Why am I doing a PhD?

I’ve spent much of the last couple of weeks on the back of my translator’s motorbike travelling between my first few research sites for initial meetings and household surveys. I’ll post some observations soon, but in the meantime I have had plenty of time to think about why I am here in the first place. It’s a question many PhD students ask themselves, but I’m responding more directly to recent articles on the ‘oversupply’ of PhDs in the Economist and another aid blogger’s advice to those thinking of doing a PhD in international development. I think both these focus too much on the PhD-to-academia career path, and not enough on the wider reasons for doctoral research.

So here’s why I’m doing my PhD:

1. I’m fascinated by the subject – how communities, governments and NGOs interact to provide water and sanitation services, and who pays for it – and want to study this in-depth to find out what works in Mali.

2. I want to learn how to do rigorous research: asking the right questions, and working out how to answer them with a combination of theory and empirical evidence.

3. To bring the first two parts together, I want to spend time talking to and observing the people involved, understanding their experiences, opinions and actions.

In case some of this sounds too ambitious, here’s a very accurate and down-to-earth representation of what a PhD looks like in pictures: a tiny – but hopefully worthwhile – dent in the boundary of all human knowledge.