Thoughts on doing a PhD in Design (and something about a Pandemic)

Haider Ali Akmal
31 min readAug 7, 2021
My desk when I left my university office for the last time.

As I write this, I sit in the dusty halls of patience awaiting confirmation from the postgraduate office at my university that I have indeed completed my PhD. Up till now, it’s been a fever dream of fixes, revisions, and dreaded emails from reviewers. Where most PhD students normally keep track of their research journey through a blog or some other means of recording in near real-time, I’ve decided to do it retrospectively mainly because I never could understand blogging, I was too swamped with doing my PhD, and a Pandemic happened in the process so let’s call me preoccupied.

Blaming everything on a bacteria aside, as a practice-based individual my own process of writing down thoughts or keeping track of things doesn’t fit into the typical blog format. That’s perhaps why all the ‘articles’ on my Medium page are more musings and rants. This post is more about myself looking back at what the PhD was like, was there was something I would have done differently, and whether I would do it again.

TLDR; It was tough, tedious and fun at times. Always listen to your supervisor. Beware the curse. Never doing it again. And there are some links at the bottom to help with starting things off better.

Anyways, if you are reading this then prepare yourself for some ranting. From the title of this post, it’s probably not that hard to deduce the subject of my PhD. In case you’ve still missed it, I did a PhD in Design from Imagination Lancaster at Lancaster University. A funtastic lab/studio that’s full of awesome folks and some amazing design research work. I hadn’t ever planned on a PhD because a few years ago I didn’t see the point in one with my (then) career trajectory focused on industry practice. Sure, a large incentive was that it gave me a chance to get far away from relatives, but I never imagined myself as being something in academia. Certainly not as excited for the prospect as I am now.

That said since taking on the task and (from what I’ve understood from my supervisor) successfully slithering my way through, I now finally have some stuff to say about the whole ‘process’. Hopefully, someone else is reading this who is perhaps interested in doing a PhD in Design and my little wisdom might be helpful to them. Having said that I’m sure there’s some stuff in here that’s good for the non-design folk as well.

I like to see the time spent doing a PhD as not a journey but more like a process; even though I mention it like a journey in the introduction to my thesis but that’s for other reasons. Maybe that’s because as a designer my understanding of the world around me has expanded and now everything suddenly could be seen as a process in some way. Though I’m tempted to start there at the end and tell you about the curse of doing a PhD, I’m not George Lucas so I’ll respect the linear nature of time and start from the beginning.

Traversing the void at the start of the universe

In the beginning, there were no Jedi but Midi-chlorian’s, or if you want to ignore that epic nerd segue from the last paragraph, there was the state of euphoria of embarking upon the unknown that was my PhD. I imagine this initial stage to be the same for everyone. A new campus, new people, new office/desk (if you’re lucky), a new mug (very important), and if you’re very lucky a view out the window from the desk you just got. Unfortunately, this stage is also closely followed by the realisation of absolute horror as you face down the abyss that is what to do now that you have this fancy desk, and again depending on your luck, shiny new computer from university funding.

This was the view from my last desk, not amazing but it kept me sane at times. Plus the whole building was made of wood so felt like a ship when it rained. I don’t know how to explain that better.

See the thing is, even if you come in with a plan which you normally will because you need a proposal to even get a PhD placement, you still will face this void because the likelihood of your research actually reflecting your initial proposal is pretty slim. By the time you get to the first appraisal you need to accept that the visionary ideas you came into this PhD with were like playdough. The edible kind, easily mouldable with the possibility of being chewed up and spat out by a metaphorical toddler. Of course, this could be different depending on who/where you get your PhD funding from and probably what field you’re in. I was on a fellowship attached to an ongoing project so my research needed to address the context of the project I was associated with. After all, they were paying for it!

I have yet to partake in research projects that I’ve gathered myself or competed rigorously to get funded for. I was lucky that way with the project that I ended up getting into. But that also means I feel denied the opportunity to gain some valuable experience. Having been part of other projects during my PhD that were funded from external sources, I did quickly realised that as a researcher as with life you have to go with the flow of money. So I probably didn’t miss out on much. I’m sure this is the same with other subjects and not just design, but correct me if I’m wrong.

This was the first thing I had to realise in order to traverse the abyss that immediately followed starting my PhD. You can’t put your work on a pedestal. Luckily I was in art school before this so any possible chance of me doing that to my own work was already booted out of my system by previous teachers! The years of dejection from exhibiting my artwork in numerous galleries and the whole I-need-to-earn-money-thus-become-a-designer seemed the only plausible course of action, really helped in facilitating the nonchalant-ness of my early PhD days.

Now I did try to retain my research proposal as much as I could. I pestered my supervisor every chance I got about it, but trust me when I say you need to accept that whatever your research focus is going to be it needs to be built up from scratch and needs to sit within the greater ethos that your PhD/research is associated with. This might just be the case for a project funded fellowship, but I’ve had friends who weren’t on projects and had similar thoughts.

Listen to your supervisor(s), just not necessarily all of them

While on this, listen to your supervisor or the ones you connect with at least. I was again lucky to have a supervisor who understood the crazy I kept throwing at him! And if you’re not happy with the dice you’ve been rolled sometimes it works to ask around for shared supervision. I started with two supervisors and later one dropped out herself, I blame the nature of my research it probably didn’t appeal to her or she was just busy with other stuff, but I really liked her and would have loved to learn from her over the course of my PhD. But my main supervisor just understood what I was saying better and that worked out.

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

Speaking of crazy, before my PhD I did a Master’s in Design Management and my thesis was in speculative design, specifically some bat-shit idea of empathy-based computing. I wanted to continue that thread of crazy and explore human memory and designing through technology. But the funding was for something very specific in the Internet of Things and I had to oblige. The primordial ooze that made up the humble beginnings of my PhD thus had to ferment in whatever was presented at the time. The universe I eventually imagined and fostered for the next 4 years came out of that ooze, the Midi-chlorian’s of then making me the Jedi I am now.

A design fiction I did as part of my Master’s thesis. Crazy I be from the start.

Yes, I heard how repulsive that probably sounded but I don’t really care, I want to be a Jedi! Anyways, I still think I got away with doing some crazy things during my PhD. My little way of having my cake and eating it too; take that project! (I’m sorry project who funded my PhD, I won’t say that again, please don’t take my PhD from me I worked hard at it…)

If you want to make the best of your time with a doctorate, level with your supervisor.

A lot of this was possible because of my supervisor and our sessions. I just went in with whatever I was doing even if it made no sense at all. At one stage I was discussing chairs that didn’t want people sitting on them! I should explain, my research explores philosophical perspectives for imagining unorthodox design ideas with IoT, AI, and other goodies. My supervisor was equally crazy with how he turned my ideas on their heads fishing out unique perspectives I hadn’t immediately considered. I’ve learned a lot from him, so if you want to make the best of your time with a doctorate, level with your supervisor.

Getting organised, preferably in an OCD way

The next thing I did early on in the PhD process was getting organised to actually do research. Now, I’m already a pretty organised person and to quote my wife, “too organised” at times. Let me paint you a picture starting with a simple statement, I follow thefoldinglady on Instagram.

Yes, I do and yes my drawers are that organised. I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I like my things neat and clean and no I don’t have OCD no matter what my wife says. I’m fine with some rough edges here and there. But the thing is, I needed the organisation in my PhD and you probably will too; in whatever manner of organisation you deem fit for yourself. The funny thing is, towards the end I realised I wasn’t OCD enough! Hear that spouse! Not, OCD, enough. But more on that later.

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

See as a researcher you’re going to have to retain some form of organisation. You don’t need to be super organised, but enough so you can keep track of who said what and where and why because you need to reference stuff. All so that you don’t go to jail or something for not giving credit. Seriously though, referencing is very important for obvious reasons besides the possible jail time (there is no jail time or I certainly hope not; just immense and irreparable shame). You also need the organisation to make sense of what you did in the course of your research. Especially if like me you let it evolve organically.

I started writing my thesis at the end of my third year, I wanted to finish in three instead of the usual four years. That might feel extreme to some but I had enough work to talk about with my supervisor keeping me on my toes publishing papers. So yes, I did write the first draft in roughly 6 months. Now that was only possible because I knew what I wrote, where things were, who to cite, and so on. I’ve seen others start their thesis much earlier on and that’s fine if that works for you. I didn’t even know what I was doing half of the time. My research just merged into some blob that made sense in the end after repeated discussions with my supervisor. And even after my meticulous organisation of information, I still managed to bung up some bits!

If you are in research, especially a PhD, make sure you keep tabs on page numbers.

Do note whoever is reading this. If you are in research, especially a PhD, make sure you keep tabs on page numbers. I didn’t, and I had realised that fatal error after writing my first draft. So I had to go through the later drafts with a fine-tooth comb fetching all the page numbers and feeding them back into each reference in my thesis! Take heed, stay more organised.

Here are a few handy things that you might want to consider. I’m not going to tell you how to set up any of this stuff, there are enough resources out there to show you how. Sorry if you thought this post would be like that, though I don’t understand why you would I haven’t been giving many hints to this being anything other than a rant. Still, I’ve dropped a few links just in case with more at the end.

1. Reference Managers are your friends

It all starts with befriending a reference manager. You can pick whatever works for you, I liked Zotero mainly because I wanted to optimise my setup and after some poking around the Internet I found it to be the most passive. You don’t want something that takes all your time to set up and maintain. You might already have access to something higher up the research ladder, EndNote probably but I don’t remember why I didn’t go down that road. Maybe it’s super awesome and I’ve been missing out.

A good reference manager is going to be the oil that greases your entire research writing experience. And it only gets better if you pick the correct environment to go with it.

Reference managers are nice

Anyways, I became rather intimate with Zotero towards the end, even poking at my own custom CSL later to fit my Uni’s requirements. What’s a CSL you ask? They’re what tell your reference manager how to write out your references, think the whole MLA, APA, Harvard nonsense researchers have to deal with. Once you get into setting up your own system you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. For the most part you don’t need to fiddle with these base systems but for some strange reason institutions just can’t play nice together hence strange flavours like ‘[insert University name] Harvard Referencing’ and so on. Also when writing for publications they seem to have a mind of their own and cross breed referencing formats.

You’ll need to get a hang of a reference manager for several reasons like staying sane for one, but also because with the right set up you can reference stuff with handy shortcuts quickly. A good reference manager is going to be the oil that greases your entire research writing experience. And it only gets better if you pick the correct environment to go with it. Sure you can take the normal route and just use Word but I disagree.

2. Keep writing simple and not a chore

This might not be for everyone but I’m putting it here because this is what worked for me and apparently it also does for a lot of other people. If you find MS Word to be your holy grail for writing anything on a computer, or you just can’t resist stepping away from that sweet font library then skip ahead. Everyone else, this is about to get heavy.

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

I got asked this a few times during my PhD, “What are you writing in?”. You see as a researcher you’re going to be writing quite a lot so why make it a chore? Word processors like Word in MS Office are great and good for formatting and whatnot, but are they really the best for writing?

George R. R. Martin still writes in WordStar on DOS. Asides being the second George I’ve mentioned in this post, the fact that he still hasn’t published the next books in the Song of Ice and Fire series in spite of writing over an anticipated 3000 pages in the upcoming final books, means he’s obviously enjoying writing in his minimalistic setup!

See I keep a notebook on me at all times because I’m part of that generation that did just that. Being from an Asian household we also had to keep pens on us at all times because if anyone older than you ever asked you for a pen and God forbid you didn’t have one, oh, the stuff you would hear. “This generation! Look at them, no respect for knowledge!”. Yes, that does happen, and no the irony that they were the ones asking for the pen in the first place is never apparent on them.

The point I’m making is that I grew up with a very minimalistic setup for writing, pen and paper. Going to art school just intensified that bond when I moved to a sketchbook that could also be a notebook. Drawing and writing in the same place 🤯.

This is why my writing setup is minimal. I use Atom with some plugins and a decent set of simple themes to write. I’ll drop a list of plugins from my setup at the end if you’re curious. With the right plugins, it has everything and doesn’t bog up my system. I can write pages on pages and not be bothered with anything but the act of writing.

What about spell checking and grammar you ask? There’s a plugin for that. References? Plugin for that. Formatting? Plugin for that, well it’s just Markdown but that’s plain fun! Okay, you say, what about tracking changes? Actually, that’s where it gets complicated but I’ll get to that.

A minimal writing setup just works for me.

You see the What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get environment is just not good in my opinion for writing when you are solely writing. Not for me at least. Atom gives me a clean slate each time to focus, and with writing in Markdown I never really need to reach towards my mouse or trackpad. Formatting is easy and after a while becomes second nature. Sure you can take this one step further and go the hardcore route and learn LaTeX but, come on, who’s got the time for that!

Jokes aside, you can expand on this basic setup with LaTeX and you might just have to if you want to export directly to some publishing formats or do some fancy science stuff. You can do a lot of that stuff in Markdown and Pandoc as well, just in case you were curious. For me, it was the simplest use of Atom, Markdown, and Pandoc a universal document converter that together did the trick. I could reference, I could cross-reference, put down footnotes, and format all in a simple setup that kept me focused on the one task of writing.

Where this setup shines the most in my opinion is when you link up reference management. After setting up Zotero with Atom and just one plugin I turn simple code like @akmal2021 into this Akmal and Coulton (2021).

NB. The referencing links won’t work here but they do if this were exported to PDF, HTML, or Word. Plus there’s a bibliography at the botttom on export.

The Internet of Things Board Game, something I made in my PhD. It’s fun-ish.

With a little work and understanding some basic stuff, I have cross-referencing happening as well. In the appendix to my thesis, I have the manual for The Internet of Things Board Game a product of my research. That entire document is riddled with cross referencing to different parts of the manual and Pandoc was so insanely helpful for that! If I were to do it in Word, which I had to in later drafts for some reasons I’ll get into in a minute, it would have been so repetitive. You essentially have to make bookmarks in your document and cross-reference that way. Simple but tedious. I’d rather focus on writing.

So where doesn’t this setup work? Tracking changes and collaborating is where I struggled. I eventually did find a rhythm but it involved stepping out of Atom and into Word (gah). I dabbled in setting up my own Git repository for tracking changes and to be honest it worked perfectly while I stuck to Atom and Markdown. I could even track changes in Markdown files in Atom with, you guessed it another plugin!

But, the problem here is that your writing is not just between yourself and your setup. It’s between you and other colleagues particularly your supervisor. In this case, I was the only one using this minimalistic format. For everyone else, they were fine working in Word.

Being the only one using this setup, communicating with my supervisor meant I had to export to Word then use DOCX as drafts of changes with my supervisor. Yes, it worked fine and no I still think my minimal setup was better. Why? Because when I returned to Word for writing it just didn’t work for me anymore. I was enlightened to this amazingly simple world of plain-text writing. I don’t think I’ll be moving to Word any time soon, probably never if some future plugins figure out converting Word to Markdown better. The current method is annoying, to say the least. But I will continue to keep a shared workflow between Markdown and Word.

This section might not matter to most but it certainly does to me because I enjoy writing. If you’re like that you might want to consider exploring these options. Again, I’ve dropped links at the bottom if you are.

3. Backup, backup, backup!

Of course there’s no amount of stress one can give to this. I had a few scares throughout my PhD time and I’m glad that I kept everything on University servers as well as my own personal disks. You want to have at least two places where you’ve saved your work. I started with having it uploaded to both my University cloud server as well as Git. Using Git to save large files is not ideal but you can easily stop certain files/folders from being uploaded. What I will advise is always keeping your research present on your device if you store it on the cloud. That’s easy to do and almost all cloud hosting services like OneDrive etc will let you store a copy on you device. You don’t want to be stuck somewhere without access to your own work, especially not during an important presentation!

4. You don’t need all the books in the library, but it's nice to fill your desk

Now, this is important also for obvious reasons. You need to realise that you’re not the only one doing research at your University. There will probably be instances when you want a book that some other researcher also wants or already has. Sure, you can be civil and find out who has it and ask them to share, but these aren’t civil times not when you hear the world is about to cave in over a bacteria spreading everywhere! So get to those books fast!

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Just kidding, you don’t need to rush to the library to get that book on your research concern the minute you see it referenced somewhere. I started doing just that mainly because I remembered from my Master’s how I never really got that book on research methodologies because I’m assuming some PhD student was hogging it. Very soon into my PhD, I realised I had amassed all these books around me because of this, and I wasn’t reading most of them. I had become that annoying PhD student who hoards the books from the library.

I didn’t get much out of them even to be honest. If anything they just fed my anxiety as I fell into rabbit hole after rabbit hole. It wasn’t until some friends told me my talks with them kept taking strange detours into obscure sciences that I saw the problem! I was feeding myself with too much information that wasn’t necessarily in line with my research. I also learned then that when researchers cite other researchers, many references are made in a passing glance. Which is the wrong way to do it! Context matters in research and equally so in referencing. I learned this the hard way when my thesis draft kept getting sent back for revisions because I didn’t get the context right in some of my references.

Sure, it was fun arranging the mountain of books on my desk every morning and playing mini fortress with myself, it wasn’t entirely productive though. Time passes quickly in a PhD, too quickly. You want to be using it wisely.

In this light, I think it’s time to mention physical book alternatives. Now I love a good book. There’s something about the physicality, the smell, the feel of pencil on paper, it’s just magical. By the way, you shouldn’t write on library books, but THANK YOU to all those people who did highlight and underline passages and important stuff in the countless books I checked out over the last few years! You saved me so much time! Here’s a 💯!

What you should consider though are E-Books and digital alternatives, like chapters available online. Sometimes you can just approach a researcher on ResearchGate and ask them for a copy of their work to read. Usually, that works out just fine and you also make a nice connection online for later.

The Pandemic if anything brought research closer by putting down annoying paywalls. Normally you’ll have access to these resources thanks to your University, but sometimes it works better to go to the source or a bigger repository like your National/State Library. Paywalls on research are balls though, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away from them. There is always the seedy underbelly of pirated books online…

No. We won’t talk about that. Anyways, as far as organisation goes there’s always more you can say. Like how to set up an office space now that we have to all work from home, yay. Or other stuff which I can’t seem to think about now. I really should have written this while I was doing my PhD. Let’s leave it at that then.

Get your teaching badge early on because finding a job is hard work

Let’s close the organisation drawer now and talk about what you might not have realised while doing a PhD. It’s not all about research. As a researcher, you are also an academic and hence an integral cog in your University’s engine, or at least that’s what you should be and certainly what the University would hope you to be. You need to teach is what I’m getting at. If you think you can get away with it, you’re probably right you can because you don’t have to teach but I strongly recommend you do.

What I learned at art school besides how hard it is to get stopping-out liquid from your beard when you crash into your printmaking plate face-first down the stairs, is that you need to diversify your skillset because Art don’t pay well! I was the person in college people knew about as the black sheep in fine arts who dabbled in design. And I’m happy I did that because I tried to be a practising artist and salute/kudos to my friends who pushed forward and stayed true to their craft, but I had to make some hard decisions earlier on. I needed to pay the bills and my work just wasn’t selling fast enough. So I became a designer and that led me down the path I am today where I teach design and research fun weird stuff.

The point is you need to have that teaching badge because you can’t solely rely on research to feed you forever. Teaching might not be for everyone but as an academic, I highly recommend you do it a few times if anything to have it on your résumé for later. I wish I had done some more teaching in my PhD, I did enough but I struggled with the same question in my head. Do I want to be a teacher or researcher? I wanted both to be honest and that’s the hard thing to manage later on because universities are demanding of academics.

I applied to a lot of jobs as this spreadsheet for the year 2021 shows. Reds are rejections, Yellow interviews, and whites well they never replied.

After my PhD, I started applying for jobs and it took me roughly 100 applications later till I finally secured two offers. I picked the one that was better for me as a person and I surprised myself when I picked the teaching-focused option. While doing my PhD I struggled between research or teaching as a career and for the most part, I always thought I would pick research in the end. But I realised while applying to jobs and working on the side seeing my supervisor, colleagues, and others who had taken on proper lectureships that were both research and teaching intensive, they were superhuman!

Between funding your work, pleading for grants, doing the actual research work, and bouncing between students to make them learn stuff, universities demand a lot from their academics. I’m glad I’m starting something that will allow me to focus on one thing but still have a level of expectation if even less for research that I enjoy doing. I like to teach and I realised that pretty early on so that probably helped in my decision. I really advise anyone whose reading this and doing a PhD to not skimp on the teaching opportunities because down the road you don’t know what is going to happen to you, the world, your research. The extra badge improves you.

Unfortunately, you have to get social, and physical

Research is a strange beast. It can be very social or very solitary depending on what you’re researching. As a design researcher, I had to interact with people mainly because design concerns humans. You might not be that involved with others and be more involved in your own work. If I were to go back and change something in my PhD journey (I mean process) it would have been to be more social. This is not from a research perspective but from a general human being perspective!

Photo by Barrington Ratliff on Unsplash

Sometimes I wish I was like some of the droids on Star Wars, expressive yet more functional than a human and least bothered with human things...

Sure, I got to travel, meet interesting people, present my work, get to know folks, but I missed out on something more I feel. There were times when my friends wanted to hang out and I had to turn them down because I was so involved in my work. I’d love to have that time back, but it’s a double-edged sword. My research might not be what it is today without that focus. I might never know if it will, but I certainly wish I could have mingled more with other humans in my PhD. My wife insists I’m more like the droids from Star Wars than I think.

Balancing that social life is important, just as much as balancing physical health. Luckily I joined a gym and I had a gym partner to go with. Sometimes it was just a small lifestyle change that worked, like cutting out the bus or drive and walking. I started parking far from campus because, (a) no way was I going to spend £5 a day for parking my car, and (b) it gave me a good excuse to get some daily steps in. A PhD is a sedentary time so you need to take out the time for yourself and others.

Another thing that I wish I had worked on harder was my digital social life! Researchers seem to prefer Twitter, I hadn’t for a long time till I started down the PhD road. That and Reddit, you need to start using them better. Reddit is just awesome in general, but Twitter is another entire beast when it comes to research. It’s where you get to reach out to, side with, and talk smack at other researchers! I’m not a very confrontational person so maybe that’s why I never got on the Twitter train as much as some of my other colleagues, but that’s certainly something I’d like to improve on. If your starting a PhD take my advice and get on the Twitter’s because you need to.

Collect as much data as you can and think ahead, but also don’t because you won’t be able to

Now, this is a tough one but other design researchers will understand where I’m getting at. When you write about your research either in a paper, book chapter, or whatever case the first few times is pretty straightforward. Things get dicey later on when you have to really stretch your work. Each paper has to have unique knowledge but the source is usually the same. Doing this means going back at your work and rethinking things, reviewing what you wrote, exploring alternative angles, and sometimes even breaking it apart just to see what else is there.

Photo by Mindspace Studio on Unsplash

The stress of making new content, generating fresh knowledge from work that was done several months ago, it’s quite the handful. Luckily for me as a practice-based design researcher, my work was all Research through Design so I had amassed a lot of content in my design process but I still felt like I had to poke and prod at times to get specific insights out of my work.

This is the bane of design research maybe, designers exist not only in the problem spaces they intend to solve but around them as well. We take in what is present at the time, we acknowledge things that influence the problem, the space, us, and more if possible because they all play an integral part in situating the problem space in order to facilitate a solution. As a designer, I’m forever making the connections but I have to stop at some point, only to realise later that I could have gone further. In all the data I collected during my research process I missed out on an enormous amount of information that I later wished I had. On that note, collect everything you can from your work. Keep audio logs, keep video logs, keep written logs, wooden logs, it doesn’t matter keep them! You will definitely need them later, no contest.

Returning to the point, even though I had and still have this feeling of not having done enough data collection I’m glad I still managed what I could. I had to go back into my thesis to do some major revisions post-viva and if I hadn’t collected that data two years ago while designing my board game I would have been stumped. My reviewers had told me to put in further information, insights from play-tests, numeric data, and more to express the research through design aspects in detail. I’m happy I did that and had the foresight to do that back then because if I hadn’t I don’t know what I would have done. My thesis would have been easily challenged if not for that data.

Collect everything you can from your work

But here’s the thing, how do you know how much data to collect? In a later project with some of my colleagues we worked on an online workshop we custom designed. It was all in Python so I figured we could collect whatever we wanted. But we soon questioned ourselves, do we need that extra information? Can’t we live without it? Now, with the project in later iterations we already have a bucket load of data specific to the workshop, I can’t help but think that we might have limited ourselves to just where we could present that content. Imagine if we had collected more data, that same artefact/workshop/thing we made would be more valuable for research insights in more areas.

Perhaps this comes down to personal preference. Do you want your research to be universal, or specific to a cause/concern/area? The sciences perhaps have it easier that way, even if they do interdisciplinary work they still concern with their own areas of interest. Chemistry knowledge is for Chemistry, perhaps a specific strand of it might be translatable to Physics but that is not something planned ahead, is it?

Design exists in this strange space between humanities and sciences. When you’re dealing with both social and technological constructs, who is the research really for? I incorporated philosophy into my own research perhaps to make sense of this vague situation but isn’t that adding more ingredients to an already muddy stew?

Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong and all disciplines exist in this stewing pot to freely move between each other. Maybe you don’t really need to be concerned with what is to become of your research, even though at the end of every paper you mention forward trajectories. Maybe I’m just overthinking things and this section was pointless. Maybe I need to move on to the next section and finally talk about the curse of doing a PhD.

The Curse of doing a PhD

After doing a PhD, and correct me other PhD-ers if I’m wrong in generalising this, but irrespective of what you do it in I think you become susceptible to thinking in a certain way. As clichéd as it might sound after (and often while) doing a PhD the world turns into a scene from Sherlock or A Beautiful Mind with building blocks emerging before your eyes. I know this is silly and maybe mathematicians do see equations flying around in the air, but as a design researcher this is all too apparent to me now.

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

I’m not suggesting that PhD folk gain some heightened senses and I’m actually seeing stuff like that, but I see things differently than before as processes that can be broken down to core levels of understanding. As I write this on my laptop my wife is doing her Master’s and is perplexed at the hand-out given to her. “What is a diagram?”, she asks me hoping for an answer that makes sense in the context of her work and this assignment. Now the previous me would just say, “It’s a labelled picture” because that’s essentially all you need to know. This new PhD me went into the freaking etymology of the word to see what a diagram could represent. I’m googling online to understand the word ‘diagram’ and she’s sitting there looking at me perplexed while I slowly come to the realisation that I sound like such a pedant and she probably is questioning her decision of asking me in the first place!

This made me sit back and go into memory for a moment to different times when I did that. And it’s happened quite a lot without me realising it. I do see things in a strange way now, I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it certainly is annoying! This isn’t the only thing in what I dub The Curse of the PhD. No, there are several prongs in this stabby thing that is the curse!

During this period you will realise that your work is not good enough. You’ll face off with the fear of demons lurking in the crowd of your presentations waiting to put you down the minute you end your last slide. You’ll treat your research like a baby coddling it, slowly but surely descending in the depths of solitary madness. Just you and your research. You become the Gollum to your precious research. Soon you’ll be shying away from society only going to conferences, talks, presentations, and other happenings on campus as long as there are sandwiches, pizza, or tea to nosh on. It’s four years of remaining a student but unlike your undergraduates when it was mostly parties, getting high, and not bothering about what the world said, this time you’re more susceptible to migraines and bouts of depression if you indulge in any of the above because all you’ll be thinking of is that data set you need to tabulate!

The level of detail and organisation that a PhD demands has a toll on you and you need to prepare for that. Take the time to step away from everything and enjoy the world around you. For reasons I can’t even fathom but I am eternally grateful for my wife gifted me a PS4 in my second year of PhD. Believe me when I say this, it kept me sane! There is a cathartic feeling of putting aside that book on phenomenology or that scathing review of a paper you submitted, and just beating up goons in Gotham as you picture Heidegger or that foul reviewer getting a knuckle sandwich from Batman! It’s necessary to remind yourself that research exists in its own world. That world might have some bearing on the world you occupy, but it also doesn’t. Unless you’re researching a cure for a Pandemic or Cancer that is, in which case here’s another 💯.

It’s necessary to remind yourself that research exists in its own world. That world might have some bearing on the world you occupy, but it also doesn’t.

This view outside my last flat in Lancaster where I lived was absolutely phenomenal, no editing required. I can’t even imagine how the sky was lit up like that, but it was moments like these that reminded me that the world was beautiful and my work was a tiny piece of it. I didn’t have to worry about it too much, just enough.

The curse of a PhD is the fact that you are forever striving for perfection. Forever creating ripples of new knowledge in a sea overflowing with information that is for all intentions better than what you have to say unless you can prove them otherwise. If you intend to remain in research prepare for an uphill battle. I hope you enjoy tuna sandwiches and vegan food because in the UK and at least at my University that’s mostly what you get through campus catering. The biscuits are always good though, I’ve snuck into many a talk just to snag a few in a napkin. Especially the shortbread cookies.

I don’t have experience working in industry research but I’ve heard from people who are working there that it’s slightly better but also worse. They miss certain freedoms that being associated with a university gave them. Then again they enjoy the perks of working in the corporate world as well. I guess this section like all the other sections is subjective, this whole post is, to be honest! I know one thing though, there were moments in my PhD where I wish I hadn’t started it and wished I’d taken that job back in Pakistan. But there were also moments where I felt proud of my achievements and those are the ones I hooked onto.

There is a sense of pride when you get emails from random people around the globe saying they really liked your work and would like to know more. It’s a sense I missed in my art career. It was also missing from my design industry career. Sure, clients liked what they got because they stretched you so thin that they made sure you gave them what they wanted. As an academic researcher, I did what I wanted to do (in most cases) and got surprising responses I never anticipated. The curse of a PhD is being happy to live with all of the above because you’ll deem it worth it.

But will I ever do it again? Hell No.

Minimal Research Setup

As promised some links if you’re interested in setting up your research and writing the way I do. As I said, I’m not going to show you how I set it up there are loads of articles out there that will help but this is the general setup and workflow.

I write in two stages the first stage is Atom and then I move onto Word for collaborating. Atom can be substituted for other software like Visual Studio if you prefer, the links below are for Atom though. I write in Markdown and export using Pandoc all linked to a bibliography or reference manager. The magic is in its simplicity, here’s the full setup:

With Atom as the writing environment I use these plugins:

Markdown for formatting, here’s a nifty cheat sheet. And finally, Pandoc for exporting content. Now I normally do this in the command line but you can do this through Atom as well. The main plugin you need to have is pandoc-crossref and maybe a few Lua filters like bibexport if you want to export your references into a file.

That last bit probably sounds like gibberish if you’re not that techy, so here are a few links. Thes folk explain setting up a minimal writing environment for research better:

Though I initially had Git in my setup I removed it because it just wasn’t working for me and I eventually just stuck to saving on cloud servers and tracking changes with others through exported Word files. Maybe in the future, I’ll revisit this when I figure out how to do it better.

NB. This reference at the bottom was created with citeproc and cross-ref through Pandoc 👇🏼

Akmal, H. & Coulton, P. (2021) More-Than-Human Game Design: Playing In the Internet of Things. Acta Ludologica, 4(1).



Haider Ali Akmal

Design Futurist, Printmaker, nerd, and occasional writer interested in the interconnectivity between empathy, memory, and the digital world.