By Carmen Tomfohrde
Having spent nine of the past twelve years overseas, I have been abroad for most of the lives of my nieces, now ages seven and eight and a half. As they grow older, I realize how long I’ve been away. As my family gathered for Thanksgiving in the United States, I was unable to Skype them because I’d lost my voice. Instead, emojis and dozens of short voice clips flowed in from my nieces through my mother’s phone, and I replied by text and email (faster than typing on my phone). Below is an exchange from this recent conversation, in which I attempted to explain to my nieces what it is I think I’m doing as a PhD student. They read it as a Word document, and replied with voice clips and emojis.
I’m a PhD student right now. “PhD” means “Doctor of Philosophy.” That’s a hard word. When you say it out loud, it sounds like: fill – ah – so – fee. The “Ph” comes from “Philosophy” and the “D” comes from “Doctor.” How can I become a doctor of philosophy? First, wait a minute. What is philosophy? It has something to do with thinking, and about what we know: about knowledge. When you go see medical doctors, they tell you how to make something in your body better. I am working with ideas and knowledge, not human bodies. I have a desire to make thinking and ideas about something better. People who get a PhD choose one kind of knowledge or focus. Maybe it is in music, or history, or math, or science. They study for a long time, become experts on their topic, and share what they are learning.
I’m in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a long way away from your home in the USA. There’s an ocean in between us, so you can’t drive here. The ocean is really, really big, so if you would take a boat, the trip would be very slow and long. Instead I take an airplane to travel between Hong Kong and the USA. Because I’m on the other side of the world, when your house is facing the sun, my home cannot see the sun. It’s night time for me when it is daytime for you.
[ niece 1 voice clip: But she’s not going to fall off! It’s gravity, people! ]
I was working in Hong Kong before, but now I’m only a student learning how to become a “Doctor of Philosophy.” I’m only working just a tiny little bit, to help other students. I’m a grown-up. How can I STILL be a student now? Well, some years I have been working while I was also a student at the same time. I got my first part-time job when I was 16. Even after I became a grown-up and got a full-time job, I still also took classes at night after I finished work.
The stuff we learn in school gets a little bit harder each year. That’s a good thing – otherwise we would get bored, and what would be the point of going to school if we already know everything? So second grade is a little harder than first grade. Going to a university is more difficult than high school.
Now I am a PhD student. What does that mean? That means I never want to stop learning, but now I have hit a point where I want to learn something that maybe nobody else knows yet. How can I do that? I read many, many books that other people have written. There are so many books in the world. How many books do you think are in the world? I can’t even guess. It seems like a bajillion. I am taking four years of my life to read a lot of books. Sometimes I also travel to look at old letters and journals that have never been made into a book. Some of them are 200 years old! They are kept in special libraries, called archives, to protect them.
I read a lot and think a lot and talk to other people. Many of these people are world experts on something. Maybe my research will turn into a book. What would be the point of this if I learn something new and important, but then keep it a secret?
After I finish this part of my life, maybe I will work in a university and teach other students, and maybe I will write more books, but I will keep learning. I want to keep learning my whole life long.
[ niece 2 voice clip: I read the WHOLE THING! ]