Seth Globepainter in Bordeaux, France
I have been contemplating whether I should write the reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD following this post last week. Among the questions that popped up in my head was, to whom I owe these justifications to? Of which the answer clearly was: No one. But I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror last week — what an amazing set of essays about life as a millennial, politics, culture, feminism and many more, please get the book — and came upon this excerpt of hers in the first few pages of the book, where she says, “When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive, and clear” and I couldn’t nod fast enough as I mutter to myself, “That’s it, that was exactly how I often deal with things so this is how I should approach this too.” So while I do not owe anyone else any justifications for the reasons why I do decided to pursue a doctoral research — of whose common end product is often centered around the idea of “a waste of time unless you want to be a lecturer” (I quoted someone verbatim, and the idea isn’t true at all which I will come back later) — I feel I at least I owe myself the clarity of mind and the chance to put what I have been thinking about on paper.
I was 35 when I enrolled in my PhD program, which is to say in the least words as possible, somewhat late in my or anyone else’s postgraduate career. Almost everyone I knew in my school was under 30. Some of them did fast track — which means they did well in their degree studies and got accepted into the PhD program without a Masters degree, which sometimes enabled them to have a PhD before 25. Unlike a lot of people I knew in my school as well, I did not have the need to pursue a doctorate to advance in my career. I was doing OK in my job at the moment, and I have always been resourceful and strategic to execute a lot of tasks, given I have enough information. My acquired skills over the years, in measurement with countless others with the same skillset in the industry that I know of, do not necessitate a need for another degree. By embarking on this rite of passage — enrolling in a mentally demanding postgraduate program in my mid-30s — it was a privilege, an option, a luxury, more so than a requirement.
At work, I remember there was a point of time where we were commissioned a project to design an internal app for a corporation, some sort of similar to one of those SAP platforms. The app would make the work multiple times easier and faster for everyone in the labour chain. However, there was one catch: it would result in layoffs of hundreds of people in the company who had been doing the job manually over the years. I kept thinking about this till today — how much of technology that I had helped bring to fruition had, in one way or another, bring harm to other people? If I have worked in a project where the new app or software would lead to hundreds of the client’s employees being laid off, was I also complicit in it? Sure, they get compensated financially, but are they also compensated in time and energy in going around to find other jobs? A lot of companies aren’t exactly empathetic to potential employees with a history of involuntary suspension — how do we measure the total mental compensation? I remember that this also happened at the same time where fiascos involving Facebook’s invisible hands into the fate of democracy had been slowly unearthed. Zuckerberg might have never predicted, or even deliberately designed his product to have this much harmful effect, but he can do something about it now — but would he? Will we have the same moral compass?
It is with this exact overthinking that I decided to read Sociology to understand the implications of technology on a collective, societal level.
In 2017, as I walked into the halls of my new university, I was also recovering from a massive burnout. Like a lot of people, I used to, and was internalised to, equate my productivity with my self-worth — which only very recently I realised the problems with burnout is more than just individually inflicted, or wasn’t individually inflicted at all. We launched multiple projects weeks after weeks but because there were so many other projects coming our way, I felt we didn’t get the chance to even celebrate. We moved fast and solved more things, which was great, but I felt I needed to slow down. I felt I needed time and space more for broader learning, deeper thinking, and a more meaningful rumination sort of way to figure things out. I’m only in my third — and hopefully final year — but I really enjoy this process of honing my research and writing skills, this whole journey of focusing on a set of answers that you yourself found the gap to, devising the research design as to how to find the answers, critically questioning your methods and ethics, and seeing the project to completion.
I admit it wasn’t the only path for one to spend years to read and write deeply — anyone can do so given the right conditions — for academia is also famous for being the space where it never allows one to learn things broadly and deeply given how deeply embroiled in politics it can be. But I come from the tech industry. In my experience, we didn’t really have the luxury to do those (learning broadly and deeply) in a long-running list of tasks whose deadlines are always yesterday. In return we overlooked concerns like above, not always out of malice, but out of the culture of moving fast and shipping faster — how much of technology that we had helped bring to fruition had, in one way or another, bring harm to other people? I might never have the answer for this academia vs industry anyway, but at this point of time, entering a few years of grad school seems to be the only way I could afford to hone my writing and research skills, on top of other skills I have acquired over the years.
I also do not believe it when people kept saying the only career path after PhD is academia. I have met a lot of people in the tech industry with a PhD. The founders of Ludwig, the English sentence search engine — whose app has helped me tremendously in my research writing — were PhD graduates and built Ludwig out of their very own necessity of wanting to search English sentences to find out if they are correct. One PhD also isn’t equivalent to another, and definitely does not translate to one fixed career path. The possibility is endless, one has to only learn to spot the opportunities.
Evidently with the skills I have developed, I want to do greater things. I say this a lot with the vaguest idea of what this great is operationalised as — as I saw my definition of great changes from building a highly intuitive and engaging UI (an undergrad case study) to benefitting businesses through innovation culture (my MA thesis) and advancing to understand the social implications of emerging technologies on politics (my ongoing PhD thesis). Now taking a look at this trajectory, I feel like I am exactly where I needed to be — that my growth through formal education has progressed from learning how design and technology to benefit individual users to businesses to how this will impact on a societal level, which is something the industry I had been involved in for the past 12 years ultimately needed. It is pretty vague at the moment, but the gist is this: I want to do greater things with the skills I have developed, and at the same time be mindful of the harms the industry and I have been complicit for perpetuating in all throughout the years, and do something about them. This means doing it on a more collective scale, breaking the trope of techno-determinism — no longer for any specific individuals or groups of people or businesses, but the society as a whole — as a way to make reality the vision of the industry that was initially touted to empower everyone regardless of any parts of their backgrounds.
At this point in time, I am pretty terrified when I think about my upcoming viva voce. But someone told me to reframe it this way: “Think about it, it’d be perhaps the only time you have a group of the smartest people you have ever come across to be fully invested in your research.” I might also not have the exact answers for the questions I have, but at least I am now better equipped with ways to find them out.
Some related, some not:
- “Light, not heat.” Overheard on Twitter, of which context refers to the way social network platforms, especially Facebook, are designed to reward content driven by communally negative or extreme comments or reactions, and how we should know better. Light, not heat. (I lost the link, if you know whose comment it belongs to, let me know and I’ll be happy to credit.)
- To be planet-centric, designers need to be diverse and inclusive in their influences and practice.
- “Hope is participatory — it’s an agent in the world. Optimism looks at the evidence, to see whether it allows us to infer whether we can do X or Y. Hope says, “I don’t give a damn, I’m gonna do it anyway.”