Opinion

The “aimless state” – A condition to be overcome by PhD students

The aimless state of a PhD candidate in the Social Sciences

PhD candidates in the Social Sciences are trapped in an intellectual environment that creates a state of mind which I call the “aimless state”. This state is one that precipitates a constant struggle over the meaningfulness of the own work and its end-product is the fatalist, stoic or overconfident PhD student who’s emotional state swings between on the one hand the relentless curiosity and eagerness to discover new knowledge about the social world and on the other hand the exasperation about the reliability, external and temporal validity of one’s own knowledge in an ever-changing context-full interdependent social world. Approaches to this problem like the banalization of comprehension, the refugee into epistemic communities, intellectual dogmatism and an unshaking belief in epistemology are no solution but rather the consequence of a neglect of self-reflection. This creates the “aimless sate” in which the conscious PhD student’s main challenge during his doctorate is not the production/discovery of knowledge but rather the constant search and justification of one’s own choice.

The challenges of the PhD in the Social Sciences

Academic work in natural science is as straightforward as it can be. Have a hunch or find a gap in knowledge, test it, control for alternative explanations, be happy. In social science it is very different. Have a hunch or find a gap in knowledge, engage in in deep deliberate thought about what it is that you actually observe and want to explain, develop definitions that everyone criticizes often for the sake of critique itself, swim through a never-ending stream of literature that either vaguely touches  your field or already attempted to solve your problem with many more means than one single PhD student can utilize, engage in theorizing in order to invent some new idea(s) which nobody except he or she him/herself fully grasps,  devise a framework how to test your idea which nobody else than you accepts conclusively, develop a research strategy that fits your epistemological view and pray that those assessing your work agree with that, test your ideas with disputable data and lastly derive conclusions to which the rest of the academic community only waited for like vultures in the desert flying over their desired prey.

The challenges a conscious PhD student in the Social Sciences faces in this process have significant effects on his or her state of mind. First, the inter-academic disagreement about the boundaries of the social phenomena of interest is at least a very annoying nuisance. Not to be able to determinatively agree among all academics what the research project will explain because concepts like “trust”, “deterrence” or social phenomena like “civil war” are fluid, injects a portion of arbitrariness into the feelings of a PhD student about his own work. Second, relevant literature for one’s own project can feel “infinite” since the fear to “miss out” the one piece which could contribute to the dissertation can never be fully satisfied. This is even worse in those fields in which research is permanently ongoing and the look into new issues of journals is accompanied by the fear that one’s own research question was already solved by someone else. Such uncertainty can have debilitating influences on the first stages of the dissertation.

Third, the development of new approaches is a mine-field as it either constitutes something so mundane that one wonders why it is researched at all or exhibits a direction to which genuine skepticism is the most harmless reaction by peers. Striking the balance to conform to curiosity, expectations and the hope for supportive tangible results is an art without having ever any kind of assurance to be on the right track. This is an inherent feature of social science research. Fourth, although a rigorous defense of one’s own epistemological views leads to an acceptance by peers and examiners, knowing that it constitutes more tolerance than outright endorsement is a disappointing condition of the environment in which a PhD student develops his academic skills. It simply translates into the arbitrariness of one’s own work in the wider academic community. Lastly, the implementation the research project is fraught by the inconclusiveness of data and results in Humean and Popperian terms. The black swan hinges like a sword of Damocles over one’s head and the debate over the operationalization of all previous concepts and definitions amplifies the feeling of uncertainty tremendously. This is not to mention the debate whether an analysis is even genuinely possible as post-modernists would disprove.

Non-Solutions

There are unconscious solutions to this problem but they only provide a façade of certainty. One is the banalization of knowledge in which the academically disputable richness is so much condensed to the already intersubjectively agreed obvious that any intellectual enriching debate becomes futile. Another possibility is to flee into a narrow epistemic community in which the endorsement of research is reciprocal but such bubbles are not a guarantee for academic “truth” in Social Science (whatever this means) but rather a guarantee for a feeling of well-being and a source of reputation. Also, engaging in dogmatism about one’s own research is the death knell for every PhD student. This remains something for later stages in one’s academic career.

Consequences

Consequently, the intellectual environment engenders and shapes a strong feeling of uncertainty in PhD students over their own academic work. The “aimless state” is created in which every step towards personal certainty causes a backlash into bigger uncertainty induced by one’s own reflection or through peers. It can be compared to a rollercoaster that epitomizes the constant struggle to find confidence in the own work and the subsequent setback from the academic surrounding. The never satisfiable feedback-loop can lead to depression, imposter syndrome and exhaustion. But luckily this is not conclusive. The negative output of the academic selection process in which the PhD student in Social Science has to adopt a certain range of characteristics in order to survive is not inevitable (otherwise we would not have successful PhD candidates). The natural reaction of the PhD student becomes the adoption of a fatalistic or stoic state of mind or one of overconfidence in order to counter the “aimless state”.

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