Saturday, 5 October 2013

Not all those who wander are lost...

I specialise in taking trivial obsessions to epic levels and finding pointless connections between things. Some day, I'm sure, it's precisely this set of skills that will help me finish my PhD. For now, it's helping me write blogposts that might call my sanity into question.

I'll just come right out with it.
Doing a PhD, I've come to realise, is a lot like being Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Ideally, you will have 2 supervisors- A Gandalf and an Aragorn. Gandalf - possibly your HOD - seems to have been around forever. He's been everwhere, done everything. Now, he could retire if he wanted to, or move to the darker side and make his own life much easier, but he won't. Because he loves fireworks, and loves the little people. He's too proud and wise to let the enemy take over without a fight. (I don't know who exactly the enemy is. Bad science, I suppose. Hmm. This is all getting a bit too utopian isn't it? But hey, you get to do a PhD under Gandalf and Aragorn, so just lump it, okay?)

Aragorn is a lot younger, and much more, well, mortal (maybe he only gets tenure at the end of book/ year 3!). But he's a pro when it comes to the methods. He makes it look like he did his own PhD at Rivendell  where they gave him lifelong access to special elven wisdom. It's just a lot easier to be brave and noble if Strider has your back!
At some point during your first year, you’re likely to bump into Tom Bombadil. He’s that guy. The timeless hippie. He’s neither corrupted nor vexed by things like grants and publications and impact factors. Those things just come to him while he goes about being cool and pure and magnificent in his own field. Why can’t everyone be like him, you ask. Why can’t Tom Bombadil be in charge? This is a mistake. Don’t get too cosy at the house of Tom Bombadil. You have a long way to go, and he really couldn’t care less about what you get up to in the outside world.

Then you have your Legolas and Gimli. The other post-docs. They might have 'a history' and some unresolved issues between them, but that doesn't mean that they won't help you. A real-life post-doc laughed at me when I said this and called me naive for thinking that it's the post-docs who are there to help the PhD students, but then, Frodo has naive coming out of his ears.

Which brings me to my next point. Frodo doesn't quite grasp the full picture. Gandalf and Aragorn do, but even Gandalf can be wrong some times, and even Aragorn is not always sure about everything. There are brief moments when Frodo becomes acutely aware of the sheer enormity of it all, but that's about it. Which is just as well, because if he had known what he was getting into right from the start, he probably wouldn't have gotten into it.

Every department has at least one Boromir. He will seize every opportunity of informing you about everything that is a bad idea about your project. You might think he's a loser, but he probably has a point. Just make sure that your supervisors are Gandalf and Strider and you can get away with ignoring him.

There is no Frodo without Sam and Merry and Pippin, of course. The other PhD students who started with you. The bastards! Sure, they're some of your best friends. Sure, they help you. And sure, they too have their moments of grumble, whimper, shudder, mumble. But on the whole, they seem to be coping with it MUCH better than you are. How are they doing it??
I won't stretch this feeble metaphor (or is it a simile?) too far, but if your project is the Ring, then it's certainly true that in spite of all the help and guidance that is bestowed upon you, it's solely and entirely your burden to bear. Try not to hang on to it for too long. Try not to let it make you think that it's more precious than the rest of your life. Look at what that did to poor Smeagol. Just take it to journey's end as fast as you can, as best as you can. Not that submitting your thesis is tantamount to throwing it in the fires of Mount Doom. But what do I know, maybe it is. I'll write about that when I've been there and back again.

(Note how there aren't that many women in LOTR. Coincidence? I don't think so.)


  1. Gollum is now updating his CV: my P...ublications...

  2. I so feel like this right now but I have a committee of 3 sigh