You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion

Most academics are so passionate about their work that it is a struggle to separate work from life. I have long resisted this urge, trying my best to keep the inbox off over the weekends and taking proper holidays (i.e. non-academic books only). This reluctance extended to banning anything vaguely academic from my personal world, including academic novels and films depicting campus life. 

The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s deliciously scathing commentary on liberal arts schools, was the first to change my mind, and just in time. The rise of the academic novel in recent years has seen the publication of many truly unmissable books that beg to be read, from The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s ambitious and intellectual murder not-so mystery, to Lab GirlHope Jahren’s quirky memoir and ode to friendship, plants, and the tenacity of the unsung women of science.

A new addition to my growing collection of academic novels recently landed on my desk – Karin Bodewits new book You Must Be Very Intelligent: The PhD DelusionYou Must Be Very Intelligent promises a “witty, warts-and-all account of post-grad life” featuring “success and failure, passion and pathos, insight, farce and warm-hearted disillusionment.”

As Karin puts it:

Ever since I finished my PhD, I knew I had to write this book. While it isn’t a diary of my time as a PhD student, it isn’t quite a work of fiction either. If it were, I would probably have described some secretive, unethical research taking place in dank basements beneath cloisters, proving that scientists are amoral psychopaths (I did meet some people I could imagine creating a three-headed sheep for shits and giggles but I never actually saw anyone trying it).

I nonetheless saw stuff that was dramatically dark, barking mad and hilariously ridiculous, but in an everyday way. I saw the monsters beneath the meniscus of human nature surfacing in a supposedly sedate world; of frustrated egos the size of Africa, where competition is pathological, volcanic rages seethe and tin pot dictators are drunk on oh-such petty power. It’s a world where glory is the goal and desperation is the order of the day; a world where young adults are forced into roles that make Lord of the Flies look like Enid Blyton.

It was an education. And it taught me to be wary of education.

Karin kindly agreed to share a couple of chapters, including the all-important Chapter One, and Chapter 35 (look out for the surprisingly saucy illustration of academic ”collaboration”!).

Karin Bodewits has a PhD in Biology from the University of Edinburgh. In 2012, she co-founded the company NaturalScience.Careers. She published her first book, a career guide for female natural scientists, in 2015, and just won the Science Slam in Munich. She writes short stories, career columns and opinion pieces for magazines like Chemistry World and Naturejobs.

 

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for this post, but I did get a free copy of the book. I do have a fledgling Amazon affiliate account, which means that if you buy the book after clicking on a link here, I get 3 cents or something.

11 Essential Hashtags for Academics

Academic twitterJust over a year ago I began tweeting as @AcademiaObscura, and in that time I have converted from a twitter sceptic to a fervent advocate. Twitter, and other social media tools, can be invaluable for connecting with others in your field, disseminating your work, and keeping up-to-date with the latest research and news. Indeed, once you are past the hump, Twitter becomes useful for all sorts of things. If you are new to Twitter I highly recommend the Thesis Whisperer’s explanation here (scroll down a little to the using twitter section) and LSE’s guide.

Hashtags are a great way to follow specific discussions, and a number have become staples of the academic twittersphere (side note: I use Tweetdeck to follow numerous hashtags simultaneously – intro here). This list is an attempt to introduce the essentials. Special thanks to Raul Pacheco-Vega, whose extremely useful post provided the basis and inspiration for this.

1. #PhDchat
The hashtag for all things PhD, PhDchat is a staple of academic Twitter, having been initially started all the way back in December 2009 by Nasima Riazat (@NSRiazat). A great place to discuss your research progress, get tips and tricks, share experiences etc. Structured sessions are also hosted:

  • UK/Europe: Wednesday nights, 7.30pm-8.30pm GMT (hosted by Nasima herself)
  • Australia: usually the first Wednesday each month, 7pm-8pm Sydney time (hosted by Inger Mewburn – @thesiswhisperer)

More: There is a satisfyingly geeky analysis of the #PhDchat community here.

2. #ECRchat/#AdjunctChat
As above, but specifically for ‘Early Career Researchers’ (ECR) and adjuncts.

3. #AltAc/#PostAc/#WithAPhD
A trio of useful hashtags for those trying to find alternative academic paths, get out of academia altogether, or figure out what to do with a PhD. Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDToLife) is your go-to person on all of these!

600_3663352324. #shutupandwrite
‘Shut Up and Write’, aside from being a great mantra in general, is the name for informal writing groups convened the world over. I guarantee that attending such a group will be the best decision you ever make in terms of writing productivity. But if there isn’t a group near you (and you don’t have the inclination to start one) you can join one virtually through twitter! They take place on the 1st & 3rd Tuesday each month (#suwtues):

5. #AcWri
AcWri, short for ‘academic writing’ is a great place to find helpful tips, motivational tidbits, and articles about the writing process itself.

6. #ICanHazPdf
Have you ever gone to download that crucial paper you need only to find that it is behind a paywall? If your institutional subscriptions don’t cover what you are looking for, simply tweet the details of the paper along with the hashtag and an email address. Usually someone will come through with the paper pretty quickly. Don’t forget to delete your tweet after!

More: Check out some interesting analysis of #ICanHazPdf here and here, and critical discussions here and here.

7. #ScholarSunday
There is a tradition on Twitter of doing #FollowFriday (or #ff) for short – sending a tweet with a few names of people you recommend to others. Raul Pacheco-Vega created Scholar Sunday to go a step further, calling on academics to share not only who they recommend, but also why.

More: discussion from the hashtags creator.

8. #AcaDowntime
Amongst all the writing, teaching, and general stress of academic life, it is more important than ever to set aside for rest and relaxation. #AcaDowntime calls for academics to share what fun things they are up to on their weekends and in their free time. Hopefully we can foster a culture of work-life balance and encourage us all to take time for ourselves.

More: I asked academics what they do in their ‘free’ time. Here’s what they said. Also read “The Workaholic and Academia: in defense of #AcaDowntime

9. Whatever is used in your field
There are many subject-specific hashtags: #twitterstorians, #realtimechem, #TrilobyteTuesday#archaeology#gistribe#runology (for the study of runes, not running)… Poke around a bit and you are bound to find something to take your fancy!

(Just for fun)

10. #AcademicsWithCats Are you an academic? Do you have a cat? Then this hashtag is for you. All the cute cats and kittens you could ever need, often in academic settings.  

More: A day in the life of an academic, with cats; The first annual Academics with Cats Awards.

11. #AcademicsWithBeer If you don’t have a cat but you do love beer, this one’s for you! We have Elena Milani (@biomug) to thank for this recent edition.

More: Read the call to arms (The King’s Arms, that is).

Did I miss anything? What are your favorites? Please post a comment or tweet me @AcademiaObscura. Happy tweeting!

What PhD Life is Really Like

Mairi Young is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching why people are scared of the dentist (sort of). She is also a foodie and self-confessed junk food lover, blogging over at The Weegie Kitchen.

When you’re studying for a PhD, you will be perpetually presented with two semi-rhetorical questions:

  1. Wow, you must be really smart?
  2. Wow, so you’re gonna be a Doctor!?

Regardless of how tedious these become, you better get used to it because it’s all any non-PhD-student really understands about it. We minions in the lower echelons of academia know it’s a different story altogether.

Whether you’re embarking on a PhD, you know someone studying a PhD and you want to understand their life a little better, or if you’re doing a PhD and just procrastinating today (I’m not here to judge, man) I’ll share what PhD life is really like.

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

Source: exloringhandhygiene.wordpress.com

We’re old, and a student

PhD students are generally older than your average Undergrad or Masters student. We have (considerably) less money than anyone else our age, we shop at Lidl and Aldi, and a night out/celebration are limited to:

  • Student clubs at the weekend – We can have a night out and taxi home for less than £20 but this involves warm syrupy cranberry juice mixed with paint stripper vodka in a plastic cup surrounded by girls wearing shorts/heels/crop tops and boys who resemble our baby brothers; or
  • Fancier pubs during the week – There are fewer crowds, so you can actually chat to your pals, cocktails come in REAL glasses and are often half price during the week. The problem is you can only really go out with your PhD pals because everyone else has to be in the office for 9am.
Source: author's personal collection.

Source: author’s personal collection.

What’s your PhD about anyway?

Let me tell you right now, 90% of people who ask this question aren’t interested in what your PhD is about at all. The other 10% is made up of:

  • Your Supervisors – You take up a lot of their time so naturally they are interested but this interest is VERY low down in their list of priorities;
  • People at a conference who are researching something similar – These people are the tiny percentage of people who actually understand your research and who are genuinely interested. Believe me, this is rare.

So how do you deal with this question from the other 90% of people who don’t care and are asking out of politeness? Well, you reel off a small catchy sums-it-up-sentence people can relate to

For example:

I’m researching why people are scared of attending the dentist.

People love this, and it generates a discussion that most people can join in with. Is it what my research is about? No.

My research evaluates the efficacy of interventions by oral health support workers trying to engage hard to reach families, typically people with a fear of attending the dentist, regarding oral health behaviours. My working title is:

Optimising the role of the Dental Health Support Worker in Childsmile Practice: A qualitative case study approach. 

You see the distinction?

The Doctor thing

Most people who know me, and my journey to get here, get excited about the whole ‘becoming a Doctor’ thing. I appreciate their support but I can’t share the enthusiasm because the shiny appeal of being Dr Mairi Young is well and truly lost.

Let me take you on a journey:

  • 3-6months into a PhD you’re worried about being found out as a fraud to even consider being awarded the doctorate. You’re convinced the University has made a mistake and will call you any day now to kick you out.
  • 1st year you have no idea what to do, so you wing it.
  • 2nd year you worry whether you’ve got enough time to do all your research and writing.
  • 3rd year you panic because you don’t think you’ve done enough to even put together a thesis.
  • By 4th year you’re worrying about PostDocs, Viva’s and the sheer cost of binding the thesis.

By the time your graduation comes around, you’re in the gown and you’re being handed the piece of paper which allows you to call yourself Doctor, you’re already in a Post Doc post and that journey has started all over again.

Forgive us if we aren’t all that excited about being called Doctor. It can feel like something of a consolation prize.

Endless corrections

11704948_10153079810253736_7499609512061010656_nThe one thing I miss about undergrad life was handing in an essay and never seeing it again. You’d receive a mark and that was it: a pure and beautiful cycle of hard work and reward.

This doesn’t happen at PhD level. 

In a PhD you will spend weeks, if not months, tirelessly working on a chapter to make it perfect. You will submit to your supervisors and wait. And wait. And wait. Then you get corrections back.

That beautiful piece of work you worked yourself to the bone for returns covered in incomprehensible scribbles. Deciphering these scribbles will become a skill fit for your CV. Once you’ve deciphered and amended the chapter to perfection, submitted the chapter and waited, and waited and waited…. You get corrections back again.

Thus it continues until the day the thesis is bound and submitted. It’s thoroughly de-motivating and an exhaustive task.

Endnote (or Zotero/Mendeley etc.)

If I could give PhD students one piece of advice for the future, it would be this: learn how to use Endnote.

I’m 2 years and 10 months into a 4 year PhD and I still don’t really know how to work EndNote.

Supposedly it makes your life easier because you can ‘cite while you write’ and compile your references at the click of a button. Yet as I still don’t really know how to work Endnote chances are I (and a couple other PhD’ers I know) will be typing ours out manually.

Please know I’m not lazy, and I’ve not been avoiding the issue. I simply never fully appreciated the time I had on my hands in the first 6 months of my PhD. Back then, I had all the time in the world to spend learning the detailed intricacies of useful software. 3 years in, I don’t have this luxury anymore.

phd 3

Council Tax

Quite possibly the saving grace of the whole PhD malarkey: No Council Tax.

I did my Undergraduate degree, MSc and PhD back to back which means I’ve been studying for 9 years (with a year to go *weeps*). I have not paid council tax at all during this time. I truly believe Glasgow City Council has a ‘Mairi Young Is At It / Must Investigate’ file because after 10 years at 3 different universities, they must be thinking “Surely she’s scamming us?”

Even though I receive a tax free stipend (which FYI is an absolute joy to explain to the Inland Revenue) it is a measly amount, so the saving I make not paying Council Tax means I can afford to live on my own, a luxury I never want to give up.

Undergrads

Contrary to popular opinion, PhD students don’t dislike Undergrads, we’re just jealous of them. Undergrads have it easy and they don’t even know it.

At that age you don’t mind living in a tiny single bedroom and sharing a kitchen with 7 other people so long as it’s within walking distance to class and the student union. You don’t mind living off 9p noodles, cereal and toast. You can sleep during the day between classes, be told exactly what to study to pass the module, submit an essay and never see it again, and you have a whole summer each year in which to relax and enjoy yourself.

PhD students don’t have such luxuries.

We’re too accustomed to the finer things in life: expensive complicated cocktails, antipasti and fresh flowers every weekend. We also read journal papers in bed to catch up with reading, which throws a downer on any romantic relationship, and we stress out over how to afford a suitable outfit for a conference on a measly PhD stipend.

If you’re an undergrad and you see a PhD student tutting at you in the library for browsing Asos rather than working, please know we don’t hate you, we’re just green with envy that our lives are no longer like that. I’m sure you can empathise. By the time you end up doing a PhD, you’ll feel the same, I promise.