Monday, 27 January 2014

Doctor Me

Well, not quite. I'm not technically a doctor until I graduate, and the ceremony isn't 'til July (and I won't be attending, but that's a story for another time). In fact, there's still some procedural stuff to do - a few bits of paperwork, and some corrections to my thesis requested by the examiners (this is fairly normal).

But in essence, I now know that I *will* be a doctor, it's just a matter of waiting for the bit of paper. I had my viva - the face-to-face, oral final exam where a world expert in my field flies in to grill me about my ideas for two hours - on Friday. It was actually rather less scary than that makes it sound, because philosophy academics tend to be a genial sort, but there were still a few nervous moments. In the end, though, I passed solidly.

Which means I've spent the last couple of days receiving enthusiastic congratulations from everyone I speak to, followed pretty consistently by the dreaded question 'So what will you do now?'

For reference, so that no-one else needs to ask me, the answer is 'Tell people to stop asking me that question!' I've been too busy spending my brainpower on passing a doctorate to think very much about what next. What I want to do is keep going in more or less the same vein, but with my fiction writing replacing my academic activities. I have a good (if rather financially tight) day-job that I love, relatively low costs of living and quite a lot of time for my own use. The idea of getting a bigger or more serious job just to make more money isn't terribly appealing, and anyway for the next few months I'm actually going to be too busy to really pause and think through any major life choices.

That's beside my main point, though. The main thing I've found about my reaction to finishing the doctorate is that I don't like being congratulated very much. It's a very strange thing to say, I know, but it bothers me. It makes me feel like people are rather overrating the achievement.

A PhD is a big achievement. It's a long project, it requires a lot of work and a high degree of ability in a very particular skill set. That skill set is a valuable one, but it's not the be-all and end-all of value, or even of intelligence. Having a PhD is a product of having had a bookish, intellectual childhood, a couple of excellent schools, and then spending almost a decade at university. It's not some mystical pinnacle of intellectual virtue, and I hate that sometimes when I say to people that I'm doing or just finishing a doctorate, they go 'Woah'. It's not a 'Woah' thing.

I could go into a whole range of reasons why it's a bad idea to treat purely academic intelligence as that magical and out of reach, but really it comes down to the fact that it isn't out of reach. You could argue that I've been training for this for twenty years, if not always deliberately. From this end of the process, I feel quite strongly that anyone who spent twenty years on this could get my PhD (which doesn't in any way mean that very many people should spend that much time on something so obscure).

There's another problem, as well, which is that, however impressive a philosophy PhD is, I know people with PhDs in other subjects who worked far, far harder than I ever did. A very good friend of mine did his PhD in biosciences a year ahead of me, often spending ten-plus hours a day in the lab, six days a week. Every time someone congratulates me on my achievement, I think of him - and how exhausted he looked the week of his viva - and cringe a little inside.

Again, I don't want to deny that it's an achievement - that would be pretty patronising and trite in its own right - but I do hope people lose interest quickly. Maybe my perspective is skewed by living in an academic bubble for half a decade, but I really do feel like I'm being overrated, and I feel like I have to say something, or I'm being dishonest through negligence.


  1. I know what you mean with this, Rik. Sometimes I'll tell my supervisor I've done something e.g. collect 30 subjects for a study, and she'll go "Woah, that's brilliant!" and say how good it is. And I just don't know what to say - I actually feel awkward being complimented on it because I always feel like it's not really a big thing. I think when I finish I'll feel the same way when people congratulate me - I know I've worked my butt off to get this far but when you've been working that hard for such a long time it almost feels normal and so when people heap praise on you, you feel like you don't really deserve it all. That's part of the academic bubble too, I think.

    So rather than say congratulations, perhaps it's better to say "Bet you're glad that's over!" ;)

  2. 'Bet you're glad it's over!' is right (and good luck!)