The most recent Thesis Whisperer post featured a list of unsolicited advice received by a newly minted PhD student before starting her degree. At this point, a year and a month into my PhD, the piece of advice I found most salient is “find a niche and follow your passion.” That about sums it up.
Reflecting on this past year, I can certainly say I have followed my passion. I chose to develop my own project from scratch (with the enthusiastic support of my supervisors) guided by nothing but passion. Of course there were moments (or stages, even eras) when I lost confidence, but I stuck with it and passion carried me through. But it wasn’t enough to convince anyone – from the very inception of my project I’ve been met with confusion (and hesitation) by most everyone except my supervisors. Of course, that makes perfect sense when you factor in the total lack of specificity: my passion is very general. To the point of being kind of useless on its own. And that’s what the niche is for!
I have been doing “literary spelunking” for over a year now. I read broadly, and deeply, and learned a lot of interesting things. But at some point even I began to despair that I would never be able to narrow down – cue some existential anxst. It took patience and some hard thinking, but eventually I realised that there were certain ideas that just kept popping up – and not only that, but they were actually related. When I started thinking about those relationships, I started to define my niche. Today, in a very animated meeting with my supervisors, we drew it out in a venn diagram. And there it was, on the whiteboard. Finally.
The point of a niche is not to be restricted to it – I haven’t lost general passion because I’ve now identified a niche. But I’m grounded in it. My passion is guided and made useful by the boundaries it provides. It’s my intellectual home base. And, for bonus points, I actually get to build it! Maybe one day it will expand into a full-fledged city.