Guest post: Voice, purpose and the PhD journey

Why would someone pursue a PhD degree?

It took me about three years to realize that what I was looking for through the PhD was my voice.

When I started my application process, things seemed quite simple to me. I had decided to study for a social science research degree in order to better understand the reasons for the developmental disparities between nations in terms of technological progress, and make the case for technological sovereignty in the developing world to achieve prosperity and justice. At that time, I knew my research was not motivated solely by the pursuit of truth or intellectual curiosity; I had my own naïve ideals in mind.

But before I even started the PhD journey, doubt began to creep into that idealistic certainty.

I remember how much of a disaster my first interview for a PhD position was. Because I was arguing that there is evidence that foreign technology companies, backed by powerful states, were depriving African governments and people from their political agency, I was told that my proposal was built on racist assumptions. I do not know whether the interviewer was serious or just trying to test me, but that suggestion triggered a crisis of purpose that I had to deal with even after receiving offers from academics who did not misinterpret my idea, and starting my PhD.

Now, the position stated above is not new or unusual. There are many scholars arguing that technological dominance is taking a neo-colonial form. But it has a special meaning for me as someone who was born and raised in a developing African country and who came to study in a rich industrialized one. Neo-colonialism is not just a theoretical concept for me; it has been part of my lived reality. Yet precisely because of that, I was no longer sure I could distinguish between what I knew as a reality and what had been constructed in my mind through certain value systems and ideologies. The prospect of inadvertently supporting the wrong political project, the wrong values and social purposes, was unbearable.

As a result, halfway through my first year, I gave up on my initial project. Not only that, but I rejected the very idea that research can be value-driven, and attempted instead to find methods that can reveal objective, scientific truth. The only thing I succeeded in doing through that was to get even more confused, as it soon became clear that I was pursuing an illusion: there is no single truth about human beings in general or socio-economic development in particular.

So I changed my strategy and, over the past two years, I have been engaging in an exercise in constant self-criticism and re-interpretation of my research project. Most of it felt like a waste of time, not only because nothing seemed to work, but also because I was drowning in the midst of thoughts, claims and proposals put forward by other people. I no longer knew why I was doing this to begin with, what my thesis was, or even whether I could allow myself to have one.

Things did not improve either when I decided to concern myself with the experience of newly industrialized countries, more specifically South Korea. On the contrary, a new problem arose and intensified the crisis. How do I justify to myself the fact that I am researching socio-economic and political problems in a rich developed country, as someone from a developing country? How can I ensure my accountability vis-à-vis this case study?

My experience is not universal or bias-free, but it is not separate from reality.

And then I realized something important. I was overwhelmed by doubt and moral questions, because I tried to suppress and undermine my own experience, which is the unique source of the problems and questions that I can genuinely relate to. My experience is not universal or bias-free, but it is not separate from reality. No matter how different one’s experience is, there will always be something in it that is collectively shared and that others find relatable. I may not have any certainty about the world, but I know what I care about and why. I may not have an unassailable justification for studying development in a place I have no connection to, but I have all the reasons to write about and empathize with the struggles of people anywhere in the world.

I wish I had seen this more clearly three years ago. Research only acquires its meaning with a personal purpose and a distinct voice.

— Ahlem Faraoun


Author bio: Ahlem Faraoun is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is writing her thesis on the political economy of South Korean development, focusing on the state and business-led promotion of technology and innovation as economic growth engines.

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