When you go snorkelling for the first time you expect it to seem a little strange.
You know you will see lots of new things (some fish, perhaps?) and that at times you might get a little scared (all that blue water stretching on and on…). But then you jump in, adjust your snorkel, put your face in the water and have your breath taken away by the sheer otherness of what you see and feel. There are the fish, of course, but there’s also the sun on your back, that feeling of total immersion, the breathing through a bit of plastic in your mouth.
Well, I’m here to tell you that starting a phd, especially one off-campus (try the other side of the world from your university; hello, Australia!) is not really all that dissimilar.
There’s nothing like a good analogy, is there.
You know you will be spending all your time researching, reading and writing. You splash out on some new pencils and pads of paper. Then it’s time to get started and…woah! There’s a whole world out there on the internet totally devoted to Phds. Who would have thunk? You had no idea there were so many other people doing Phds, some just started, like you, others nearly finished, and some who will probably never finish.
But wait, there’s more. Just like the little bit of plastic in your mouth, there’s the new technology (oh, Endnote, why won’t you be my friend?). You create so many passwords for all the different library databases that you need to start your own database just to keep track of them all. Your desk, which you pictured with neatly stacked piles of books and papers, within days looks like a wild animal has made a nest on it.
You start a list of big words you don’t understand and worry that other people seem able to drop them into online ‘conversation’ as if they were born to it. You start reading and the more you read the more you realise there is to read (the big blue ocean has nothing on this).
And every time you leave your desk – just like lifting your face out of the water – you realise that not everyone else is doing this. There is your towel, draped on the sand, and there are your sunglasses balancing precariously on a rock, just where you left them. In fact, the real world is continuing merrily along, just like it used to before you started this whole thing. No matter that you’ve discovered this whole new world, because as far as everyone else is concerned it’s nice that you’re doing it but there’s a limit to how much they want to hear about it. Your family still needs to eat, the clothes still need to be cleaned and all those other responsibilities you’d temporarily forgotten are still there waiting (hello, music students! hi there, vacuuming!).
So now it’s your secret, albeit one you share with all the other snorkelers. It’s a secret world that’s not so secret, really. It’s just that you never knew it existed.
Here I sit at my desk in Switzerland with my view of the Alps (with their first hint of autumn snow), strains of German floating up through the window that, against the odds, I still have open. It’s just the cat and me until my daughter gets home from school and my first music student arrives.
But until then I’ll dip my toe in the water once again, thankful that I’m not the only one. Who, after all, wants to head out into that big blue ocean all by themselves?