Reflections on my first year as a PhD candidate
My best friend used to sarcastically translate the acronym PhD as ‘Permanently Head Damaged’. I am not sure if at the end of this marathon I will be head damaged but I know that I will not be the same. I have now run the first stage of my four years test of endurance: my research proposal was accepted by my Supervisory committee on November 29th. Reflecting on my progress – both personal and professional – over this last year bring me to realize that my experience was not always in accordance with the innumerable instructions that we find on the internet (e.g. “the ten tips do a PhD”) or in edited handbooks on “how to be a good PhD researcher”. Each journey is a personal one, and so here I give you mine.
Choosing a quest and finding the research gap which I wanted to fill was the most difficult and painful but lately exciting part of my progress this last year. We all know the ideal PhD candidates who immediately choose a topic that genuinely fascinates them. Advice columns for PhD candidates define PhD research as a quest; the research topic should be about something that you really want to figure out, a topic that you are passionate about, and which will continue to motivate you. But I found that fascination and passion are also emotions which can be generated through reading, discussion, and exposing yourself to different ideas. In other words, generating your passion for the research topic may be part of the learning process, as it was for me.
Picture 1: Trucks from private providers of sewage disposal services at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, Maputo 2016
I am now fascinated with my research topic, but my own process of arriving at this point was difficult. I am doing my PhD within a larger research project on urban water sustainability in Maputo, Mozambique, and the project had clear ideas on thematic areas of investigation which it required, but the ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions within these broad themes were something I had to develop. How could I define these, given that I had no background in water research? What was to be my contribution to the issues of urban water sustainability, as a trained Anthropologist? At every weekly meeting with supervisors I would leave convinced I had understood everything but when it was time to sort out the thoughts on paper it was chaos and blockage.
I found some inspiration from taking courses from UNESCO-IHE’s MSc degree program on Water Management and Governance. Identifying my knowledge gap by tracing the main authors and theoretical streams in the area of water readings as well as the contemporary debates with regard to water governance and being pro-active on identifying how to fill this gap was one competence I achieved. Although the courses were time consuming, they exposed me to new concepts and theories (e.g. urban political ecology, ‘water politics’ versus ‘water policy’, ‘politicized’ versus ‘de-politicized’ approaches and ‘water’ versus ‘environmental’ (in)justices). Through these courses, and my own independent reading, I was able to define the key theoretical perspectives on water governance, and from this I could then chose and define how I would engage with them. Through this, I was able to move from the broad domain around the social issues of water reuse into investigating the dynamics of sanitation and wastewater reforms, and then into the politics of wastewater.
Picture 2: Vegetables fields irrigated by untreated wastewater, Infulene Valley, Maputo 2016
A second competence I’ve gained over this last year is related to research practice, the process of moving back and forth between my own ideas and the literature to define a set of researchable questions. Here the tips and handbooks are right: the formulation of good research questions help to structure one’s thinking and build a framework from which you define your research design to answering your overall question.
For the next three years, I will be investigating ‘’why this solution’’ of wastewater reuse? Whose ‘’problem’’ does wastewater reuse solve? What is the impact of this solution on inequality in access to sanitation services, and distribution of risk related to untreated wastewaters? I call this an exploration into the distributive justice of sanitation services.