End of semester tales and reasons for doing research

This was by far the most eventful semester. Not only did the new college, with the school of Architecture and school of Urban Planning, become official, there is new faculty being hired and new spaces constructed ahead of our physical move in Fall. While things are hopefully moving in the direction as they should be, the same cannot be said about the PhD student group that we are hoping will become official by Fall. As senior cohorts come close to their graduation and the new ones focusing on their coursework and seeking out limited number of research and teaching positions, it wasn’t wise of us to assume enthusiastic support at this point. This hope is now postponed to Fall, when incoming students may be eager to join the group and help bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

What made this semester more eventful was the verbal approval of my committee members on my proposed research topic. So, summer will have me drafting and redrafting my proposal until it gets me approved for the field exam by end of this year. Thankfully, the timing also fits as I finish the last leg of my coursework over Fall, just in time to submit the proposal, gain approval and secure candidacy.

But as I consider the list of chapters in my proposal, and the sections and subsections that go into it, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. Having discussed this “natural” pre-proposal writing feeling with my supervisor and a senior doctoral candidate (so helpful!!), the task seems less overwhelming, but its still just as intimidating. I guess that will abate as I get things off of my to-do list of chapter—more on this later.

As these tasks get listed down on my list of things to take care of, and as I move towards the point where the  probability of reaching “valley of shit” increases (hope not!), I keep thinking about the larger ‘purpose’ of research—you know, besides the opportunity to write “Dr.” in front of my name and wear a silly robe in front of my loved ones. Having settled on a topic that is narrow enough to be completed within realistic time frame and interesting enough to hopefully hold my interest, I think its a good exercise to consider why research matters, at all.

I don’t think anyone who seeks a PhD solely for respect and acclaim ever ends up completing it in earnest. I may be wrong, but to gain either material or social credits for something that one has toil for for several years seems ridiculously unsatisfactory, if not self-defeating. It has to be more personal. Why does it matter that I make a valuable contribution to the existing body of knowledge in my field of interest when its physical embodiment (the dissertation) is only going to be read by my mother and my committee members ?

For me, my interest in research is an outgrowth of my ideological convictions, To put it simply, there are correct ways to do things (design cities, build infrastructure, enable democracy etc.) that have the potential to positively influence us all, but its something, at least I, don’t see happening in the real world. Research, in my mind, is one way to expose this misdirection in implementation of knowledge away from fundamental first principles, of life, or the world, of our very existence. It follows that if a unique contribution to our knowledge of life, the world, and our existence matters, then its articulation must be independent of who brings it forth. If new knowledge is destined to be added to our existing knowledge, it will be, regardless.

The researcher then is a channel for this destined knowledge to be brought forth, not necessarily its primary source. The things we learn, even while not consciously accessing, evaluating and juxtaposing others’ ideas or arguments into/against our own—as we usually do in literature reviews—lets us think how we think and do what we do. While this may seem like distancing oneself from ones own work, it isn’t. Rather, its an objective reconsideration of why contributing knowledge matters at a personal level and what reasons must it take to belong to a community of academicians/researchers/graduate students who do this—for the right reasons. This idea, as I sat discussing with my PI yesterday, was something I must have perhaps picked elsewhere from art and creative writing domains, but it makes sense to me and seems relevant for academic research work as well.


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