a person molding a ball of clay

Change: how much do you control?

Month 5 of 42 – My First Formal Progress Report (FFPR) is now complete. All is fine. I am the student who can, “accept the supervisors feedback and builds upon it”. Those are prized words in the appraisal of my progress. Three other comments were most welcomed too. [1] regarding my bi-weekly written submissions, “the quality of the submitted deliverables has improved”; [2] regarding my research problem and reasoning, “…this is a very much improved paper and I actually don’t have too many comments”; [3] regarding my means to prepare an academic idea, “improved substantially from the initial proposal”. My most cherished feedback however is of being credited with an attitude of adaptability – i.e., the accepting of feedback and building upon it – because that is to the heart of what my research is turning to.

🧠 Brain plasticity

In regard to my own control, I have in mind here plasticity. Human brain plasticity is a lifelong property that happens within a more rigid frame. Adapting and morphing within a range but changing at molecular, chemical, and physiological scale. The main impetus of which is external environmental change, but in humans that is also an intended change to our environment. We are both the intentional actor, whilst also being acted upon.

💭 Behavioural plasticity

Therefore a PhD candidate aged 50 (i.e., someone like me), has a brain capable of adapting much as someone aged 25. However, some of these adaptations are beginning from a longer lived history, longer period of morphology, and – most critically – from different socially adapted norms over that much longer timeframe. My brain plasticity remains, but do I intend behavioural plasticity too? Social psychology describes this as both changing behaviours to change attitude; and attitude changes that can alter how we behave. That same intentional actor, whilst also being acted upon.

☔️ Environmental stability

Social psychology also confirms that attitude is a most subtle changer of behaviour. Weak when compared to the more impactful wider social norms and inner desires. Attitude is the least effective means to change behaviour. Yet it is also the factor we can most obviously act upon. The wider world – social norms, values, conventions; as well as individual perspectives and desires – play equally fundamental but more powerful roles than attitude. A prolonged period of significant personal change therefore requires a predictable environment. Attitude can be overridden by stronger social or personal need. Few people I know aged 50 have that economic freedom, or such limited social responsibility. I am claiming 42 months of selfish stability, and of all that enables that possibility, least of all is the ongoing plasticity of the brain. These are the limits of the intentional actor, and the more powerful impacts of being acted upon.

The conclusion offered for now is simply that a PhD is a process not an outcome (as is all of life). It is a time of great change, but it is change within a wider stability. I am therefore grateful that I have all externals under some semblance of control. And grateful too, to those outside parties that help make that so. These are not just my efforts or my attitude. There is a great deal of economic and social factoring here, too. An attitude open to change but within a stability that enables a greater sense of autonomy and self-control. It is that collective that means I can “accept feedback, and build upon it”. An actor, free to choose to be acted upon.

…to be continued