I would apologise for having remained silent for too long, but I feel that my delay in posting has resulted in something important that I would like to share. Although I feel that this post is aimed more at those just starting out in academic research, I hope that more experienced readers might see something of themselves, or of those whom they know, in this post.
To put it succinctly, this post is about limits. As a researcher, a thinker, one is required to cast a net into the unimaginably vast seething mass of data that is human knowledge and its discourses. We cast our net, made from the woven strands of all that we have read with the craft of our personal artifice, and we seek to haul insights, wet and gleaming with novelty, from the deep. As Novalis wrote in the 18th century, “Hypotheses are nets: only he who casts will catch”. The bigger the net, the bigger the catch. But how much can a mind truly be expected to catch, how large a surface area can our inquiry have before insights start to slip away?
This thought has been troubling me of late. As a generalist by inclination, I stubbornly spurned the advice so often given to PhD students to ‘just focus on your thesis’. “I will cast my net as far and as wide as I want, thank you very much!” was my internal response. This approach has yielded many benefits, for I have entered debates and been involved in presenting papers and writing articles that have shaped my core thesis, enriched it with new and strange fruit. It is good to be a generalist, and the intellectual rewards have certainly vindicated my decision. The time of the PhD candidature, I feel, is not a time to become complacent, to limit oneself. I would argue that this applies even in the case of attempts to create depth of expertise, for to my mind any sufficiently ‘deep’ delving of a topic should raise so many questions as to create a practically unlimited supply of possible tangents.
And yet, there is only so much time, only so much experience, only so much reading in any one head. Becoming flexible and spreading into diverse topics of inquiry is rewarding, to be sure, but it is important to never forget a simple fact: we are flexible and plastic, but one can only spread attention so far. I have found that a state of extreme extension is the situation within which I feel most challenged and most engaged, where ideas teem and combine in a manner that I find exhilarating. And yet this is also the point where the net your mind has cast, despite all of its gains, is at greatest risk of breaking. It is easy to rationalise this overextension, for it does not result in failures per se. Indeed, the more things ‘on the go’ the greater the yield even when many projects do not work out. ‘Fail early and often’, as the Research and Development people say.
All the pressure of deadlines, possibilities, time constraints, financial obligations, speculations etc. create a great pressure cooker within the mind. It needs a valve through which to release. This is much easier to achieve post-PhD, for the constant cycle of short term projects makes it easier to play the boomerang game, always experiencing the relief of a completed task ‘cast out’ balanced against the reward of a completed project ‘returned’. And yet for a PhD student, the candidature is a bottleneck inhibiting the release of projects: there is one overarching project that must be seen to completion, the likes of which the writer has never experienced.
The trick, I feel, is to know when you have cast too far, overextended the net. In the phantom world of proactive deadlines, it is hard to tell in advance just what one has committed to, what is a true deadline, and what is a self imposed deadline. This is by no means an argument for complacency. Cast wide, and cast well. But it is important, for the sake of one’s quality of life and sanity, to know when the pressure has become too great. What can be let go? When have you set yourself an unrealistic goal? Only here, at the edge of overextension, can you find your true potential and also your greatest fear. A low-level, omnipresent, groundless, sense of anxiety emanates from the cognitive dissonance that is overextension. You both know that you have to do many, many things, and know that you do not really have to do them. You are driven to do them.
If I have learned one thing from these thoughts, it is that this problem can be managed with an almost surgical application of pressure to the one commitment that was one too many, the infinitesimal straw that caused such woe to the camel. If you can do this, then the pressure relieves, and clarity returns. Only once your mind has ceased to fly or to fight, once the pressure is gone, is there the space to truly consider where the net must fall, and yet to cast it once more is to immediately begin the cycle once more.
This may seem strange, but I both love and detest the wrangling of mental energy that comes at the breaking point of the net, the feeling that one more task will break you, but one fewer will disappoint you. My advice to any others feeling this pressure is this: the problem is not the ocean, it is the net. The only control we have is the manner in which we weave it, deploy it, and manage its catch.