Italian Lessons for a PhD

I could be doing this wrong, but every time I travel I end up with a series of moments where I ask “why did I not realise this earlier?” Like “why did I not check that there would still be shows happening in the afternoon before I dragged 3 kids out to this island in baking heat?” Or, “how is it that I didn’t recognise that carrying 2 children across black sand in 30 degrees Celsius heat would leave me with partial thickness burns on my feet?” Or even “why did I think I could eat that much?” (Actually, that last one isn’t confined to travel.)

I have the same problem doing this part-time PhD. Momentary realisations that I have forgotten really simple stuff or not seen the obvious. If the PhD is really about all the steps along the journey I should probably pause and reflect occasionally on all the life-changing stuff I’m supposed to learn. Not the stuff about stats software packages (doing my best to minimise those), the stuff that is supposed to apply to all the other parts of my forever after.

I’ve just been fortunate enough to spend a month in Italy and it’s a good place for a deep breath. While falling short of the gently comic life-altering brush with slightly crazy locals and a mid-life change of direction beloved of lazy movie producers, there are some things that the Italians do particularly brilliantly. Things that provided sharp nudges to a slightly weary PhD candidate.

So, to expand on everyone’s knowledge of all things Italy (and seeing as an acceptable Italian word for “selfie” is “selfie”, we all speak a little of the language), following is my “list of things I learned while in Italy that I will now apply to my PhD but could apply everywhere else too probably”.

1. Do Basic Things Really Well

Every time I choose to over complicate my project I will now think of breadcrumbs. When you go to Italy invariably people mention the food. With good reason too. The striking feature of eating in Italy is that it is glorious not through complexity but because they can put a few superb elements together really well. Just about the best dish I had while travelling was pretty much pasta and breadcrumbs. But the pasta was absolutely perfect and the bread that topped it off was a bunch of crunchy goodness. There’s no compromise on the quality of the basic elements. This should be my research work all over.

Flour, water, 1 egg. And a bit of focus.

Flour, water, 1 egg. And a bit of focus.

2. Build On The Past

Actually I learned a couple of things from clues conveniently left behind by the Romans when, caught somewhere between believing their gods would protect them or thinking their gods would protect them, they left a city to be buried by a volcano. The ruins in Pompeii show numerous examples where the Romans incorporated clever building techniques from the Etruscans and Greeks into their own work rather than knocking stuff down to start again. There’s a bunch of really clever people whose work I can build from. Might do that.

3. Extend Yourself

Every now and then it’s worth trying new skills or rediscovering the joy of basic physics. I may not be able to employ my basic sciences as effortlessly as that genius David Beckham, but I can now attest that reawakening problem-solving abilities by trying to figure out how your rental car full of wife and kids and that large tourist bus will both fit in a street designed for a donkey cart during the Renaissance is an effective way to make you feel frantically alive. Perhaps testing myself during the PhD could prove similarly invigorating. Maybe without the multi-horned soundtrack of doom.

4. Be a Good Citizen

There used to be a time when we could look elsewhere to remind us of the virtue following mottos like “Don’t be evil”. But with Google helping out the NSA with their surveillance and buying killer robots, it’s easier to be reminded by the people next to you on a boat in Venice that helping out people looking helpless (particularly with 3 kids aged 7 and down in tow) really makes them feel better. Helping others where you can in research circles has to come around too.

5. Sleep is Really Good

There are times when deadlines are on that this is easily ignored. It turns out that when you get really good sleep you function better. Who knew? More sleep will probably generate more useful time. I even rediscovered the sleep in (I could have put this item in a whole section on rediscovering lost talents, but I’ll just lodge it here).


So by way of pretending that my trip was of wider-reaching significance to my PhD development than just time out and an astonishingly lame version of a Tuscan tan, there is a list of 5 things (because after thinking of 5 important things I now also insist on gelato). Perhaps there should be more, but for now I guess I’ll just bottle some inspiration breadcrumbs for the next literature review session.







3 thoughts on “Italian Lessons for a PhD

  1. Pingback: The Number | The Flying PhD

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