Metaphors for the PhD

As part of a research training course, I have been tasked to consider what metaphors I would use to describe my PhD research. I don’t want to say it is a journey – a motif too cliched for someone engaging in children’s literature. I have kept this question at the back of my head for like a week and ideas keep popping up. None of them can be a perfect allegory, but each should highlight certain aspects how I perceive my PhD research.


PhD is an adventure in the Wonderland

We were all probably first lured by an intriguing White Rabbit in the first place into the rabbit hole. Down the rabbit hole we have fallen into the Wonderland, an unknown land inhabited by incomprehensible creatures such as the Caterpillar smoking a hookah. We once again ask fundamental questions like ‘who are you’ / ‘who am I’ / ‘what am I doing’ / ‘why am I here’. We have to unlearn as we learn, and be prepared to abandon any preconceived ideas to acquire a new perspective of seeing things. The adventure is episodic, not necessarily linked by causality but rather a matter of serendipity (or randomness, for people who don’t feel too positive about it).  It is fascinating to wander in this new land but it can be confusing and frustrating at times. It is not a place without trouble and fear. The fear of having our heads off is always lurking there. It is an adventure without a fixed itinerary and we do not know the destination. We know when we arrive.


PhD is mining

This time it is not the White Rabbit that led us into the mine. We probably are attracted by the possibilities of finding precious gold or diamond there, or at least some useful coal. Hence into the dark hole we went. Carrying the necessary equipment, we started mining. At times we might realise that we do not have the best equipment for this particular mine. After all each mine has its own unique landscape, for example with especially narrow tunnels or particularly hard rocks. So we have to get out of the mine and get hold of some more effective tools. On some days we dig out nothing despite all the effort spend. On some other days we might chance on some valuable minerals. It is a lonely process in a dark mine and we have to get out to bathe in sunlight for a balance sometimes. (The disturbing aspect: mining is a dangerous job and the casualty rate is high too.)


PhD is a rhizome

Borrowing the metaphor from Deleuze and Guattari, the metaphor of the rhizome is best used to describe the process of picking up academic reading. From one scholar we go on to another because A has cited B’s work. From B we go on to C, then C to D, who might have also been referred to by A and who might also be quoting E. And so on and so forth. From one idea we are connected to another, seeing how different scholars are juxtaposing previously unrelated thoughts. From one discipline we glide to another discipline, almost another ecosystem, and yet the roots are so interwoven that we cannot completely sever one from another. Where will we end up? There is no end, unless we give up on the whole botanical system and go back above the ground – so yes we are in the underground darkness finding our ways without the privileged ability to oversee the entire network.


Although I tend to be dark with the above metaphors, I am rather positive that we will get something invaluable out of the adventure, or the mine, or the underground roots, that we cannot otherwise gain. After all it is not the destination that matters the most, but the adventure itself. And if we remain in the academia, this intellectual adventure will go on and on and on.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think!

Author: Aaron Y.K. Chan

Aaron Chan is a Hongkonger who loves literature and his city. He is going to resume his career as a teacher of English Language and Literature in English in the coming school year. Perhaps teaching is his true calling after all.

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