Newsletter #4: Potential Energy
Notes on ramping down PhD work, ramping up writing.
This week I officially got word that I’ve passed my Confirmation of Status. This is the final milestone at Oxford before submission of the dissertation and the final thesis defense. In all likelihood, I’ll be finished with my PhD within the next six months.
This means two shifts will soon take place for me.
The first is that I’m going to be ramping down my scientific research. I have no plans to pursue an academic post after grad school. I’ve written extensively—i.e., bitched a lot—about why I don’t think the academic path is a good one. And so I plan to exert the minimum amount of scholarly effort to make it over the finish line. I expect that strategy to be successful. It got me this far.
The second shift is more insidious. It’s the one that weighs more heavily on my mind. I’ll no longer have the façade of “PhD student” to hide behind as a marker of progress. The nice thing about being a grad student in a fancy program is that it staves off questions about whether you’re up to anything worthwhile in your life. People hear “PhD in psychology at Oxford” and it sounds like a respectable enterprise.
This is a wonderful thing. I don’t know of any other professional positions one can assume in one’s twenties with quite this profile of minimal societal contribution and maximal societal status. I’m not saying that all work done by all PhD students is useless. There’s plenty of good academic work out there. But the glory of grad school is that it doesn’t require you to attain greatness. You can just… you know, get the job done. But that’s the inside perspective. From the outside, it does look like you’re aspiring to greatness.
This is the promise of education: it’s all unconverted potential. It draws the sling further back, until one can practically feel the tension of potential energy. And since you’re all potential but haven’t actually tried to do the thing yet—you’ve pulled back the sling but haven’t released the stone—everyone believes you can do it. This is what grad school offers that other “high potential” opportunities don’t. Founding a start-up? You and every other schmuck who’s about to flame out. Working on your novel? Of course you are. Waiting for your band to hit its break? Go back to art school. But grad school? Sounds legit. I’ve been basking under this veneer of legitimacy for some time.
Now the gravy train is coming to a halt. It’s time to let the sling go and see if the stone really launches. It’s officially time to do the thing, to see if I really have what it takes. This is the moment when the graduate student realizes that she’s also been angling for her slice of pie in the sky. She’s waiting for her band to break big, which is an outcome with similar probability to landing a sweet professorial gig at a top university. Reach into this bag of mixed-metaphors, and you’ll find the same thing: the chickens have come home to roost, and it’s time to convert that all that promise, that potential energy, into something actual.
What this means for me, in a practical sense, is that for the last five years or so I’ve pursued academic work as my main focus, with writing as a side-gig. It’s finally time to invert the priorities. There’s no more: “Yeah, it’d be great if the writing thing works out one day.” No more hedging. I’ve got to give it an honest go.
I’ve been fortunate to spend as much time dicking around as I have. Over the past five years, I’ve published a few freelance articles. I’ve played around with the newsletter format. I’ve released more than 75 episodes of Cognitive Revolution, as well as a season of Notes from the Field. I’ve invested a significant amount of time on at least a half-dozen or so book ideas. I’ve avoided Twitter, because it is foolish. All of this has been good and to various extents worthwhile. But it has been accomplished largely under the guise of amateurish experimentation—rather than with anything resembling professional competency.
Believe me, I’d love to go my entire life without displaying anything that can be called “professional competency.” But it’s time to strike a balance.
Or at least to develop the infrastructure of my writing endeavor well-enough to permit a heathy about of my beloved amateurish experimentation (after all, that’s where the really good stuff ultimate comes from). This is essentially what I did with my PhD. I front-loaded a lot of the domain-specific expertise before I entered my program. When I finally got there, I spent a lot more time reading about the history of anthropology than I did about experimental psychology. And yet, rather inexplicably, I did get the job done.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is this: I updated my website. If you’re a long-time reading of this newsletter, you’ll notice the accent color has changed. It’s blue now, not green. If you navigate to my Substack homepage, you’ll find a new layout. You can leaf through my writing, episodes of my podcast, and even listen to my travelogues. I even have a welcome post, where I’ve collected all of my favorite pieces.
But this update isn’t just about #aesthetics. The organizing principle is that I’m consolidating all of my content streams into one centralized location. Everything I produce will be available through the Substack platform. Anyone who subscribes to that feed will receive all my latest work, and can even pick and choose which feeds—e.g., yes podcast, no writing—they want to see.
The point of this is not just ease of access. Definitely that’s a plus. Anyone who is especially intent on putting off whatever they’re actually supposed to be doing by immersing themselves with the various gratifications of my oeuvre is now entirely capable of doing so. But the larger point is that I’m going to be launching “premium” content—by which I mean stuff you’ll only see if you pay for it. Free subscribers enter through any one of the available avenues. Then they’re exposed to the rest my work. If they want the next-level version of something, they can get all my premium stuff for one—fantastically, unconscionably low!—subscription fee. That’s the idea at least.
If I can get this income stream going (along with a couple other revenue streams I’m working on) that should get me started in my next phase. I’d like to make enough to live on, to leverage my competencé profesional in service of buying more time for continued investment in amateurish experimentation. Do that until one of my projects hits big: this is my life plan.
I’m looking forward to sharing all this with you. It’s going to be fun. I’m hoping both me and my readers will get something out of this future work. I’ve got lots of big plans for what it will entail. Will it all work out the way I hope? I don’t know. Doubtful perhaps. But I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve got nothing if not potential.