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Along with other obsessive quantification crazes I continuously encounter in the academic world (number of publications, number of citations, number of high impact factor journals, number of examiner appointments, number of PhD completions…you get the picture), I’ve recently begun to notice the more qualifications an academic has after their name, the sillier they seem to be.

Flicking though a promotional booklet on my department’s research activities last week, I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the sheer number of postnominals some professors (and even many pre-tenure staff) have accumulated and, remarkably,  how many of them I tend to find annoying. The more they have, the more intent they seem to be to obsess about details, promote themselves, and just generally be a pain to work with.

I appreciate this is only my opinion and that there are many academics with countless postnominals who are lovely.

Just not in my department. We seem to have all the incredulous manic-depressives here.

Take our Head, for example. He has the obligatory BSc-MSc-PhD combination, followed by at least 4 fellowships/charterships of various learned societies, which total up to a good two lines of abbreviations under his name. And, between you, me, and cyberspace, he is the most annoying man ever. He turns up to meetings late, is never in his office when you need to get a form signed, and obsesses about things that aren’t his responsibility. This isn’t just my opinion either – two of my supervisors and at least two professors in the department have all told me, independently and unsolicited, how much of a pain he is! But I don’t want to turn this into a rant.

One of my supervisors, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a Master’s degree, and she’s the loveliest person I’ve ever met in the university. She completely lacks any of the obsession with quantification that I’ve observed in other academics – she doesn’t fuss over self-promotion, doesn’t make me feel like I have to publish paper upon paper as if I’m manufacturing some sort of commodity. I’m not saying she gives me a free ride. She has expectations and she expects good quality work. But she’s really nice about it and I never feel like I’m being domineered.

This apparent pattern worries me sometimes. When I finish my PhD I’ll have four academic postnominals after my name, plus two learned society memberships. I don’t like to actually print them on documents if I can help it (I hesitate to even put ‘Ms’ as a title on forms – I prefer no title), though I know that in academia as it’s evolving today, research departments where I might work in the future will be hanging out waiting for me to get my next postnominals so they can print it in their research promotion booklets to show the world how intelligent stupid I am.

Because it’s true. The more qualified you become, the more stupid you realise you are. Or sometimes, you become stupid without really realising it. Even in the 6 years I’ve been at university, it has continuously struck me how stupid I was when I was younger, and as I become more experienced in research, academia, and life, I know that I must be getting even more stupid.

I am really stupid!

I suppose, in some ways, a PhD is really a consolation prize for making peace with the sheer insignificance of your own knowledge compared to the inconceivably large quantum multiverse we live in.

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One of the things that makes me feel guiltiest about procrastinating so much is that I often don’t find out about significant current affairs in my field until at least a few days after they’ve happened. So, guiltily, I’d like to say RIP to Prof. Christopher Peterson who passed away last week.

Prof. Peterson was one of the founding fathers of the positive psychology movement and contributed an enormous volume of work to our knowledge of wellbeing, particularly in the areas of character strengths and optimism.

Truly an awe-inspiring academic.

Data collection for the winter has started.

I keep telling myself this is my last study.

That doesn’t seem to help.

I was reading a critique paper from my field last night and it just dawned on me what a vast area of intellectual space our knowledge already covers, even in a relatively new topic like mine. Research and theory in my area has virtually exploded in the last 15 years, and the more you read about it, the more sure you are that you couldn’t possibly come up with something new, and useful, to add to it.

So it’s daunting to think about my PhD, and everyone’s PhDs, being “an original contribution to knowledge.”

I’m collecting data for my last study and I’m supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge with it. It seems simple on the face of it, but when you sit on it for a while you realise each chapter of your thesis is essentially a paper in itself, and each paper should be of publishable quality. And by the time you work those brain cells to read all the literature to critique it to come up with the idea to design the project to do the research to write it up to edit it to realise it’s completely wrong to go back and start from scratch to do it all over again to write it up again to edit and delete and rewrite it to get it all bound and sent off to your examiners on time- someone else has already done it all! Ping! Sorry! Your contribution is no longer original!

There have already been several close shaves which I have survived, in which I have read some seminal paper or other that I had not come across previously, and have been shocked to find the sheer similarity between some of the authors’ arguments and the arguments I have been trying to substantiate through my own writing. For a moment, I enter a hysterical state of terror that everything in my thesis has already been done, and hence its contribution will be completely unoriginal, and even worse than that, I have no knowledge that all this original work already exists, and I will go into my viva thinking my thesis is great only to be interrogated by my examiners and found to be utterly ignorant about anything to do with my subject matter, whereupon they will eat me alive like savage rabid thesis-gobbling monsters.

Then I calm down.

The work you produce in your thesis is unlikely to have been done before, at least in the precise way you have done it. If you hunt around and dig deep, you will, in all likelihood, find something that is original, and that’s your original contribution to knowledge. Reiterate that thing through the whole thesis, highlight it here and there, blow a trumpet about it and put it in the closing remarks. That’s what your examiners are interested to see.

Somehow – and I’m not quite sure how, yet – I’ll find a way of articulating my thesis. I’ll find a way of explaining just what I mean to say, and of showing the world my examiners that it is new and useful and exciting.

 

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!
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