On doing "a fun PhD," and other matters


This week’s post comes from Siddharth Pandey, a first-year PhD candidate. He is researching the interrelated ideas of making and crafted materiality in the fantasy genre.
The thing about quotation marks is that they instantly connote sarcasm on part of the writer. But I must assure you that I am not being sarcastic (well, at least trying not be, knowing fully well that you, “dear reader,” will read this as you like it). Quite a few months have passed since the beginning of my doctoral research, and this is how most people express themselves when they get to know that I am researching fantasy. “Oh!… A fun PhD!”
Indeed, a fun PhD. I enjoy myself a lot while researching. It is a tough, occasionally frustrating, illuminating, gradual, and tedious process – like all research – but it surely is fun. I don’t quite get it when some people express their boredom or apathy regarding their research: why research at all if you are not passionate about your chosen subject? Well, there may be several reasons (the compulsion to do it, etc.). But the “why” is not so important a question as “how”: how can one research something that one is not passionate about? A PhD is a huge commitment, and personally, its foremost component is passion. It is not very difficult to fall into depression or indifference while doing a PhD, since it is mostly a project that you do yourself, unlike many other studies that are conducted in shorter time spans and with collaborations. Passion keeps one alive and enthusiastic. It also translates into the novelty of thought, which is what the ultimate purpose of a PhD is.
It is clear from the above that I am fusing fun with passion, because that is how I perceive fun. But I am aware that that is certainly not how many (most?) people see fun. “Fun” has a certain reductive, debased quality as against the word “serious.” It is a pity that they are thought of as opposites. On the other hand, the word “serious” has, well, a serious quality. I am more than sure that had I been researching, say, “linguistic development in Shakespearean tragedy” or “affective resonances in Romantic poetry” or “the nation, body, and gender in [XYZ] post-colonial literature,” it would have hardly been labelled as a “fun” research. But there is some kind of funniness regarding fantasy (or for that matter, for young adult/ cross over/ children’s literature in general) that determines its overall perception. (There there, remember remember, I am not being sarcastic.)
I come from a country that celebrates hierarchy. If anyone were to ask me what is the greatest problem infecting India, it would be hierarchy. We love hierarchy, in every single institution, in every sphere of life. This is certainly not to say that other countries are not impaired by this concept. But the overwhelming forms that hierarchy assumes in India are worthy of an award. (There, I did become sarcastic.) Someone decided in the last few decades in the history of the country’s education system that “Let there be a hierarchy of subjects.” And then, there was one. So the moment you were done with your Class X exams, you had to decide what you would study in the last two years at school: Science, Commerce, or Humanities?
Whoa. Isn’t this compartmentalisation simply amazing? Apart from being amazed, it astounds me as well. There is a basic assumption in the country that the most brilliant students study science, the lesser study commerce, and the least study humanities. I was always a humanities person, but I couldn’t study it since there was no proper school around where I lived that offered the stream. So I studied science, did well in it, but maintained still that English was my favourite subject despite its horrible condition (in terms of pedagogy, course structuring, evaluation- everything) in the education board I was in (which demands another article, or rather a book). I entered a good university, did my BA, MA and MPhil in English, and enjoyed writing all of my research papers and thesis. And there I was introduced to another hierarchy: who were the important authors to study and who weren’t. Thankfully, the academic set-up was aware of its post-colonial identity, and it was rewarding to read many writers who would not have been taught in the academia until a few years back. And yet, on the other hand, there were several teachers who forced this notion of “greatness” of literature through a weird enactment of reverential seriousness that did more harm to the texts we studied than illuminate their critical potential (this too demands another article).
I then came to Cambridge, and found myself having a lot of fun. But I cannot differentiate between this fun and the fun I had when I was researching colonial literature in India (and even now in my spare time). I do not go off jumping in my college or faculty or university library, shouting, “Look! LOOK! I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN STUDYING MORRIS AND TOLKIEN AND POTTER AND PULLMAN AND OTHERS!” No. Fun is simply a state of mind that connotes full engagement with the subject. It is as simple as that. It results in the knowing of the unknown, the developing of new thoughts, and that is truly a pleasurable experience. The intellectual energy I invested in studying Shakespeare is literally the same that I invest in studying children’s or fantasy literature, or any other kind of literature- sociological, historical, cultural. Again, this is not to say that all of them are the same texts- no. They are different in their modes of engagement with realities and representations. They require different forms of engagements. But the energy and passion in my engagement remains the same. All of them have their own value (often inter-related, which somehow many people fail to recognise), and I see no point in creating sub-hierarchies within disciplines or streams that to start with were marginalised in any case. So for instance, first, English itself was stigmatised because it fell under humanities and humanities was “obviously” less important than the science (there, my sarcasm has crystallised by now). Then came realism, modernism, postcolonialism and many other -isms, and suddenly fantasy became the least important and the most fun! Then entered other disciplines too: cinema studies, performance studies etc etc, many sprouting from cultural studies, and with that came more hierarchies. So literature studies still retained their eminence over cinema studies… AAAAAARRRRRRGH!!!!! :/
But I will stop here and conclude with the issue at hand: fun. I am perfectly fine with fun. My idea of fun has nothing to do with the ignorance of seriousness and everything to do with a critical and sensitive engagement, which I must stress, is a loaded word. That’s all. And I am grateful to be working in a research centre that acknowledges this sentiment and nourishes it as well.
Have fun!
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3 comments

  1. Fantastic post!! I too am a humanities person, and it is simply incredible to me that nearly all of the people I meet on a day-to-day basis are flummoxed by my enjoyment of my studies. They don't understand it. They can't possibly see why I would choose to stay at university for so long, or to voluntarily embark on a PhD, or to keep learning about my subject area, instead of choosing something “useful” to learn about, or “doing something with myself” in the form of taking a job that would be unrelated to my field and therefore odious to me. And to them I say – BECAUSE IT'S FUN! 😀

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  2. I am so glad I found this post! I'm from India too and I find the condescending attitude people have towards the humanities here disgusting. I was lucky enough to go to a school that allowed me to choose whatever subjects I wanted though. And then I studied English literature in Madras Christian College (it was dreadful). I've got admission at Oxford Brookes to do a masters in Publishing but I'm planning on doing the Children's Lit course at Cambridge after this. I'm looking forward to it!

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