Jamie Balfour

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Thoughts on my PhD

Thoughts on my PhD

I was accepted for my PhD in June of 2016 and at that point, I was full of joy to be taking on something like this. You see, I'd always wanted to get a PhD and become Dr Balfour, only I didn't realise just how big a job it was. In this post, I am going to explain why I've decided that this is not for me after all.

In June, the PhD appealed to me since I didn't get into teacher training to do a PGDE, which is something I always wanted to do since I was about 7 years old. I accepted the PhD, perhaps only after being rejected by two companies for jobs because I failed the online tests (one of them I fell asleep during, whoops!) and for failing to get into my PGDE as an easy option. But was it the right thing to do?

Whenever something goes wrong in my life, I take to my website and my blog to publish about it. This seems the best way to get my thoughts out there.

#1 - teaching

Whilst it was almost always my intention to become a teacher, I liked the idea of becoming a university lecturer as well, however this even appealed to me even more than teaching kids for a long time. But the truth is, after working in two secondary schools last year and discovering how much fun it is to actually be a teacher I cannot go through with three years of a PhD at the moment. My passion for education and my subject are just too much for me to hold down. 

#2 - technicality

A PhD is a Doctorate of Philosophy. Philosophy literally translates to 'love of knowledge', and in my case, the love of knowledge is in the field of computer science. But really, is it? 

Let's analyse my PhD title for a minute. 

Collaborative tools to assist carers with protecting the online safety, security, and privacy of young people with special needs

A large proportion of this is working with children (young people) which is good since I enjoy working with young people but a large proportion of this, as I have discovered with my reading, is spent on the psychology side of things. This is, to me, really dull and boring (unless it's about educational psychology) and also very difficult for me to understand.

The 'collaborative tools' section of this PhD will not be massively technical, not on the scale I want it to be, since I know that most of my PhD will be writing about it (as I discovered with my honours project, and whilst I knew this and enjoyed it with my honours project, there was a hugely technical side of things with that project that will not really be there with this project). The lack of technical stuff is perhaps the biggest reason for me not looking forward to working on this PhD.

I don't think it's the perfect topic. That's not to say I do not enjoy it, it's just not quite perfect and well suited to me.

#3 - reading, concentration and organisation

After recently discovering I possibly had a form of mild dyspraxia (confirming what I already thought) when it comes to reading, I have found the job of reading miles more difficult than it was with my honours project at the start of the year. Much of this may have been brought on by the trauma I had in March (having an operation on my head) but for whatever reason I have it, it's made reading and concentration much harder.

For instance, I cannot sit in my office reading for more than 25 minutes otherwise I will not read any more in the day. I have to break my day up quite a lot and I feel that with the pressure on me it's just too much.

I believe this is a temporary problem, as do my doctors and they claim that most of it is coming from my sleeping problems due to my operation and will heal with time.

#4 - the travelling

This is one of the biggest points since I was a student at Heriot-Watt University prior to becoming a PhD student. Whilst it was entirely my intention to learn to drive before becoming a PhD student, I did not realise how badly my concentration had been affected until when I went out and started to drive.

Because I still do not drive, I must take the long two-hour travel in and then the two (or three) hour travel out of Heriot-Watt (and it will be getting longer soon, if I move out to where I plan to move to). 

This travelling is normally spent doing reading, but most of the time it is actually spent sleeping since even though I am in from 8.30 every day and away by 15.30, I simply have not got the energy to continue going for the day.

#5 - my skills

I never believed that I wanted to work in a software development job until very recently when I realised I am very good at what I do. By that I mean I spend a lot of time working on my own projects developing solutions to a huge number of problems for people as well as leisurely developing things like my own blogging system and so on. I'm good at what I do and I cannot really use these skills whilst I am reading. I want to be able to contribute to something big now rather than potentially 4 or more years down the line.

#6 - the scale

I realised how big a job this was when I took it on, but it never struck me just how big a project this was until I was in it. I also worry on the opposite side that there is not enough to write about when it comes to writing papers and my thesis. 3 years was what I signed up for, yet everyone keeps telling me it's 4 years. I just can't justify 4 years at this.

Whilst I am probably capable of doing it in the 3 years or the 4 years, I just don't know if I want to spend more time out of the industry. I look at my father, who is not in any way my role model (quite the opposite), but he makes plenty of money and works reasonable time and really enjoys his job. I on the other hand work weekdays and weekends, get paid very little and not feeling quite as relaxed as I would in a job like some of my closest (and best paid) friends have. 

#7 - the situation a few weeks ago

Back a few weeks ago a situation which I am not going to explain here got really serious and it has had a detrimental effect on me since it was the very first time I considered quitting down to the anxiety it caused me initially. My friend is now without a PhD title as a result. All I hear every day is his concerns and I have to be there to keep him happy (I'm not blaming him, I'm blaming the university for not being proactive about this). 

#8 - I'm doing it for others

It's only because of the people around me, I talk of my friends and of the lecturers who I have known for the last few years and because of the support I got from them that I actually stuck with my PhD for the last few weeks. I'm not saying everyone around me has been great, but the majority of the people at Heriot-Watt are amazing, helpful and so friendly.

I'm a terrible liar when it comes to people asking me about my PhD; I actually always say I'm really enjoying it because I don't want people to think badly of me or to think I'm not capable or that I'm going to let them down. When I am asked what my PhD topic is I reply: "it's researching ways to keep children with special needs safe online" and then they often reply "oh that sounds interesting", my response is normally "yeah it's really good fun". The minute I say this, a little voice in my head is yelling "liar!" at me. The truth is, I wanted to do a PhD in improving education with computing, and I really wanted to do it at the University of Edinburgh. I always said I would get swayed to a PhD unless it was in this field.

Am I being too thoughtless to myself? I don't want to let anyone down, but by sticking I feel I am only doing it for others, not myself.

#9 - LinkedIn and job markets

As a user of LinkedIn, I see a lot of job opportunities appear and go all the time, but I also get quite a considerable number of people approach me on LinkedIn and comment on my skills, my website, my projects, my work and generally on how they think I'd be ideal in their business. All of this makes me feel that I am in the wrong place at the wrong time. People say this to me all the time. It makes me realise just how people look at me and what I've achieved. And I'm not boasting, but I am very proud of the achievements I have made.

#10 - my bank

Unfortunately, none of the banks I have been to will take a PhD student's pay as a salary and therefore will not offer a mortgage on that. (Oh yeah, and for those who I didn't tell, I've had a deposit on a house since June 2016, the rest of this is still going to be kept secret until later on).

A stipend does not count as a salary and banks just wouldn't offer me a mortgage, even with around a 30% deposit towards my house.

A mortgage is not the only thing I keep getting told I cannot have as a PhD. There are many other things where people just won't bother because of my stipend, but these things don't really matter, on the house does.

Are all of these reasons why I should consider something more technical, closer to home, better paid, more relaxed, less about reading, and much more suitable for my life? Maybe. 

I'm not criticising anyone or anything in this post by the way. Heriot-Watt has been great to me. It's just hard for me to justify a bunch of things now, including even the doctor title I would get if I completed it. This is just my reasoning for leaving and writing this year makes it easier for me to see what I need to think of. I'm afraid it's probably too late to change my mind as well.

Posted by jamiebalfour04 in Life
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