I am coming to the conclusion that there are two types of PhD in existence. Let me start with the prompts for this thought. There is Pat Thomas’ blog on enjoying academic work and also a post on LinkedIn that suggested that we should no longer have part time PhDs.
I am going to consider two doctoral students. There is on the one hand Bob. Bob is young bright and wants to be an academic, he is interested in his nanotechnology and has got a fully funded PhD in one of the major research teams in the world. As this is a research team, his supervisor has chosen the topic, he works with other researchers and team meetings are an important part of his research. He has presented a couple of papers at conference and has been first author on one and a third author on another paper. He sees research as collaborative but knows that he will have to write up his research though he can expect his supervisor to vet it closely. He works long hours but also is a long distance runner and takes his training quite seriously
Then there is Bill, he is bright, but as he has spent most of his life teaching in variety of schools he is no longer young. Having taken early retirement and come into a legacy, he has decided to follow through on his interest in the establishment of the local schools prior to the education act. Wanting to turn what had been an interest for a number of years into something more formal, he had approached a lecturer at a nearby university who had an interest in the history of education, who had agreed to take him on in a part time basis, having seen some of the writing he had already done for a local history society. Bill is grateful for the access to the library, his supervisors supervision and the occassional chance to meet other people in the area at the occasional seminar. He has paid his own way to one or two conferences and presented a paper there. However he has several articles published of which he is sole author. Bob puts what time he can find into his thesis between looking after his wife who confined to a wheel chair with arthritus.
These are of course fictional and deliberately drawn to be polar opposites. Bob is your quintessential career academic. He is enthused with the ideas of nanotechnology and is happy to be doing research into an area of it. That his supervisor actually decided what his thesis is about, does not really matter too much, he just is excited about studying it. He expects that at least at some stage to work with other resesearch teams and to have to work up the system to become lead researchers. For him the doctorate it just part of his involvement with nanotechnology. He would be unhappy if he did not get a job that allowed him to continue in this area of study. For Bill the opposite is true. If his supervisor started to try to direct him away from the investigation of origins of local schools to something the supervisor was more interested in, then Bill is likely to just walk away. Bill is not wanting the job that comes from having a Doctorate he is wanting the ability to indulge his interest in a topic that enthuses him and is paying for it. Bill is not going to be upset if he does not get a job from his research, partly because he is not at that age and partly because he is acknowledges that that is not why he did this.
The result is that Bob and Bill look at working in academia very differently. For Bob this is his equivalent of a being an elite sportman, it is what he is working for and he darn well hopes to get there. For Bill it would a surprise and a delight that enables him to continue exploring what he is interested in.
Now what I am going to suggest is that Bill will be far more aware of his enjoyment of academia then Bob. Not because Bob is a worse academic, he isn’t, indeed the stats show Bob has a much greater potential to be a leader in his field then Bill, but simply because where as for Bob being in academia is something he has striven and worked for; for Bill what has driven him is the curiousity and he finds himself in academia because that is where his curiosity has led him and therefore he receives the environment of academia as gift where as Bob sees it as a goal.