To the PhD at the other end


It can feel very dark and alone in that office, reworking the chapters. But occasionally the clouds can break and a ray of light shine in. A friend who has also been a doctoral student a few years earlier, and made it through the process to become a doctor, can come into the doctoral student’s room to talk about something else. She can happen to glance at the latest list of changes to be made, and smile knowingly.

“You’ve started to get the lists,” she can say with a touch of empathy.

“Yeah,” nods the doctoral student. “Does everyone get these?” grasping after the straw of hope that she isn’t alone in her plight.

Her friend just laughs. “The lists are infamous,” she says. “I saved all of mine and burned them on the first full moon after my defense.” The doctoral student’s heart lightens. She suddenly feels a connection with her colleague that she hasn’t felt before, like two women sharing knowledge of the pain of childbirth without saying a word. She wasn’t the only one. She, too, could make it through the lists. She, too, could burn them on a full moon…

But when her colleague leaves, and the door closes, and the doctoral student is alone with the lists again, she feels like the pain of childbirth is only that: pain. Oh, those bloody lists. She sighs deeply and starts in on the latest list, fixing point after point in her texts. And then, just when she thinks she ought to toss in the towel and go take an undergraduate writing course, the supervisor ends the list with, “Avoid a lot of theory. Keep a straight line of argument throughout with out too many side-streets. (Ch. 5 is very good at that).”

The doctoral student starts in surprise. Her breathing temporarily stops. She rubs her eyes and adjusts her glasses. Then she looks back at the list. Yes! It’s true. It really does say:

‘Chapter 5 is very good at that.’

‘Very good.’

There was something right! Something good! Reading a ‘very good’ in the list is like Mr. Miyagi telling Daniel at the end of the movie, “You pretty okay too.” It’s worth all that waxing, sanding and painting. It’s worth the sore shoulders, calloused knuckles and endless days in the sun (or pale glow of a computer screen, as the case may be.) A ‘very good’ from one’s supervisor is worth five years of editing other people’s texts and re-working one’s own.

And when one thinks about it, the only reason one has been able to get that ‘very good’ is because for the last five years the supervisor has been taking the time to read and comment on the doctoral student’s texts, slowly, patiently trying to make her understand how to write better. And a supervisor can be hard to please. But because she is, the text that comes out is good, and in the process she shows the student exactly how to write a clear, interesting text. And like Daniel’s winning crane-kick in the final round of the karate competition, the Swedish supervisor’s guidance leads one through the defense to the PhD at the other end.

(Blog post 8 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)