It Takes A Village

It Takes A Village comic 2

After my last blog post, I decided to write about lacking motivation. That was six months ago. It speaks for itself, really.

I remember feeling as though I had just hiked halfway up a mountain, reached a comfortable lookout point, and paused to catch my breath. And then I couldn’t summon the energy to keep climbing. I just couldn’t. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and had only a vague idea of where I was meant to be going. So I wandered downstream to a village, where I met a local family, was invited to dinner, and then found myself collecting firewood, giving the kids piggy-back rides and breeding goats for the next twelve years.

My academic equivalent lasted about four months. I volunteered to help organise a conference, took on extra marking work, and became the administration manager of a non-profit organisation. I started work on a podcast. I even joined a soul band. Overall, it was a pretty productive time, if you don’t count the 40 hours per week when I was supposed to be doing a PhD.

My moment of revelation came about three months ago. The conference was over. I was writing up a timeline for my upcoming experiments. And I realised that, unless I started those experiments in about three weeks, then I would probably still be collecting data over Christmas.

The fears of never graduating, of disappointing my supervisors, of never becoming an accomplished scientist, were apparently not enough to get me moving. But this fear – the fear of not having at least a week free to wrap gifts and eat custard – became my motivating force.

In an ideal world, that is where this story would end. I was cured (hooray!) and then I collected all my data and wrote my thesis while wearing a santa hat. Unfortunately, that is not how research works. Finding a small scrap of motivation was only my first step.  You obviously still need to have the skills, the time, the materials, and the knowledge to get the thing done. It was immediately clear, when I stepped outside my happy village of denial, that I had none of these things.

I was going to need a lot of help.

I often write as though my research is a solo project, partly because I feel uncomfortable turning good people into characters of a ridiculous story. But in reality, my research and my sanity have depended on a whole cast of friends, family, strangers and fellow students.

A little while ago, I was driving a volunteer home and he joked that it would all be worth it when he saw his name in my Acknowledgements section. It made me realise that some of the people I depend on the most – for fieldwork, brainstorming, borrowing equipment, coffee breaks, oh-no-your-labwork-failed hugs – would receive very little credit at the end.

When a research project is finished – which I am told can happen – the main people who led the research are listed as ‘authors’ on the research paper. The authors receive all the fame, glory, and other good things, except money (and usually except fame and glory).

At the end of the paper, there is also a little section called “Acknowledgements”. This section lists all the other people and organisations who made the research possible. Very few people read this section, making things like this possible.

After The Volunteer’s comment, I decided to start a list of all the people who had helped with my research. I went home, picked up a pen, and wrote down all the names I could immediately think of. I reached 106 people. Before even needing to consult any other notes.

So, in my next blog posts (assuming I continue to have the motivation to write them), I’m going to try to write a kind of series of Acknowledgements stories. It’ll be great. I mean, it might take another six months. We’ll see. And, it’ll probably be exactly the same as previous blog posts, really, but featuring some people other than me (woot!).

Because, after all, it takes a village to raise a PhD.

Update 26.08.2021: I apparently never found the motivation to write this series of stories. Whoops. Maybe I will one day, but as it has now been *checks notes* 3.5 years, perhaps this is no longer likely. Still, to everyone who deserves acknowledgement – you all know who you are – I hope you still know how much I appreciate you.

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