So my first year of being a PhD candidate is almost over. Being a PhD is weird. On the one hand it’s exactly the same as studying but now with a gainful pay. On the other hand it is totally not like studying because suddenly you are faced with the big R – Responsibility. Suddenly you have to teach; you have to function in a department; you have to join project groups; follow courses; etc. But most of all you are saddled up with the responsibility of writing a PhD thesis. This means you have to write; find a proper research question; plan ahead; plan ahead 4 years; talk to people; read a shitload of stuff; talk to people; read; talk to people; read; talk and panic. Sheer bloody panic.
During my year I’ve gotten in contact with many people who have a particular idea of how the PhD track can be understood. Someone said that it’s a completely fluid project. That, in a way, I could just sleep for the most of my first year, not show my face to anyone, and then work like hell. Someone else is convinced that you don’t need four years but can easily write this thing in two and a half years. And other people seem to function under the conviction that you must work at that infernal thing nearly 24/7 – forget a life besides it; just confide in your work and the bottle. And finally there are the more nuanced people who just play games, get kids, write a thing with a small delay but seem to be rather happy with themselves – examples to us all.
All weird ways to conceive the next four years. But there was one person who called the process of writing a PhD similar to ‘The Hero’s Journey.’ This could be a romantic metaphor, all fair and all. But you know, this blog is about overanalyzing stuff from theoretical perspectives. An lo and behold, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a concept based on the writings of Joseph Campbell in his Hero of a Thousand Faces.
The Hero’s Journey was a description informed by mythologist Joseph Campbell. He was looking into myths and fairy tales around the world. Did you know that every fairy tale has similar versions around the world throughout history. The Greeks for instance had a myth on Cupid and Psyche. Something about a woman, Psyche, being wed to a lover who’d only be around at night but should not be seen. She thinks it’s a monster, turns out it’s cupid and he’s gorgeous as fuck. Yadayadayada, about 2000 years later some Frenchie named Perrault would pen this down as Beauty and the Beast. What I mean to say is that fairy tales and myths occur in similar shapes all around the world at all times.
Campbell saw the same thing. Even more so, based on (Sigmund) Freudian unconscious patterns shared among all humans, (Carl) Jungian archetypes, and (Vladimir) Proppian mythemes (smallest story elements that always occur in myths), Campbell saw that basically all myths and fairy tales and, some might argue, most stories follow a similar structure – a monomyth. *Gasps of excitement please*
Each myth or story consisted of 12 steps in a cycle that ultimately described a development of the main character – the hero. This story would be different all the time, but these basic elements were there anyway – hence the same developing hero has a thousand faces. The steps are as follows:
- Ordinary World: This step refers to the hero’s normal life at the start of the story, before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with something that makes him begin his adventure. This might be a problem or a challenge he needs to overcome.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero attempts to refuse the adventure because he is afraid.
- Meeting with the Mentor: The hero encounters someone who can give him advice and ready him for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the First Threshold: The hero leaves his ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: The hero learns the rules of his new world. During this time, he endures tests of strength of will, meets friends, and comes face to face with foes.
- Approach: Setbacks occur, sometimes causing the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- Ordeal:The hero experiences a major hurdle or obstacle, such as a life or death crisis.
- Reward: After surviving death, the hero earns his reward or accomplishes his goal.
- The Road Back:The hero begins his journey back to his ordinary life.
- Resurrection Hero– The hero faces a final test where everything is at stake and he must use everything he has learned.
- Return with Elixir: The hero brings his knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world, where he applies it to help all who remain there.
Every myth and story contains these elements in some form or other. This was made explicitly clear by Christopher Vogler. This guy worked (works, I don’t know) in Hollywood and he applied these steps to familiar films such as Star Wars and E.T. It’s true though. Just think for a minute about Star Wars. Part 4….and 7 for that matter. They follow this structure completely. Man of Steel? Same. Batman Begins? Yup. Jack of All Trades from Bioshock? You bet. Amélie? Yea, I guess she as well.
It’s everywhere is all I’m trying to say and people seem to like it. It seems to resonate with experiences of our daily lives. So with the risk of sounding arrogant and calling PhDs heroes, does a PhD track follow the Hero’s journey?
The PhD’s journey
- Ordinary World – Application Pending
Before our academic hero starts his or her PhD track, he or she is a student. An ordinary student that studies stuff. These skills do already attest of an innate capability of being a PhD. There just wasn’t much call for change.
- Call to Adventure – Application Acceptance
The student’s application is accepted. This means the journey begins. Sure, the student has no idea what this actually means. Such sweet ignorance. Poor little soul. Just you wait.
- Refusal of the Call – FREEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOOM
Some might see this step as the humble refusal of the student to believe they got accepted. Maybe. More likely however you suddenly realise that you have all the responsibility of time management here. In other words: you can do nothing and get paid for it.
- Meeting with the Mentor – Wait…there are Deadlines?
Sure, partying and living the good life is nice and all, but that comes to an end. A hard end. If you’re lucky, your supervisor will gently suggest that you might have to go to work. If you’re unlucky there’s a review committee that’ll haunt your ass so hard or it will kick you out with the magnitude of thousands suns. So yea, you’ll be put on the right path. Either by a mentor or supervisor. Or by a rock-hard deadline that’ll smack you back to kindergarten. Try being a PhD there. Doesn’t matter what theoretical burn you’ll lay down. If they call you a buttface, you’ll be a buttface.
- Crossing the First Threshold – Confronted with Academic Reality
This can go a multitude of ways. Let me sketch three for you
- Baby’s First Publication
You’ve got everything going for you, you wonderboy/girl
- I actually know what I am doing
Good for you! No mindless digging for directions and questions.
- So apparently working 50 hours a week is not enough…who knew?
Seriously, does it ever end? Weekend has no meaning any more if it ever had one. Someone please tell me I can stop. Limit me Please!
- Baby’s First Publication
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – Participating in the Academic Discourse
Depending on step 5. This can go a variety of ways.
- Gee Wiz, Reviewer 2 sure offers tough criticisms
- This author is amazing. He/She fits perfectly
- This author is horrible. He/She stole my idea
- These test subjects. I hate them! But I need them!
- Why does it seem like everyone is working so hard? Why am I not working that hard? What is wrong with me? Am I cut out for this? I sure hope my supervisors won’t break down my submissions, I don’t think I can take that
- Gee Wiz, Reviewer 2 sure offers tough criticisms
- Approach – Imposter Syndrome
Regardless of which path you’ve taken in step 5 and 6, nearly everyone hits this demon at some point. Imposter Syndrome relates to a sudden existential dread about your work. Questions like “What I’m doing is not relevant”, “Someone else has written this already”, “I am not a contributing member of society” , and, my personal favourite, “I am not worthy of doing this PhD”. It haunts everyone in different amounts. Usually you’ll get over it. Or so they say…
- Ordeal – Chapter Hand-ins
If you’ve managed to get through the research phases and the existential dread of the Imposter Syndrome you might actually get some work done. Now comes the real test of your mettle. Are you actually a capable academic? Capable of stringing argument from original data. Instilling both strong argumentation as well as wit in your writing? Are you a superman or superwoman or are you just an idiot?
And let’s be honest here, unlike in fairy tales, you don’t just get one ordeal. You get several. And you have no one to thank for that but yourself and your wonderful structuring skills.
- Reward – Hand ins and Limbo
Sure, those chapters are ordeals, but once you’ve finished them, you’re actually a great bit closer to finishing this infernal thing. The payoff of handing in one of those things should be amazing. Not to mention the moment when you’ve handed in the thing and are waiting for your defense. Just sweet nothingness. Usually it’s not because academics are idiots filling their time with too much stuff. But basically you’re on paid leave.
For those thinking the rewards were in the shape of job offers: I laugh at you. In humanities we don’t do jobs. We only do more of the same until we’re so deep in shit that we won’t know anything else.
- The Road Back – Writing and Editing
They say all the hard stuff is done at this stage. You’ve done the research. All that is left is write it down. In about 400 pages. No biggie.
- Resurrection Hero– The Defense
Four years down the drain. Has it paid off? Will the piss-poor student rise again as a doctor? Or will the student be beaten into oblivion by weird people in weird suits. You thought that person with the time stick was just there to take the time? That’s your ticket to oblivion. Or your makeshift door stopper to protect you from ravenous professors once you call a prof. a doctor. Hide yo ass.
- Return with Elixir – The Thesis
Yea, you’re done. You’ve returned, more critical and more fed up with your own writing style than ever before. You are the expert on a particular topic though. Let’s be honest, the elixir in this case is not your book. It is booze. You gon’ get wasted. Good job.
So the hero’s journey can be rewritten for PhDs as well. Figures, since it is a similar tale of development as many of the tales described by the monomyth. Some jumps of logic may have been made here and of course this is modeled on the experience of a humanities Dutch PhD student. Does it necessarily help me in my track? I don’t know. At least I feel like a bit of a hero. Please give me that pleasure. Currently I’m somewhere between point 5 and 6. Which of the sidetracks we’ll find out in the future. According to Vogler that means I’m at a similar phase in my life as Han Solo who just made a deal with Jabba the Hutt. Han Solo…I can live with that…but wait…what happened to him again…?