Pedigree PhD problems (and heart-shaped lattes)

Yesterday was a rather colourful day, so I thought I would jot down some of the thoughts that stroke me whilst I was making and serving coffee like the mongrel I am.

Two lovely ladies came to the cafe and ordered lattes in the afternoon. Since I am a PhD mongrel but a coffee nazi, I made two separate sets of milk for them. The first one was thick so I made a heart shape. I gave it to this lady, and she was very happy to see a heart in her cup, and said it was lovely. Now given the opportunity to expand that happiness (or to brag about my skills, let’s face it), I made a little leaf with the other one. The lady was even happier and congratulated my skills. I made a joke about not making 200 cups of coffee a day. She went and sat down with her friend, and about an hour later, ordered another two lattes, which she was again very happy with for aesthetic reasons.

That made me think that it is so easy to make some people happy. You put a heart in their latte, and even if it tastes rubbish, their minds will tell them otherwise. It was a comforting thought.

A while later this student came and ordered something else. I had briefly spoken to her before so she asked me how my PhD is doing. Don’t even know your name and you are already asking me about my PhD-lover… but whatever. I think it’s an inherent thing; as a PhD student, you are allowed to ask how some other PhD student’s PhD is doing, even if you don’t know them. There’s a secret de facto pact that allows you to rant about it – the assumption will always be that the answer to that question has negative connotations: “oh, so busy”, “oh, writer’s block”, “oh, so stressed”, etc. As if we were war veterans and were showing each other scars. I answered it’s going well when I got time for it. It’s meant to be a joke – oh course I bloody have time for it, that’s why I am doing it part-time: any time is enough time! She wanted me to elaborate more; I could see her puzzled expression to how do I have time for it since she sees me work as a barista most of the time. I said, in rather philosophical terms, that doing the PhD whilst being a barista is teaching me about life and my priorities. She was still puzzled. I argued that having to shuffle between jobs and interests makes you consider how much you want something, and what are the important things in life. Still puzzled. I said that if you only do a PhD, you run the risk of considering it your one and only priority, and forgetting about the important things in life. And still puzzled. At this point I was just going to argue “there is life beyond the PhD, and I have a wife and two baby hamsters”, but I thought it was too easy an escape. Instead I said “If I don’t look at it that way, all I would think is I am a PhD student that makes coffee for a living. A PhD and a barista. Which is a rather grim thought.” To my surprise, she argued: “Well, I am only a PhD student. I would like to be something else.” Now I was puzzled. “I only have funding for three years and there is so much pressure.” I tried to feel compassion for what she had just said, but I was mildly angry. I said “well, if you are intelligent enough to get into a funded PhD, surely you are intelligent enough to finish it”. She said she didn’t think she was. At this point some of my regulars had walked in and proceeded to save me from spewing lava, and the student went to sit down and I was thrown into a much more positive conversation, namely about the power of hazelnut and vanilla combinations and writing under the influence of coffee. So thankful for that.

Thinking back about the student, it made me feel that there is definitely no pleasing some people. So easy to make some happy, rather impossible task to make others think outside their box. As a mongrel, this kind of pedigree PhD problems really annoy me. Get over yourself and move on. And if you want to be something more than a PhD, do some volunteering work or join the gym or sign up to a matchmaking website or get some baby hamsters. Maybe you’ll get some perspective.

You are just as happy as you want to make yourself.

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