“You must be very intelligent – The PhD Delusion”
By Karin Bodewits’
Karin Bodewits’ partly autobiographic book “You must be very intelligent – The PhD Delusion” is a revealing, tongue in cheek tale about PhD life. We first meet Karin as an idealistic, yet naïve student who wants to add to our knowledge of the world and make a difference in the science world. She jumps at the chance to do her PhD thesis at the prestigious University of Edinburgh – surely the best place to accomplish her goals. 42 chapters and three years later Karin is a different person – frustrated, disheartened and feed up with science. What happened? The realisation that working at a high-ranked university does not protect from choleric, over-enthusiastic supervisors, who change your project every five minutes before losing interest in your work; unsocial, power-mad lab mates trying to steal your publications or underfunded labs making it hard to do any meaningful experiments.
The book shows a PhD student struggling with, for academics all so familiar, bouts of feeling insufficient, lonely, anxious and the pressure to perform to your own standards and what you think others expect of you. That and the reality of science politics – authorship in publishing is rarely fair, lack of job perspectives and security – makes this book a revealing and realistic peek behind the curtain of science. This may sound like a depressing affair, but “You must be very intelligent” is full of witty anecdotes, such as professors sending virtual pets to pretty PhD-students or PostDocs blowing up hotel rooms with dry-ice, making the book a truly enjoyable, yet realistic, read.
For academics, this book will remind them of their own journey and that they are not alone in their struggles. Potential PhD students can use it to make an informed decision and not be blinded by the promise of a perfect science world. “You must be very intelligent” is full of good advice, like the importance of choosing the right PhD position. Knowing the pitfalls, you hopefully ask the right questions at your interview. But this book is not just for academics. Everyone thinking PhDs must be very intelligent can learn a lot from this book and understand scientists a bit better in the process. Indeed, that is what the author intended: “I actively chose to write it humorously and, as a friend pointed out, ‘Sex and the City and Science’ style. I do want to show that scientists are a hilarious, somehow odd bunch of perceived brainiacs, but that at the same time we are also just human beings like anyone else.“
By the end of the book, you may wonder if Karin has given up on science, or at least the way science is conducted these days. But asked if she would do it again her answer is clear: “Yes, science is great! I was naïve and unlucky and rushed my decision about which PhD programme to join. I would still choose a scientific field for my undergrad studies if I were to choose again. Scientists have been proven to be more open-minded and flexible compared to other people. At the same time, we are less sociable, more arrogant and dominant. Not surprising; it is a somewhat uncanny bunch of people and in most universities we are not punished for our strangeness. It is scientific output that counts. To a certain extent, academia seems to be a drip can of weird personalities, where everyone is welcome. It makes for a strange but interesting workplace. It is this environment, where you have the freedom of being yourself, which, despite its drawbacks, I came to love. So, I’d probably decide for a PhD again. A different PhD.” I think this answer sums up the spirit of the book perfectly. While it is in large parts the tragic story of painful PhD experience, it is also light-hearted and full of lessons. It does not mean science is all bad. Just that there are areas that need to be worked on by the science community. And books like this will help as it starts a conversation.