On playing and starting a PhD


Beginning a Masters or a PhD is meant to be a deadly serious business, and in obvious ways it is. It will be a major preoccupation and devourer of time. It has implications for how one lives one’s life (for a while, at least), and therefore has implications for living standards, work-life balance and important relationships. It inevitably will involve significant sacrifice, struggle and uncertainty. So one had better be sure before one begins. It’s a serious business.

But the necessary sense of seriousness can be taken too far, especially if it circumvents play.

Play, we know, is an essential part of all significant learning. We have to muck about with ideas, try things on for size, imagine possibilities, experiment and take risks, even pretend. My daughter once wrote scores of pages in ‘fairy writing’ before she knew what the letters were (and is now a lawyer involved in deadly serious trials).

The temptation, starting out on a higher research degree, is that a candidate skips the playing stage. An impressive application to a university is followed by a serious meeting with supervisors where topic, theoretical lens and methodology are discussed and a timeline is proposed. The pressure is on to finish within a certain timeframe, so there’s no time to waste. (See for example, How I broke up with my supervisor)

Too often, this leads to tension, stuckness and a deadend.


Because the candidate never had the chance to play.

What does play mean in this context? Lots of anxiety-free conversations and writing about possibilities. Lots of thinking about what the candidate loves and fears, what moves and disturbs the candidate, and what might be fuelling the impulse to become a scholar. Permission to imagine, and experiment, and to wonder aloud without the candidate worrying that he/she is revealing his/her knowledge gaps or indulging in foolish fantasies. Time. Lack of pressure. Play.

These things are not easy to make space for, given the pressures. But it’s out of this space that the really serious work can grow.

When I did my Masters, and then my PhD, I had no idea really why I was wanting to spend all that time ‘away from the real world’. I knew there was some unconscious impulse, that it felt right in some hard-to-define-or-justify way. My supervisors, all of them, were happy to give me time, and I took it. I mucked around in the world of ideas, I let one idea or author lead me to another, I meandered for a long time. When it was time, my supervisors asked me to think about refining my research question, about being explicit about a theoretical lens and an emerging methodology. But they didn’t rush this.

I finished both Masters and PhD in the required time frames, without a sense of undue haste or of avoiding the inevitable complexities.

I was given time to play.

1 thought on “On playing and starting a PhD

  1. This – all of this – totally sums up how I can feel about my PhD if I’m not careful. It’s so important, and so demanding, and so close to my heart that it adds to my heaviness of being. But then wonderful people and wonderful thoughts and wonderful writings and visions arrive for me to experience and I can play again. Hugs.

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