Ambivalence – can it help you with your PhD?

Early this week I read an interesting article by Shirley Wang in the Wall Street Journal on ambivalence. It got me thinking again about the personal qualities one needs to cultivate while doing a PhD. Apparently some people tend to ambivalent states of mind more easily than others. The central claim in Wang’s article, based on various bits of psychological research, is that a tendency towards high levels of ambivalence – the state of having mixed feelings – can have profound effects on your life and career path.

While a tendency to ambivalence might be a disadvantage in some circumstances, such as in quick decision making, high ambivalence be taken as a sign of emotional and intellectual maturity. Children are less ambivalent and tend to see the world in black and white – as full of polar opposites. For example, a child may view the eating of vegetables with disdain because they don’t taste great, but an adult will probably eat the vegetables, even if they don’t like the taste, because of the health benefits. In other words – an adult has learnt to see vegetables in more complex ways. As the Wang puts it:

“Ambivalent people … tend to systematically evaluate all sides of an argument before coming to a decision. They scrutinize carefully the evidence that is presented to them, making lists of pros and cons, and rejecting overly simplified information”

The key message I took away from the article for the thesis writing business is that ambivalent people show a higher tolerance for uncertainty. This might be a distinct advantage in the whole PhD game, because it is an endeavour fraught with uncertainty.

Uncertainty can manifest in different ways, depending on your discipline.

At a recent Science Communicators mixer event I had a long discussion with a young scientist who was contemplating leaving her PhD study. She told me what had attracted her to science in the first place was the certainty of it all, but post graduate work was not what she expected: “In my undergraduate years when I would mix x with y and you get result z” she said, “But now when I do my experiments I don’t even know whether z is there or not. I can’t stand it. I just want some clear answers”.

This dilemma may seem strange to non scientists, who tend to see science as the most black and white of all the disciplines. But makes sense when you consider how training in the sciences operates and what expectations are generated as a result.

In undergraduate lab classes, students tend to replicate known experiments – ones that the lecturers know ‘work’ (produce reliable and predictable results). However, in a quest for new knowledge, new experiments have to be designed. It can be difficult to know when these experiments have actually worked: whether the results that are being looked at are actually results, or merely an artifact of the process.

Learning to be a scientist entails learning to get used to this constant ambivalent condition and systematically working for reliable results. If you are interested, this theme is dealt with well in the film “Naturally Obsessed: the making of a scientist” which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

In the humanities uncertainty tends to be more visible. In areas like sociology, history, cultural studies and so on students are taught to argue persuasively for a position. There are no ‘right or wrong’ in most cases – it is the ability to make the argument that matters. Part of the process of this argumentation might be to point out differing opinions, so having mixed feelings about your topic can be a clear advantage.

However, this doesn’t mean that tolerating ambiguity and different points of view isn’t hard for these students. Some people in the humanities can come to have very fixed world views and deeply held political convictions. This can be a slippery slope; as a professor at my Alma Mater used to put it: “Some people don’t recognise there’s a difference between doing a PhD and changing the world”. In other words there is a danger of losing sight of the primacy of the argument, in favour of the position that is being taken.

I occasionally see a different kind of uncertainty in the creative arts and design students; this one has to do with identity. Many of these students are practitioners, sometimes of long standing and more used to making stuff than writing about it.

Taking on the posture of researcher – one who makes meaning through writing as well as actions – can feel un-natural and may, at times, conflict with an artistic impulse to create. Suspending an artistic identity for while and taking on a writerly self can be just as unsettling and difficult. In addition the status of the work can become uncertain: it is no longer ‘just art’ or ‘just design’ but also ‘research’. Many students come out of this process deeply changed. Change can be a desirable thing, but, as any therapist will tell you, change provokes mixed feelings which can be hard to live with.

Learning to live with ambivalence can be difficult – more so if you are the type of person who craves stability and clear cut boundaries. I now find myself in the curious position of being ambivalent about ambivalence because the inability to make decisions can be as damaging as any of the issues I have outlined above. So, as usual, I find I have no clear cut answers and yet more questions! How might ambivalence be advantageous to you? When might it be a problem?

5 thoughts on “Ambivalence – can it help you with your PhD?

  1. TokenLefty says:

    A higher tolerance for uncertainty also helps to appreciate the complexity of climate change science. This is something the media really struggles with!

  2. M-H says:

    This is an excellent post. Very thought-provoking for me in my project, and should probably be compulsory reading for all sups and students! Thanks.

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