Having pipe-dreams* during your PhD is a good thing – as is coming to the point when you realise what’s attainable and what’s not.


What do giraffe biomechanics students dream of?

I have 18 months left on the clock of my PhD. My route to post-graduate research was common – I applied for a funded position, in a subject area with which I was familiar, and in a lab that I’d worked with before. But this was still a jump into a new area of biology for me (I looked carefully before I leapt, but happily leapt all the same). As such there were, and still are, plenty of aspects somewhat novel to me.

I’m also a tad naïve – but I suspect all the good people are in some way, how else do you learn something new? I thought I was pretty sorted straight away for plans. Having read my supervisor’s grant proposal for the project funding, I saw that my ace PhD had a title, it had objectives, methods, and that sweet sciencey nectar: HYPOTHESES.

What I learnt over the first year was that this document is not set in stone, and can’t anticipate all the twists and turns as you stumble your way through the PhD. Nor can it account for your own individual style, interests and limitations. This means there’s not just one way of doing things, you’ve got some wiggle room to explore your own ideas.

As a by-product of this freedom, I occasionally feel like grabbing the nearest passer-by on the street and yelling ‘Tell me what to do!’. Whilst being impolite, this would also be a misguided gesture. One of the nice things about doing a PhD is the ability to carve your own ideas and style into the work –  it would be a shame if you had to walk a completely prescribed path, where deviation is met with a frowny face.

It’s good to daydream during your PhD. If, like me you’re learning the capabilities and limitations of your research methods, whilst absorbing 60 years of related literature; you will have plenty of unrefined ideas. At the start, you may not be precisely sure of how to apply your research methods to get at your ideas.

Somewhere though, in the mess of references, workshop notes and pilot data, there might be the start of a logical workflow that takes you to hypothesis>experimental design>data collection>analysis>conclusion. That’s the good stuff which you need to build your PhD around. The madness that’s left over might form a discussion point somewhere in your thesis. But it might lead to inspiration further down the line, either during or beyond your time as a graduate student. Daydreaming can lead to ideas, collaborations and the realisation of something special.

The key thing though for me is timing. Daydreaming is great, and I could easily spend the whole of my PhD cooking up ideas. But at some point you need to clear your head and know where you’re going. I have 18 months left, with 24 months behind me. That’s scary, but I’ve personally needed this time to figure things out. If you find yourself worrying that time is passing but feel that you’re lost, chances are you’re due some kind of reality check with your supervisor/s. It’s ok to admit to your supervisor that you don’t exactly know how to move forward – that’s one of the reasons that they’re there for you.

If I had to make an awkward list of stuff, it would be:

It’s good to dream

It’s good to lose yourself

It’s good to be naïve

Come back to reality in time to plan your thesis

Ask for help.

This has been my experience, but I’m sure there are plenty of alternate perspectives. If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment or get in touch!

 Chris, @thebadlizard


*The term pipe-dream reportedly refers to the crazy dreams of 19th century opium smokers.