it, even when things were bad. I loved that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity, and I loved that I had a single research focus to immerse myself in. My field is very different (public health) but many of the challenges, highs and lows will be similar. I now work as a post-doc, have fledgling PhD students of my own, too many research projects competing for attention and the ever-pressing need to secure funding. I love my work, and am happy that I am through to the other side of a PhD, but want to tell you that I really loved the journey.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Jane.

      I’m scared that I will bomb out. I love talking to people about what they do (data collection). Just not sure how I’ll go with the rest. Even though I’ve done it before as research assistant, it is different somehow this time.

      Good luck with that post-PhD part of the journey. 🙂

      Jonathan

      Like

      • Diane Strode says:

        Does it matter if you bomb out? The only people who will really care are you (money wasted), you (time wasted), and you (feeling a failure). Other people will not mind at all.

        Honestly, to complete a PhD you don’t have to be brilliant. Just slightly above average at something (analytical thinking, writing, math OR something), diligent, and hard working. You are already keen on a topic and that is important as it will sustain you later when things are tough. Just don’t do what your girlfriend did and let yourself get stuck. Always ask for help. I spent one year floundering around in my 4.5 year PhD. But I did a lot of other things such as teaching, attending seminars, writing papers and attending conferences. I loved my PhD experience and all of the interesting PhD students I met and the things I learned.

        You should give it a go.

        Just some words of advice. Get someone else to fund you. Do not pay for this yourself as it is not worth the financial outlay in the long run. Do not expect to get an academic position just because you have a PhD. That’s not likely. Go in with your eyes open.

        Have fun in your life.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. jodietrembath says:

    I hope you were writing this post to convince yourself that what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing, because you certainly convinced me! This seems to me to be the BEST reason to pursue a higher research degree – not because you need to, it’s not functional as such, it’s because you have a great idea, an interesting and twisty question, and you’ve chosen to go down a path of rigorous training while seeking the answer to that question!

    Even if crowd funding in research does die an unfortunate and untimely death, you’re tapping into one of the big issues of our era – the shift from centralisation to decentralised control. It’s relevant everywhere you look, and you’re adding another piece to that enormous puzzle with this research. It’s really fascinating.

    I’m totally inspired Jonathan. You won’t need luck, you’ve got this. 🙂

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Jodie

      ‘[T]he shift from centralisation to decentralised control’ is much better than ‘that open thing’ (which is how I’ve been struggling to describe it). It is one of the big issues, and I do love it. 🙂

      Jonathan

      Like

  4. I would love to say go for it… but I can’t help think that this is best kept as a Masters.
    Are you willing to give up your job, or go part time, so you can work on the PhD full time? Or will you keep the job and do a part time PhD.
    I did my PhD part time and would not recommend it, it just takes too long.
    I’m currently researching equity crowdfunding in NZ and have half an eye on research crowdfunding, so you’ll get no argument from me that this stuff isn’t fascinating, it certainly needs to be researched… but the field is moving so fast the time required for a good PhD on it just seems a luxury (I think that comment will attract some negative feedback).
    On the other hand, the one thing that makes a PhD really work is interest in the topic – and you have that.
    Finally, either way please publish as you go (don’t wait until it’s all done) as there should be a lot of interest in the results.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, James.

      I am intending to publish as I go – I have one paper in draft now, based on crowdfunding by staff at Australian universities. I don’t think that I could face the idea of waiting until it is all done. That would just be too hard on me, aside from any lost opportunity cost to the domain.

      My current thinking about speed of phd vs speed of change is that I’m documenting the development as it happens.

      I have my mid-candidature review for my Masters early next year. If I’m going to convert, that is the time to do it. By then, I should know, one way or the other.

      Like

  5. Good luck Jonathan, totally relate as I am also doing a PhD and I don’t want to be an academic but I do want to be a professional who really understands the problem we are working on. But it can be a struggle to balance the demands of a job and the more long term and abstract deadlines of a PhD. That is what I really struggle with. But I am loving the learning and having a reason to go deep.

    Happy to have a PhD coffee and mutual motivation/reminder-why-we-are-doing-a-this-and-we-can-do-this this session anytime.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Lets do that! I’ll email you.

      I’ve never been good with long term and abstract deadlines. In the past, I’ve always said that I would find it hard to do a PhD because you can’t write the damn thing in a single one-nighter. Then I saw a thesis with publications, and I thought “I could do that”. This is the model that I’m working on – five papers on a linked theme.

      My difficulty with long term deadlines is somewhat ironic, given I help people develop grant applications where we often work for nine months towards a single deadline. Cobblers, children, shoes – make of it what you will.

      Like

  6. Baoma says:

    Very interesting. I had no idea what crowdfunding is. Like you I’m enrolled for masters through research and I’m not a cum laude student. The scary and doubtful comments that my friends and colleagues say about Phd makes me wonder if I can or want to upgrade to Phd.Good luck with your phd you sound like a reved up engine to race up to do this.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Baoma.

      I like your running posts. I particularly liked your description of running by yourself, and then training with a friend, and then running the big races with crowds of people. Running alone gives a feeling of satisfaction but is hard to sustain. Running with a friend gives a feeling of competitiveness but also of camaraderie and shared goals. Running with a crowd gives a feeling of being in something much bigger than yourself.

      I think comments like yours have helped, a little bit, to make me feel part of the big crowd. We are all doing the Masters or PhD marathon together. We will run the race in our own time. Some will do better on the hills, others will do better on the flat. Some will walk (or crawl) across the finish line, others will sprint that last few steps. Some won’t finish, but they will have tried.

      I’m not a runner at all, so maybe this metaphor doesn’t make any sense. But that is what I got from your posts. Keep running, keep writing.

      Like

      • Baoma says:

        Thank you. I am doing my master’s degree in information science. my supervisor shared your post on crowd funding with us his students. I felt motivated by your words and motivation to do your studies.Keep studying and stay well.

        Like

  7. sarenput says:

    Thanks for your wonderful blog and telling us about your motivations behind why you’re choosing a PhD. Doing a PhD is quite a journey tbh. I am in my third year right now and the closer I am getting to finishing (the average in my department is 7.8 years!), the more I ask myself about the kind of jobs that are out there at the end. Nevertheless, there is also an excitement that pushes you through. So best off luck in your PhD!

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Sarenput

      I had a conversation with someone yesterday who had finished their PhD a few years back, and had been doing sessional (adjunct in US terminology) work since then. He needs to settle down and have a family, so he is looking for more secure work. That probably means less academic work and looking to become a policy advisor, a teacher or setting up a small consultancy business. There are lots of jobs that need the skills of a PhD, even though the job advert mightn’t say that. So this gives you a bit of a safety net if academic jobs don’t work out.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Crowdfunding fatigue might be overcome by a switch to micropayments like Patreon; research programs that continue to deliver continue to get funding, and people don’t have to repeat the mental effort and hurdle of deciding to spend money – just redirect the periodic amount that they have already committed to. I can’t think of a way to make it useful for up-front funding, unless you use Patreon to put money into kickstarter-style buckets periodically until they launch.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, William. I think that the Patreon model is a better fit for research funding.

      Much of the rhythm of research is conditioned by the project-based nature of most funding models. You see that rhythm change (for the better, in my opinion) when groups secure 5 – 6 year centre funding, or when individuals secure a funded chair. Often numerical outputs drop off, while the depth and quality of the research increases. I’m willing to bet that the wellbeing of the Centre members or Professor improve, too.

      The Patreon model provides a way to bring some of that sort of security to all research, not just those who can find centre funding or remunerated chairs.

      Having said that, it takes a huge number of small donations to make a salary, so I don’t see it happening any time soon.

      Like

  9. Tara Finn says:

    Hi Jonathan, I did a full time MA by research (they didn’t offer it part time then) on top of a full time job. It is manageable, but you can’t live your life in the same way. There are definitely compromises. The best tip I can give you is to find a study buddy. Having someone to encourage you and push you as necessary makes the process more manageable and a lot more fun.

    I am now doing a part-time PhD (with the same job).

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Tara. A study buddy is a great idea. Tseen and I are ‘blog buddies’ for this Research Whisperer blog, and that has worked a treat. I have a workmate who is doing his PhD – I’ll talk to him.

      Good luck with your PhD.

      Like

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        Watch out for that workmate of yours, though. He’s #hardcore. 😉

        And it would’ve been so excellent to be PhD buddies! What a thought. You may not believe it, having sat through so many tedious ‘woe is me’ conversations with me but my PhD persona was fairly contained and low-maintenance. I think ‘just get on with it’ was my mantra…

        Like

  10. Jo Dalvean says:

    Best wishes for a great PhD Jonathan!

    I like the “creeping credentialism” mention. You might be interested in the reference to education credentials in the wikipedia article on Econimocs and “Signalling”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signalling_%28economics%29

    Like

  11. Kumudh says:

    Thank you for the motivation. Just embarked on a Phd in Education after a long deliberation.

    Like

  12. themediaedit says:

    I cannot wait for updates! Good luck – this was a great read. I love how you are doing it for yourself and not a promotion. All the best

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Media Edit. Today I’ve just finished my second round of interviews with academics and administrators. In general, people talk about how hard it was, and how much more work than they expected. They learn a lot through the process and build an audience for their work.
      It is going pretty well – I would like to be further along than I am, but I suspect every student feels that. In February I plan to upgrade to a PhD.
      Good luck with your own work.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hayley says:

    Committing to a PhD is not a decision to take halfheartedly! I have just submitted my thesis and am awaiting my viva and my God it’s been a hell of a journey! I’ve summarised the top 5 reasons for and against doing a PhD based on my experience here- http://lifeasabutterfly.com/phd-5-reasons/ Great post by the way-very helpful for anyone just starting out!

    Like

  14. Cristobal Concha says:

    Sadly I have to do a PhD just for the money of the scholarship, nothing interesting about what I do, in fact I hate every minute of feeling trapped into this system, which I scaped after being a Research Assistant, and tried to get away only to be jobless for a year cause nobody in my damn country gave a **** about my skills and had troubles to start my own company. So it was doing a PhD with a scholarship, and repaying it if I quit, or living again off my parents money.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      That sounds horrible, Cristobal.

      Being trapped is always hard. I hope it gets better soon. I’ve had friends who have treated their PhD as three year work contract – it works, but it isn’t ideal. I can’t imagine what it is like if you don’t enjoy the work.

      Jonathan

      Like

      • Cristóbal says:

        Yep, it is.
        I try to think there is something useful about doing the PhD, besides the money that pays for my expenses and what I save to start my future company, but there is barely any.

        Besides, the feeling of loosing my freedom again and being reduced to doing what your PI wants is being way too much. I thought it would be easy to just take it as a job, like when I was a Research Assistant and did the stupid things my PI asked of me, but after being my own boss for a year and doing what I wanted, limited by the little resources I had, I just can’t go back to work for somebody else, even more when at a PhD PIs expect you to work by yourself and not tell you what to do, like in a normal job.

        If at least I was doing my PhD in something that was truly of interest to me, instead of picking the first option with less that a month before the deadline to apply for a scholarship because I wasn’t accepted at the other University where I applied, which a topic that wasn’t that interesting either, at least I would see some merit of doing it. But right now, doing a PhD is only useful if you need it for a job, not if you plan to start your own business or when nobody cares if you have one in some specific fields.

        And in my country, doing a PhD is mostly useless if you are not going to do research all your life and accept the miserable conditions that currently the people over there have to accept to do science, and I didn’t want to waste my life like that.

        Either way, or I continue doing my PhD, because I cannot return the scholarship since its too much money and I don’t have any other source of income, or I go back to my country and try to survive there. But if I cannot do what I want there, then I would end up in a situation like the one I am in here right one, with the advantage of being able to quit a job whenever you want
        Either way, I suppose is part of my streak of bad luck that I have had for the last years. At least I have enough money to pay for my expenses without being a burden to somebody else, but it’s in these moments that you realize money is useless if you are not happy.

        Like

      • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

        I hope that you find happiness soon.

        Jonathan

        Like

  15. Cate Sier says:

    I think that if you approach your research with the idea that you are doing it for personal gratification rather than professional gain it becomes something you enjoy…not something you have to do. As I’ve stated in my blog “PhD Career,” getting a PhD does not get you a job so do it because you want to. I love the idea of crowd funding to support research, and it would be interesting to see how universities approach this in terms of research ethics approvals. Best of luck!

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Cate

      It seems to be going well so far, but (like every PhD student) I need to do more work.

      Jonathan

      Like

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