“Why?” The question I ask myself as I write my research proposal for doctoral studies (admittedly, also the question I ask as I’m writing this blog post). The research proposal excites me, but I know that it’s going to be difficult to execute by just thinking of the practical implementation thereof. It’s a question I and others I know, have asked ourselves many times. When I finished my three-year degree and decided to continue with a (fourth year) honours degree (yes, South Africa is weird like that; there are very few degrees requiring four years of study to obtain the degree; and yes, one could have an entire discussion on whether or not this is a good thing), I asked myself that question at least once a week. Heck, honours was such a madhouse that I sometimes asked it every hour!
To explain where this burning question came from, I have to tell you what happened during the first few weeks of my honours degree: we were assisting in the laboratory with the first year practical for physics, when a doctoral student (he was finishing up at that time and received his degree later that semester) asked me and a fellow honours student why we decided to study physics; after I mumbled something about that I don’t know and that it’s a good question, the fellow student said that she was tricked into it; having difficulty answering his question, we asked the doctoral student why did he do it and he said that he asked us for a valid response to that question because he don’t know either.
Nonetheless, we survived and just kept on going. Although I knew in advance that “why?” will pop up regularly, I continued with my masters degree and indeed found myself asking the question at least once a week (I should state that these exclude the mandatory “why is this so?” questions we are supposed to ask in order to better understand the work). And now, after I have went through a mini existential crisis (see “To be, or not to be doing a PhD (that is the question?)” on the existential crises induced by doctoral studies) and I’ve already asked myself “why on Earth?” before I even started, I’m ready (well, as ready as I can be) to pursue a doctoral degree in physics (well, that’s technically according to the university, but on a more practical level, it’s more like space physics).
So now when I ask the why question, I don’t feel alone, because I know that there are a lot of people asking the same question. No matter what you’re pursuing, if you find yourself asking “why did I do this?” just know that you are not alone. Keep on doing what you’re doing and you might just find the reason as to why you’re doing it. In the following months I will explore various reasons why we do physics, so watch this space if you want to know why. In the meanwhile, share your “why?” stories in the comments.