Chaos, Nietzsche and the Life of a PhD Researcher


So it turns out that I forgot the Day of Archaeology. Again.

In my defence, life has been pretty busy lately. I suppose most people’s lives probably are in the twenty-first century. Chaos isn’t such a bad starting point, though. Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that ‘one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star’, which is pretty much on the mark for a lot of things.

In fact, it is a good analogy for the life of a PhD researcher. I know this because I am one. My name is Matt Austin and I am undertaking my doctorate in archaeology at the University of Reading.

Nietzsche’s comment is relevant insofar that I often feel as though I am giving man-birth to my thesis, and it is certainly true that chaos is an important driving force. To say that I always consider my thesis to be a ‘dancing star’ would be a lie, though. Instead, it frequently feels more like the shambling husk of research or, perhaps, the proverbial lump of excrement that people say you can’t polish.

Maybe I am being too dour, but I have always found that the key to success is to temper optimism and self-belief with a hefty sprinkling of unrelenting angst and crushing self-doubt. I suppose I am pretty British in that respect. When you are doing a job where you are effectively your own boss, at least in terms of time management and work pattern, it helps to not get too complacent. For example, if I am fully content with my research it probably means:

either         (a): I am being naïve

or               (b): The research is really damn good

Setting aside my pessi-pragmatic[i] approach, it seems in the spirit of the Day of Archaeology to consider what the life of a PhD researcher typically looks like. Well, in the last couple of weeks I have (in no particular order):

  • Thought (perhaps too much).
  • Had a few meetings.
  • Refined my methodology.
  • Changed my mind (a lot).
  • Written some blog posts.
  • Tried and failed to read my own writing.
  • Got lost in the library.
  • Done a lot of emailing.
  • Read a great deal of academic books and papers (some of which I even enjoyed).
  • Had an article published in an academic journal.
  • Written some thesis.
  • Trawled various online databases and print gazetteers for archaeological data.
  • Created a database of archaeological sites.
  • Stared at ArcGIS and scratched my head several times.
  • Went to some training courses.
  • Learnt some German.
  • Packed to go on an incredible Anglo-Saxon excavation for seven weeks.

In short, it is a varied and incredibly enjoyable job. It is certainly the best job I’ve ever had (although I probably sounded more interesting to people when I worked in a milkshake bar) and the potential to expand your mind and improve your skills is immense. Sure, it can be lonely and hard to motivate yourself at times, but archaeology is an all-consuming intellectual lover like no other. And at the end of the day, contributing (in whatever small way) to our understanding of the past is probably all the job satisfaction you could hope for.

What will your next dancing star be?


[i] I cannot believe that this is not already a word. I have never previously invented a word before. You should try it – it feels great.

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