It can take a long time

2015-08-31

Without exaggerating or being over melodramatic, I think that most freshly minted PhD’s would assure you that writing a PhD dissertation is very similar to Daniel’s predicament in this scene. Especially on those nights when one is stuck alone at the computer until 2AM. Or the mornings one wakes up with a beating heart and cold sweat at 04.30, incapable of anything except getting out of bed, sitting down at the computer, and re-writing chapter 6’s introduction one more time. One feels very alone.

But, in the movie, when the bullies are about to take the final kick to Daniel’s unconscious body, Mr. Miyagi suddenly jumps silently over the fence and takes them out one by one with well-placed karate moves. The six big teenagers are turned into a mess of groaning, beaten bodies withering in the summer grass with just a few well placed kicks from Mr. Miyagi, who then gathers up Daniel and brings him back to the safe apartment complex.

And while physically, most PhD supervisors may not have that much in common with a short, balding Japanese man who happens to be a karate expert, their teaching style can be very similar to Mr. Miyagi’s. Like Daniel at the fence, lucky doctoral students have a fierce force behind them, and just like Mr. Miyagi helped Daniel learn the art of karate through tedious, painful training, so can a supervisor help her doctoral students learn how to become doctors, often without them realizing what she is doing. That way, when the big day of the defense comes, a doctoral student is not facing her opponent without the proper training. And much of that training comes, like it did for the Karate Kid, quietly and unexpectedly through other activities.

“Wax on, wax off. Circle right, circle left.”

Perhaps the most famous line in Karate Kid, this is what Mr. Miyagi says when teaching Daniel how to wax a car. Having shown up at Mr. Miyagi’s house to learn karate a couple of days after the incidence at the fence, Daniel is confronted with a long row of cars to wax before he can start with the karate training. Daniel, of course, only thinks he is learning how to wax a car. Mr. Miyagi knows otherwise. But Daniel spends the whole day in the sun, polishing the old wrecks, while Mr. Miyagi sits in the cool shade indoors, trying to catch flies with his chops sticks.

There are times a doctoral student can think she is waxing her supervisor’s car. For example, the first years of the graduate education can involve a lot of ‘grunt’ work; photocopying, correcting student essays, editing. These tasks can involve a lot of work, and most of it is work done in other people’s texts. Especially copyediting anthologies. Sometimes it happens that the professor reads through the manuscripts, makes changes in it by hand, and then the doctoral student types those changes into the files to be edited further and typeset.

It can take a long time.

It can happen during the summer.

The professor can be working at her summer place on a beautiful island, posting chapters back and forth with small friendly greetings about how sunny and warm it is on that beautiful island.

The doctoral student can be sitting in a dark office in Linköping, watching the mainland’s unrelenting rain fall down outside, making changes into the texts and emailing them back to the professor. It can seem tedious, trying to keep track of version after version of the different chapters, slowly learning how to decipher the professor’s handwriting, and getting used to the idea that editing a text means re-writing many, many times. It can even seem like a lot of effort for something that isn’t directly related to one’s own thesis. One can start to wonder when one is going to begin learning karate.

(Blog post 2 of 8 about being a PhD student in Sweden. Adapted from: Johnson, E. (2005) ‘Learning Karate, a metaphor for Ph.D. training’ in Mellström, Ulf (ed.) Kunskapens vägar och forskningens praktik Lund: Arkiv pp.87-96)

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