PGR Corner

Fears and comfort in not knowing: starting the PhD

Alan Taman is starting a PhD in the psycho-social determinants of perceptions of health inequalities in September, working across the departments of Psychology and Public Health, and will be adding new blogs as his journey unfolds each month. If you would like to tell your story please contact the Research Office.

The greatest journeys are those you don’t know much about at the start. You might know where you are going, why and who with. But going somewhere new has an air of expectation replacing the comfortably familiar. For whatever reason, the new journey carries discovery along with it. This is my third journey to university, to become a student; the PhD my third degree. You’d think it would be familiar by now, tinged with sameness and pocketed in the easy comfort of experience. It’s anything but. There are intervening years in my case, that’s true: decades. So there was time to forget how new it all felt, and the world changed a lot. As have I.

But that’s not the driver to this. There’s a deeper shade to unknowing. Taking a doctorate carries with it an obligation to be uncertain, to not know. Then construct, with adamantine rigour and sustained cogency, a coherent and new argument which is not only (as far as you can show) true but which your peers will want to hear about. You can’t take lectures in that. It hasn’t been done before. That, surely, is the point?

Right now, sitting at home after enrolling, the gravity of that is sinking in, mixing with the elation which had me hopping around like a kid at their birthday party on hearing the news (and believe me, that is no comfortable sight – it scared the dog). I’m proposing to show what? (Psycho-social determinants of the perceptions of health inequality in my case.) I’ve never done anything as challenging before. For as long. In as much depth. While not only expecting but going out of my way to invite extensive criticism. What was I thinking? What’s next?

But hold on. I have always wanted to know answers to that one question, in my field, the only one I couldn’t find an answer to: why? WHY do people – nearly all of whom will tell you they cherish their health and the NHS – think about inequalities in health the way they do? And more importantly don’t think about them, accepting whatever view matches their own, often with attached blame and sometimes with crippling vilification of the very people suffering the most? Why can’t they see if there’s a better way, that they can bring about change and should?

So the chance to find the right questions, begin to look at answers then come up with something completely new – well, that is worth the uncertainty, the risk of getting it spectacularly wrong despite the experienced support from your supervisors. Loudly. I think that’s what has always driven me. It’s brought me here. New friends, new help, new places – all of that, yes. But most of all, the chance to find out.

I think the root of this lies in not knowing, and looking forward to finding out. And that, surely, is the best starting point.