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DharmaPhD Discourse

The Independent PhD, and Why You Should Start One

I am writing this post in July, 2020, amidst a confusion of half-arsed quarantining efforts in the US. The edifice of US formal education is showing its cracks. For many, self-directed education is not only a viable option, it is the best possible option. Particularly for adult learners, and particularly for those adult learners for whom the thing they want to learn isn’t taught at university. I propose an alternative: the Independent PhD.

A Traditional PhD

Disclosure: I do not have a Traditional PhD. But I do have friends with PhDs, and here’s what I’ve put together from their various extolling and complaining:

PhDs come in all shapes and sizes. A PhD in Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University looks completely different from a PhD in the History of Architecture at London University. But the gyst seems to be: a PhD is a rigorous multi-year program of study and practice designed to prepare one to be a professional in a particular field. It is also a vetting process of sorts, sometimes for better and sometimes for much, much worse.[¹]

[¹]: Insert civil rights vociferation here.

When one completes their PhD, they should know a bunch of stuff. That stuff should help them get a job. Or at least allow them to riff intelligently with other people in the field. They should have established some connections in that field. And at the end of a PhD they have produced a body of work, possibly including a grand and incomprehensible gesture like a thesis.

So what’s an Independent PhD?

An independent PhD, as I’m formulating it, is a program that meets the above criteria but is not supported, condoned by, or attached to an institution. It is a way for an adult learner to formulate a course of learning and practice that suits their exact niche and their exact needs. It is flexible and highly idiosyncratic. But it is a rigorous program that takes place over several years. It requires commitment from not just the person pursuing the PhD, but also from their friends and families and, possibly, their employment.[²]

[²]: I think one should try like mad to take a sabbatical for at least part of their Independent PhD, but YMMV.

The way I understand it today, an independent PhD might be built around four pillars: research, discourse, teaching, and practice. Notice here that others are a necessary part of an Independent PhD. Just like a Traditional PhD, discourse and teaching are part of an Independent PhD. We need others. Others make us better. Their differing opinions are a whetstone against which we may sharpen our own understanding. And if you want to know whether or not you understand something? Teach it to somebody else.

So that’s it. A four-ish year intense program of research, discourse, teaching, and practice that accumulates a body of work and culminates in a grand gesture.

My Independent PhD in the Philosophy of Mindfulness

If it’s helpful, here’s a look at what I, today, think my Independent PhD in the Philosophy of Mindfulness consists of (if it’s not helpful, skip on past the bullets):

Research
– Learn Pāli.
– Read modern and ancient texts in English and later in Pāli.
– Read scientific articles on the effects of mindfulness on brain function.
– Read scholarly articles on the history of Buddhism and ancient Indian thought and philosophy.

Discourse
– Attend not-silent retreats with others.
– Be a part of mindfulness communities. 
 — Bodhi College Committed Practitioners Program.
 — Bodhi College Community Group.
 — Cultivate.gg Slack space.
 — Others? (SecularBuddhism.org? Start a Meetup?)
– Take courses with others. 
– Establish a formal mentoring relationship with a more advanced practitioner/teacher.
– Translate Pāli texts to English and discuss the results with others.

Teaching
– Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
 — Teaching at Johns Hopkins University.
 — Teaching at The Baltimore VA Medical Center.
 — Teaching group MBSR courses in the public sphere.
– Community Facilitator for Judson Brewer’s MindSciences Behavior Change Programs.

Practice
– Attend silent and personal retreats.
– Daily meditation practice.
– Take courses.

Body of Work and Grand Gesture
– This blog.
– An upcoming podcast. (Please, curb your enthusiasm.)
– A book on Vedanā for the modern human.

Beginning January 2020, I started logging my quarterly progress. I’m still in the process of understanding the interplay of these parts… one inconvenience of an Independent PhD is that you are not handed a list of boxes to check. At the same time, you are completely free to follow your nose down whatever rabbit hole you come across. This leads me to a cautionary note: it is helpful to get specific about what your PhD is and what it isn’t.

If you don’t get specific, you can run into trouble. The project may get too big. Or you may start focusing your energy on the wrong thing. A present-moment example: I’m struggling with an imagined social pressure to teach MBSR courses in the public sphere. It seems to me the thing that mindfulness people at my level do. I understand this to require marketing, website design, and in the age of COVID, a commitment to teach online. So far, I’ve found the process most distasteful. I’ve disliked marketing, have disliked spending so much time on website design, and have disliked trying to figure out how to make MBSR palatable to moderns. I love teaching, but have (thus far) hated the process of getting butts in seats.

Luckily my partner is a very wise human being and he reminds me (over and over again) to let go of what’s broken. He is slowly convincing me that my Independent PhD should model a Traditional “research” PhD. Teaching can be a sidebar, but doesn’t need to be a highlighted aspect of the experience.

All this to say, I recommend you be as specific as possible about what you want to accomplish, then re-assess every six months or so (maybe every quarter?) to make sure that the thing you are doing is serving you. If you hate it, change it. No one can stop you.

Requisite Motivational Ending

What, precisely, is the point of all this effort? Why am I so eager that you should commit yourself to an Independent PhD? Because if your experience is anything like mine, it will profoundly change your life for the better.

What if you committed to spending the next four years of your life pouring your heart, soul, tv-time, and beer money into one important thing? Gregg McKeown in Essentialism beautifully illustrated our ability to make a difference when we focus our energy in a single direction:

In this moment, are you exactly the person you want to be? If not, are you moving in the direction you want to move with confidence and enthusiasm? If the answer to these questions is no, how long has this gap existed in your life? What is holding you back? What if you had a framework to move you in the right direction?

Imagine a world that, when we went into lockdown, rather than tweeting about how bored everybody was, things got really quiet because all the humans suddenly found themselves with the gift of time and space to pour themselves into that one project they have loved at a distance for too long.

An independent PhD can do that for you. Start planning yours today.

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