“Stay on the fucking bus!”: Persisting with your doctoral research.
In 2004, American-Finnish photographer, Arno Minkkinen, gave a graduation speech in which he outlined his theory on the difference between success and failure in one’s career. This difference, he claimed, lay in the operation of Helsinki Bus Station*. He called this theory…….The Helsinki Bus Station Theory. Ingenious. Now why, you might ask, would a photographer’s theory on success be relevant to Counselling Psychology trainees? As I hope you will see, Minkkinen’s ideas carry a simple yet reaffirming message for you, indeed for anyone, when it comes to generating that all important thing called persistence when trying to reach a goal that seems so far out of reach.
For all of you trainee Counselling Psychologists out there, you may feel this need for persistence more than ever when it comes to your doctoral research, and here I give my insights on how The Helsinki Bus Station Theory might just be the one that gives you faith in evidence-based practice.
Minkkinen’s speech begins by describing Helsinki’s bus station which has at least two dozen platforms. Several different bus lines depart from each of these platforms and despite all having different destinations, each bus line will follow the same route out of Helsinki for at least one kilometre. Each bus will make identical stops during this time. In the context of his profession, Minkkinen says “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer” and the theory goes on along these follows lines: let’s say you have been on bus line 21 and that represents the route of wildlife photography. After three stops/years, you take your collected work of wildlife photos to National Geographic only to find that others have already produced the images you have; sure, they were on bus lines 53 and 74, but still following the same route (out of Helsinki) to a career in wildlife photography. Dismayed and bewildered that the past three years have been spent doing what others have already done, you get off the bus and cab it (because life is short, says Minkkinen) straight back to the bus station. New platform, new bus line, new destination. Three years later, however, the same thing happens in your search for a niche area and success in your chosen career.
“What to do?” asks Minkkinen. “It’s simple”, he says.
“Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”
The reason for this is because after some time, Helsinki’s bus routes will diverge from one another, going off on their individual journeys to reach their intended destinations. It is at this point of divergence that the photographer will find their originality, their own vision and hence their niche. Separation from the other buses will occur and how the photographer differs from those who have already established themselves can then be seen. It is here that the photographer can really start to take ownership of their breakthrough.
I now turn to counselling psychology trainees embarking on the process of doctoral research and how I think the Helsinki Bus Station Theory is applicable. Typically, the stops on the doctoral research route are as follows (and yes, I have taken the bus stop metaphor seriously!):
- Identifying-a-topic Town
- Literature (Re)View
- Ethics Avenue
- Recruitment Hill (and it really can be a hill, a mountain for some)
- Data Collection Close
- Analysis End
- Write up Way
- Viva (in) View
One of the key features of your doctoral research is producing an original question or area to study, not dissimilar from the photographer who has to find a place in the creative world in which he or she works. Now, while each stop doesn’t represent a year in the counselling psychology trainee’s career (no one would ever finish their training if that were the case), I do propose that it is the first three stops above where trainees will spend considerable time journeying where others have journeyed before, stopping at the same stops as others, just as all Helsinki buses do. Choosing a topic (Identifying-a-topic Town) inevitably means venturing into territory that has been explored before, sometimes extensively, sometimes only a little, and the task of the trainee is to scour through the existing knowledge and literature (Literature (Re)View) until they find something original and worth doing (Proposalville). This can be a lengthy and disheartening journey for trainees, particularly if they struggle to exercise their critical thinking skills and creativity in argumentation. Some may choose to abort their route, get off the bus and go back to the start. Worse still, this can happen when they’ve produced a proposal after having spent months travelling down the well-trodden path only to decide a completely different topic is better. Months of thinking, literature searching, reading, reviewing, writing and supervision get left at the last stop and a fresh bag is packed for a new journey. My advice is, as Minkkinen tells it straight:
“Stay on the bus.
Stay on the fucking bus.”
Keep going, keep reading, keep thinking, keep talking to others about it, just keep going. Your bus will diverge and you will get off the beaten track. Persist. Persevere. Especially when things feel really tough. In fact, the Finnish have a word for this too: sisu. There is no exact translation in English but one close relative is having grit, or perseverance in the face of adversity. Quite wise beings, Finns. In short, it can be tempting to throw the towel in when originality doesn’t come willingly and just start afresh because it seems the easiest choice. But the stops you have to pass through will be the same, just a different driver perhaps, or a different motif on the bus line’s passenger seats.
For those who do manage to stay on the bus, don’t be surprised if monotony or repetition shows itself in different guises at any of the subsequent stops, this can still happen. A reliable example is the popularity of using IPA and how its compatibility with counselling psychology gets trotted out over and over again in much the same way. Having said all of that, by these later stages, you will have far more ownership of your work, especially at Analysis End. Pockets of creativity and originality are far more readily available and numerous possibilities abound. Here you really have taken over from the tired bus driver, and your passengers (participants even) can rely on you to get you all to your destination.
And so, when it comes to Viva-in-View, one of the final stops on your journey, and your examiners ask you how you found an area of originality, the answer you might want to give is that you stayed on the fucking bus. Naturally, you’ll want to find a more socially acceptable response for an academic examination, but if you do manage to find an examiner who can appreciate a good metaphor and the odd curse word to punctuate a point, well…..
…..thank fuck for that.
* If you wish to visit the city that houses the bus station that can keep you waving and not drowning, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. Being half Finnish has nothing to my encouragement. Now, where’s my book on reflexivity…..?
Dr Anna Butcher