From time to time, my career in the academia reminds me of my grandmother's cooking. She has the ability to make strange mixture of random ingredients come together and make for a delicious dish. On several occasions when I asked my grandmother how this phenomenon occurs, she lowered her voice and said, "There is a secret ingredient."
She never told me what the secret ingredient was, but after three years as a PhD candidate I can say that the only secret ingredient holding together my academic career is motivation. As a candidate, I tear myself into pieces trying to finish my dissertation on time while I work as a graduate teaching assistant, write papers for conferences and work for my department's blog. I try to do my best in every aspect of my academic career: try to be the best researcher, teacher, writer that I could possibly be and then stay awake at night, feeling guilty about that one drink I had with a friend when in fact I could've been doing some more work.
And I am not the only one. If I had to explain PhD candidates using only three words they would be: over-worked, under-paid and motivated. As one of my fellow PhD friend declared in a hysteric tone during our last departmental meeting, "none of us are in this for the money." I can confirm that none of us are in it for the fame either because the chances of getting famous through a PhD degree or an academic career are just about the same as trying to be a comedian by explaining why your jokes are funny. Glamour, for us, is that free glass of wine after a three-hour-long symposium about that thing that no one can remember. On top of that, there is the obscurity that comes with the job. And that is, we have no jobs. There is no guarantee of a job once we cross the finish line and earn our title. No matter how fat our CV's are with teaching experiences, several papers published and presented with glorious recommendation letters to back it up, there is still no guarantee. After all that hard work, there is that chance that we may have to go home and start living in our parents' basement (without their knowledge, of course).
So why do we do it then? If there is no money, no fame and no guarantee of a solid career, what makes us go through this journey of becoming a PhD? Maybe we are all secretly suffering from masochistic tendencies (that's a topic of an other article), but I have never met anyone inside the academia who doesn't really like, if not love, what they do. With that out of the way, I think the really interesting question we need to ask is, "how". How do we do it? What makes us work so hard with so little financial satisfaction and certainty?
Last week the professor I work with as a teaching assistant gave me a box of chocolate to thank me for all my hard work. Every now and then, my supervisor praises my progress and tells me I'm doing a good job. When we receive our evaluations from our students, once in a while some of them would take the time to write down an additional comment stating how much they've enjoyed the seminars... These moments don't come very often, but when they do, combined with the love we have for our work, they provide us with enough motivation to see a faint light in the colour of hope at the end of the tunnel.
Motivation is an important element in any job environment but when we have so little to draw from, universities have to be especially devoted to motivating their PhD candidates if they like to work with enthusiastic, ardent academics in the future. It has to be one of their main goals to create an environment where PhD candidates feel supported and appreciated instead of feeling like they are not being heard, or worst, taken advantage of. Motivation could come in many forms: it could be a box of chocolate, or it could be promoting the PhD candidates, making sure their hard work is noticed and appreciated, providing them with an environment where working on different projects and ideas, thinking outside the box, putting extra effort is cherished. Universities could create more opportunities, aimed for their own students, where they could be more venturous and entrepreneurial, take on more roles, lead exciting projects and take credit for it.
Being a PhD candidate is a lonely pursuit. Many hours spent in the libraries, surrounded by academic journals and books, staring at your laptop while your ears buzz from the excess caffeine in your system... So for us, being able to feel like an important part of the team, someone who doesn't belong in a cave to write away his or her dissertation, someone who brings something of value to the table, who is noticed and appreciated, is the "secret ingredient" as my grandma would put it.
Aslihan Agaoglu is completing her PhD in the department of Middle Eastern studies at King's College London - follow her on Twitter @Asli_Agaoglu