By Daniel Adamson |

Neither metaphors nor similes tend to carry much weight in real life. With respect to both Roman Keating and Forrest Gump, knowing that life is a rollercoaster or like a box of chocolates is unlikely to be much use in a crisis.

However, if searching for an analogy to describe the PhD experience, one might do worse than to think of a river.

But how might a stream of water resemble doctoral study? Well…

Currents and meanders:

The course of water in a river is subject to constant change, caused by swirling slipstreams and other movements in all directions. Similarly, the course of PhD study is rarely linear. PhDs are not like canals. Just as a river winds and bends, so too will doctoral projects detour in unexpected directions. 

Whilst moving towards its final destination, the focus of projects might well shift depending on circumstance and fortune. New ideas and resources can change directions of research. When in a fast-moving river, it is futile to fight against the current. Flexibility is key. If researchers are prepared to ‘go with the flow’, unplanned diversions can sometimes yield the most rewarding research outcomes.

Water levels will rise and fall:

Over the course of time, the height of rivers does not remain static. There will be times when river water dries up. Likewise, there will be barren periods during the PhD where research or writing opportunities prove hard to come by. The pandemic period has highlighted this more than ever, with archives and libraries shutting their doors.

However, there will also be times when rivers burst their banks. Doctoral students will have periods when they are overwhelmed with work. This can be both positive and negative: multiple deadlines can be intimidating, but phases of intense productivity should also be valued, however testing.

Either way, it is important for PhD students to recognise that levels of work are unlikely to remain stable over the course of the degree.

Starting as a trickle, ending as a cascade:

Rivers have to start from somewhere. More often than not, what begins as a mountain dribble will develop into a forceful waterway.

PhDs must also start small. It is unrealistic to believe that major research activities can be pursued from the off. Rather, just as a river accrues size and momentum, so too will doctoral research. Over the course of some years, the experiences gained in the early stages of the PhD will combine in order to result in a significant academic end product.

A drop in the ocean?

Within the context of plant earth, single rivers represent just a fraction of total water content. However, each river plays its own vital part in maintaining a broader ecosystem.

For all the optimism characteristic of research proposals, it is unlikely that individual PhD projects will change the world. In most cases, doctoral theses will make a relatively small indent in the field they address. However, regardless of perceived significance, PhD students should remember that their contributions are vital to maintaining the academic ‘biosphere’. Just as modest rivers can feed into vast oceans, the combined input of small PhD projects can feed into something truly great.

Variety in water quality:

River water can also be muddy or clear. Research thoughts, too, range from cloudy to incisive. Some days, research objectives and lines of argument will be obvious. On other days, researchers may find themselves struggling to make order of chaotic thoughts. The best way to clear murky water is to allow it to settle. When faced with mental blocks, therefore, PhD students might be advised to rest, reflect, and reset. 

To sum up: investing in rhetorical devices is unlikely to solve the problems of life. However, there is something comforting in thinking of a PhD as a river. PhDs and rivers alike are products of circumstance. Doctoral students must remember that it is perfectly normal for research projects to twist and bend. 

Equally, intellectual drought and fruitfulness will come and go. PhDs, like rivers, can start small before feeding into something boundless. And for these reasons, optimism must remain.

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the History Department of Durham University. His research centres on Holocaust education in the United Kingdom. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielEAdamson

Image 1 : Photo by Mario Álvarez on Unsplash

Image 2 : Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash