The next stage of academia: embarking on a PhD

Since 2017, I have fallen out of the habit of announcing life events/my movements on social media, yet somehow I still feel a need to announce/document my starting a Doctor of Philosophy programme this October at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. It’s been a fairly long and considered process, since graduating from my bachelor’s in 2015. It took me 2 months of a voluntary/self-searched research internship at the University of Queensland, a year-long master’s programme at Imperial College London, 15 months research associate job at Nanyang Technological University and another year of intense reading/learning and 9 applications* to finally land myself a PhD (with a scholarship).

I had struggled with the question – to do a PhD or not – the whole time, questioning my motivations for wanting to do a PhD (prestige/reputation? trying to keep on par with my peers from similar educational backgrounds who have already finished/are in the midst of doing their PhD?), my level of commitment knowing what the graduate environment could be like (been reading PHD Comics since finishing GCE ‘A’ levels… though I’m aware the environment in the USA can be quite different to elsewhere), and most importantly, what topic I would want to spend the next 3-5 years of my life working on. The four years I had spent since my bachelor’s was formative in shaping the kind of research experience/academic mentor/environment I would like to have, and realising that I do thoroughly enjoy the research process and being part of the academic community. But I think the key question on what research is worth me spending those years on (and somebody paying me to do it) was really only answered after I attended the summer school on degrowth and environmental justice last July.

Doing a PhD is usually seen as the start of an academic career, culminating in a professorship, and I’ve seen enough criticisms of academia to know that I didn’t want to work on something with no “direct relevance” to reality and to be accused of being in an “ivory tower”. Engaging with political ecology and environmental justice literature also brought into focus many of the political and economic realities faced by those impacted by conservation measures, which are often times overlooked by researchers or perpetuated through conservation interventions. There’s still a lot to learn and think about (and work towards), but for my PhD thesis, I am intending to examine telecoupled links of protected areas in Colombia, Colombia because the lab that I will be joining (Prof David Edwards lab) has a good number of links there that I can tap on. I am sure this will be refined and evolve as I start the PhD process, but I’m really psyched to use the telecoupling framework to look at how distant actors and flows affect local systems.

I’m also really excited about starting the PhD in Sheffield. I had applied to do the undergraduate degree in the Animal and Plant Sciences department 9 years ago (I took a gap year after completing my A levels), and I’m pleased to be able to finally experience being there. Not to mention all the climbing!!

*Coming back to the process of applying for PhDs, I think the main advice I can give is to apply to many and hope for the best (and also make sure you apply to labs you think you’ll fit in/professors whom you can work with). I had applied for 9 programmes from universities across Europe (including the UK), some of which were funded (the European programmes) and others which I had to separately apply for scholarship funding. I was offered a place in Vienna, but declined as I wasn’t prepared to move there (I was being hopefully optimistic when I applied and did not expect to get anywhere near the final selection of candidates, since I did not think my previous research experience fitted what I would be doing. But I really liked the topic that was being investigated, which was hidden emissions of forest transitions). I obtained offers of placement from most of the UK universities I applied to, but unfortunately did not manage to secure any funding. I was all ready to give up ever securing a PhD (scholarship) and so any hopes for an academic career, when an email advertisement forwarded by my previous supervisor A/P Janice Lee at NTU appeared in my inbox. I applied, got interviewed, and was offered the PhD scholarship (all within two weeks in July!) so you know, anything is possible. They say start applying early, but sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute…

Who’s trying to ‘save the world’?

I recently read this Medium article titled ‘I’m Done Trying to Save the World’ by Devon Price, which mainly details their experiences in campaign activism for the environment/conservation, LGBTQ equality and shutting down a solitary confinement centre, and contrasting it with their sister’s work at school in creating a safe and just environment for all students. They end it by concluding that all their previous work in political activism counted for less than the setting up of a good local environment, countering racist comments by relatives or reassuring distressed youths.

A friend of mine sent me the article, telling me it reminded her of me. I’m not too sure why – because I’m seen as someone who tries to ‘save the world’, and that I might commiserate with the feelings of Devon? I do/have not engaged with the high-level of activism that they had, but I can empathise with the feeling of burnout and insignificance. On reading the article however, I’m left with a slightly uncomfortable feeling over the framing of the issues – one, about ‘saving the world’; two, about individual choice.

Apart from the fact that the world does not need saving, but rather it is the environment we humans are accustomed to living in that is being threatened by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, the constant framing of environmental issues as being about ‘saving the world’ prematurely closes off discussion. Questions such as whether the proposed solution does what it’s intended to, whether they are appropriate for the context, or if they are even necessary are left out, when we talk about ‘saving the world’ – because of course, we want to do good and ‘save the world’.

Image
Taken from Twitter @TommySiegel

As the comic above illustrates, so many environmental movements revolve around individual choice. To buy a more environmentally friendly or ethical product, or to recycle more, or to drive less etc. Yet while all these individual actions are laudable in themselves, they are no where near the scale needed to address the very large problem we are facing. [Here is a web comic that illustrates the point.] It is global political and economic policies (driven largely by western/American institutions) that are raiding the earth of its natural resources, on which we are completely reliant on whether directly or indirectly. These same policies are also systematically wiping out any resistance they face in the form of environmental guardians, the Indigenous peoples whose lives are most closely tied with their land.

Individually, there may be little we can achieve. Collectively though, we can affect policies for a better world, whether for the environment or for people, especially those of us who are privileged and have more of a voice in public spaces. Campaigning and lobbying is not for everyone, it takes an immense amount of energy and time to be able to do all that, and does not suit everyone’s personalities. But to stay silent is not an option, if what we want is a more equitable, more just, more beautiful world to live in.

Image result for silent only helps the oppressors not the oppressed
Taken from Google images.

There is no silver bullet or panacea when it comes to solving large-scale, globalised systemic issues. Technological fixes are appealing (like devices to clean up plastic pollution or geoengineering to cool down the planet) because it suggests we can continue living our lives as we have lived them for the last 50 years or so without drastic changes to our political economy. But the social and environmental/ecological problems we face now distill down to issues about power (differences) and recognition of equality among all humans (not just the politically and economically privileged), and without addressing these, technology only gets abused. So who’s trying to save the world? I’d think that we all need to do better in any capacity we can to forge a fairer, safer world for every living being on this planet we all share. And especially push for the rich and privileged who caused most of the problems to take responsibility.