I’ll have what she’s having: hottie research envy

Do you ever suffer topic envy? I did – I still do.

From designers, writers,  animators and dancers to computer geeks, nano particle engineers and bio-scientists: there’s an incredible spread of research here at RMIT. I am forever hearing about amazing PhDs and sometimes thinking “I wish I could do THAT one!”.

So it was when I got talking to Evelyn Tsitas at a work function last year. Evelyn used to be a journalist and works at the RMIT Gallery. At the same time she is completing her PhD in Creative Writing in the Media and Communications school here at RMIT. When Evelyn told me about her topic I was so jealous I asked her if she would write a post. She wrote this wonderful piece about the perils – and pleasures – of having a ‘hot’ research topic. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I thought I had the hottie research topic until I heard of the woman who was reading Vogue for her PhD.

Damn. Suddenly werewolves felt so – pedestrian. I need not have worried, however, judging from the response I got when I showcased my research at two  Animal Studies conferences last year.

As I got in the lift to head down to another room for a session after my own presentation, a senior academic got in with me. Her paper had inspired awe in me and I hung around her during the break, stuffing myself with vegan cake while listening to her views on human animal representation in literature.

“I enjoyed your paper,” she said to me, graciously. “Especially the images on your powerpoint of the hunks with their shirts off from Twilight, loved it!”

Yeah! Go werewolves!

However, not everyone thinks the human animal character in science fiction is worthy of research at the doctoral level – for instance, the woman in whom I induced research envy early on in my PhD. I was at a parent’s school dinner and the other mums wondered why I had been absent from the social calendar for the past year.

“I’ve started my PhD – and still working as well, so there’s not much time for anything else,” I mumbled, in between hurried bites of my curry. I was aware I had a deadline for my supervisor to meet, and a book extract to analyse, and the tad worrying prospect of having to return very useful but sadly unread books to the library as the overdue fines meant no extensions were possible.

“I am doing my doctorate too!” said the woman opposite me, whose daughter had just joined my son’s class that year. I was in the company of a fellow traveller.

“What’s your research topic?”  I asked, politely. She seemed so confident, and I a newbie, on shaky ground. I had only tentatively started to announce my own research and it hardly felt legitimate.

“Quantitative analysis of educational research papers from – “ she rattled off a long and impressive title. It sounded, however, like a worthy but alas dull, topic. She had made no attempt to “sex it up a bit” for the average punter in her conversation with the rest of us. She looked at me smugly and took a sip of wine.

“And what’s your research about?” she asked me. There was a glint of a challenge in her eyes. I gulped.

“Oh, werewolves,” I said. “Mutants, post humans, hybrids…”

At this point, the entire table turned, riveted, to me. “Oooh really?’ Werewolves!” or “I prefer vampires!” and “I love Twilight!” and “That’s so cool!”

The woman glared at me. I had trumped her with a hottie research topic. It was like the showdown between a commercial fiction writer and a revered literary author. One gets fans and book sales; the other is invited to literary festivals and is bestowed with awards.

My supervisor tells me that I am “tabloid to my blood”, a reference to the decade I spent at the Herald Sun newspaper as a journalist. But the thing is, I didn’t go into the PhD thinking “I need a hottie research topic”.

It was actually an organic progression from my MA exploring organ donation and reincarnation in my creative writing, and an exegesis looking at the lifecycle of the scientifically created human character in science fiction. It was an intense time with two young children, and as all postgraduate parents will know, your research filters to them on many levels.

At the time my youngest son went to a Cubs Halloween party dressed as Frankenstein’s Creature and announced that, as the Creature had been created and then rejected by another and had no society of his own, his search for identity was bound to turn violent. The other seven year olds looked at him in bewilderment and then ran around with their arms stretched out in front groaning “I am a monster…oooh…”

I was an enthusiastic conference participant and often the lone writer at many bioethics conferences. It was perhaps inevitable that I would hear a paper about xeno transplantation and start a five year love affair with the idea of animal parts in humans and the speculation about how that may change what it means to be human. So, no – my hottie research didn’t come from reading Twilight and wanting to jump on that band wagon.

That didn’t stop a rather vile shade of green spreading over the woman’s face as she sat opposite me at the school dinner. As the rest of the guests pumped me for more detailed analysis of the role of science fiction in bioethical debates – and werewolves – she finally blurted out “don’t you realize that werewolves aren’t real!!!!!”

“What do you mean?” I asked. It seemed pretty real to me as a topic; I’d just done my confirmation.

“I can’t believe you are doing a PhD in something that doesn’t even exist!” she yelled.

I wasn’t brave enough or confident enough to say what I would now. Which is – what’s real, anyway? Folklore, legend, myth and story are the basis of the world’s cultures and part of what makes us human. I am researching the stories about our nightmares, our hopes, fears and desires. The things that we dare not say and how we use animals to stand in for the things that cannot be said. We create myths of werewolves rather than talk about the person who abducts a child from the village and rapes and kills her. We say a vampire rose from the dead and slept with his wife and left her with child rather than say a widow found a lover.

But I was too new at the game, and she was too angry. What can I say? Research envy – it’s a bitch.

Do you ever suffer from research envy  – or suffered fallout from it? Tell us in the comments!

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61 thoughts on “I’ll have what she’s having: hottie research envy

  1. Hoho – excellent post! I am working on things that are seemingly real and scientifically well founded on what makes us human (and elephants into elephants, and mudskippers into mudskippers and the whole glory of the natural world), and it turns out as so much speculation anyway. Good on you!

  2. lol… this made my day…. its so had sometimes if you have a topic that everyone has something to say about… some weeks ago i was on a party and was told by a ‘shop assistant’ that i should take some classes at universety about the Treaty of Waitangy….. ‘ my awnser was simply…. ‘i dont think so.. i’m teaching these classes…” lol…..
    I”m wondering if there is a difference between a sexy topic and a toipc that just everyone has an oppinion about and something to say ?

    • Um, it is spelled Waitangi. So I really hope that you don’t mean that you teach classes on it. And, honestly, if you do teach in the indigenous rights or post-colonial law kind of area maybe the shop assistant wasn’t so far wrong.

      • and by the way… i’m Dyslexic… and this is not a joke… people like you… they do not even give a name, make me feel like quitting my PhD. Yes i see your point and yes you are right… and yes i should have checked spelling… and now you can search for more mistakes in this here….. and i’m sorry for maybe breaking the rules her … but i needed to say this.
        I love this blog and i think it is all about respect!

  3. Love it! Great story.

    It’s also a good reminder to all of us to perfect our “elevator pitch” on our topic when explaining to others. If you can make it sexy and simple so others will get it, you will get a lot more interest and be a lot less intimidating.

  4. @Bex I can definitely relate to that! My thesis is about the word ‘like’. People constantly tell me that it is a terrible word people use when they have nothing to say. Not quite the angle linguists take…

  5. wow, so what does romance fiction (and harry potter) making werewolves the good guys for a change say about what we can’t say??? I can’t wait to read it!

  6. My topic attracts it as I work on Italian Baroque gardens. People ask me ‘do you get money to travel to Italy’, which I have but I also funded more than half my travel myself. In reality I spend a lot more time in libraries looking at books and archives than in actual gardens but it’s still a pretty nice topic. I have never had anyone really attack me for it luckily, apart from the obvious ‘how do you get a job studying art history?’

    Even though some topics obviously sound more exciting than others, I think a lot of it is in how your present it, I could say something really dull like ‘I’m studying the emergence of the exedral form as a common motif in landscaped areas of the 17th century.’

    My mum did a PhD topic that everyone had an opinion on, was about giftedness of high intellectual ability in young children. EVERYONE had a story to tell her, but mostly they were interesting and have helped give her insight.

  7. I’m in medical science and “sexy” topic just aren’t as common (although there is “easy” topic envy). It may be a public perception thing, lots of people can relate to gardens or werewolves, less people even know about specific forms of cancer or single gene mutations. My supervisor always says the people who last the longest are the ones who are able to distill the science down to a single, punchy sentence in one breath, and explain the tiniest detail in the next.

  8. I studied pure maths. A friend studied applied maths, modelling animal populations. My mother in law said to my friend “That’s really interesting”, “a really valuable research topic”, etc. For a few minutes I experienced topic envy.

    • My boss told me about a maths thesis which was literally a sentence… followed by 400 pages of equations. I was struck by the … elegance of it all. So feel proud of your purity I say :-)

  9. I suffer sometimes from ‘novel’ envy. When a plot is so perfect and why didn’t I think of that. And then I read the first two paragraphs of a new book by a literary giant and say to myself “I can do that!” The operative word here is ‘do.’ Sit down in front of the paper and doooo. Thanks for that piece.

  10. i study the religious politics of pools and beaches in Israel, and I totally relate to this post. LOVED it. Also, i find the issue is that people think it’s a joke, but it’s totally not. things can be interested and meaningful, academy!

  11. The other interesting thing is when hottie topics are reported on in the media – particularly the Herald Sun as I have had happen. The vitriol that spews forth in the comments section about “bludgers” and “waste of tax payer’s money” is both hilarious and frightening.

      • Definitely! It’s complex because it is important to demonstrate the “impact” of your research, and one way to do that is to have it reported on in the media. It can also be useful because if you elicit a polarized reaction to the topic itself these comments can be discussed in your thesis (and doesn’t require ethics clearance?). But on the other hand as the comment below suggests negative public opinion about the merit of the research or your funding source could be destructive.

    • I have actually had people say ‘that isn’t research’ to my face. One of my husband’s colleagues went so far as to complain to him about ‘people like that’ (me) getting APA funding.

      In some ways I think it is good that people feel like they have an investment in research. But, that said, un- or under-informed opinions being aired in public are at best depressing and at worst can be destructive in the long term.

      • Even though I don’t doubt the value of my research, I do sometimes struggle with how to articulate the value of studying art and gardens, I feel I should be better at it by now but often I end up just mumbling stuff about culture being important etc etc.

  12. Hey sitting next to you(ur table to be precise), I find this post encouraging, especially in a postgraduate studio that talks about creative arts that the people ‘outside’ might not feel worthy as a phd.

    As my supervisor said, “your thesis is all about educating” the (un)sympathethic examiners as well as the “outside” people. But a cool and sexy topic,
    definitely pull in ‘the crowds’ at conferences, dinners or your kids playgroup sessions.

  13. I honestly don’t think anybody experienced research envy listening to my topic! However, I must confess that I have experienced research envy many times. Having said that, I don’t think I’m toxic as what you have recounted (that woman was arrogant!!!!). I actually love it when that happens because I find it exciting to hear about something that had never crossed my mind to look at in the way someone else is (or that had never crossed my mind, period!). At situations like those, I learn a lot about my own ways of thinking about issues.

    Anyway, I think it’s a bit sad (and maybe shows a lot of insecurity) when people turn judgemental and clearly jealous of something just because it’s so completely different to what they would do themselves. So yeah, when you let the green monster controls you it’s a bitch!

  14. Wow! That is a great research topic and blog posting, thank you. (I’m a new HDR student and am wondering what your “question” is.) I also remember feeling a little envious of other students doing the “Buffy” subject in our u/grad.

    In 2003 I did some post grad Cultural Studies subjects and I loved them. Deconstructing everyday practices was for me. I wrote an awesome paper on coffee drinking practices in relation to the formation of identity in western culture. These subjects were later derided in the Herald Sun as ‘cappuccino courses’ and not recognized by the VIT for me to qualify as an English teacher. In reality they were far more ‘academic’ than the English Lit class (which did count) in which we oohed and aah-ed about our preferred writing styles and the authenticity of characters in the classical books we read.

    If I studied for love I might be writing on contemporary readings of photographs of children (although that feels passé now). But now the planets have aligned and I find myself working in a museum as an educator (I’m very passionate about my job) and for practical reasons will be writing about that. I’m still thinking through my spin on it (my question) but am pretty certain Bourdieu, Foucault and Barthes will feature in there somewhere, somehow. I also loved the Creative Non-fiction classes I took and know that they will be useful somewhere too, as will the photography degree.

    I suppose that I’m going to (have to) visit a lot of museums and talk to people about their experiences in/with them. I recently had the chance to attend an art ed convention in NY and my list included MoMA, the Guggenheim, The Frick and many, many more, which was a dream come true. Maybe I’m working at it in a back to front and upside down way, but I feel as though I have the ingredients to come up with something I will still be passionate about in 2019.

    Thanks for letting me ramble and for an enjoyable blog.

  15. I research the nesting behavior of freshwater turtles and I often carry with me a photo book that tells the story of how I do my research. That usually get people excited, and THEN they would ramble on and on about how they used to own a turtle and what subsequently happened to it after.

    And when they get excited, I would use the opportunity to spread some public awareness, and promote the NGO that I had just recently co-founded.

    Do I suffer from research envy? No. Because I think I’m the one with the hottie research topic! :D

      • I actually agree. When I decided to focus on incentivised recycling at the start of my PhD, it was because I knew that it was growing policy trend and something people could relate to, but as I have progressed, I’ve seen that every time I think it couldn’t get more interesting, it can.

  16. My thesis is on ‘eldritch’ in Medieval Scottish poetry. At the moment this involves a lot of reading on the supernatural including; fairies, witches, revenants, animal associations and natural landscapes. I get a mixed response when I tell people: half of them utter ‘cool’ while the other half call me a ‘wierdo’.

  17. Loved this post. And I think I’ve got a “hottie” too! For the students at my school, my research into teachers’ use of graphic novels as English texts is hot because comic books are “cool”. For teachers who attend my presentations it’s a hot topic because it’s new and something they want/need to know about if they’re going to keep their teaching relevant and engaging. And in the broader community it’s hot because it’s a contentious topic: “You’re spending six years doing an EdD in comics? You’ve got to be kidding!” So what a great opportunity to talk about how comic books and their readers have changed since we were 7 year-olds reading Superman. So I’m just loving my “hottie”. And let’s face it, if you don’t love your topic, if there’s not a lot of intrinsic reward, completion will be a struggle. PS… the post on completion a little while ago was a great one too :)

  18. Oh yes, phd topic envy. I have to say I don’t suffer from sexy topic envy – I like mine well enough – as from envy for topics that sound really ‘worthy’ and relevant. Not that I don’t find mine both – I wouldn’t be crazy enough to commit to years of slaving away at my desk otherwise – but popular literature is still considered not really awesome in German Literature (in Germany).

    • When I was studying gesture amongst architects I thought similar things about mine. It was interesting to me and, I thought, important – but measured against someone finding the cure for cancer? Well…Best not to look down! You need to believe in it – it is important.

      • Measuring ourselves against someone finding the cure for cancer seems to be what everybody in the humanities does at one point. But you’re right, it does not help at all. And it’s somewhat unfair because well, we’re not even looking. :D

  19. I’m doing my study on social accountability in medical education. Basically how to get more medical doctors into underserved areas but I won’t bore you with the details. At a PhD induction day a student who was studying an author got all embarrassed about her topic and said that mine sounded so much more worthwhile. But in reality we are all contributing knowledge. As I explained to her we draw on social theory, etc and she might come up with something that is used across disciplines . Sorry can’t be all intellectual tonight. Transcribing my interviews whilst dealing with a 5 and 7 year old eating too many easter eggs

  20. My addition to the debate is that I believe ‘research envy’ changes over the course of your PhD and has different stages, four of which I will outline in my post. My post is also a cautionary tale of finding the right balance between a ‘sexy’ research topic and disciplinary academic conventions that are still very powerful and should be taken into consideration if academia is a professional option for you. So here is my four-stage model of research envy based on years of self-reflective empirical research ;) :

    http://aidnography.blogspot.ca/2012/04/four-stages-of-hottie-research-envy.html

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  24. Can’t you sympathize with us who cannot go to hottie research area, even if we would want to? I think and think how can i do a research on something that i like, but it’s too late: i was taking science/engineering/computer science course, so the path has already been defined for me. Actually i love psychology, history, art, language, culture… But it’s all a dream that could not be achieved in the long run anymore..

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  28. Wow! What a hot and sexy topic! And so relevant and useful in today’s world! I’m sure the thesis will be on the best-reading (and selling!) list soon!

    My topic is so dull and boring. It’s so dull and boring that I have never even been invited to a student party – err – scrub that… make that ANY party in the last two years.

    Actually, this is my second attempt at doing a PhD. About 12 years ago, I spent two years working on an environmental science/renewable energy topic, during which I pretty much solved the problem. As well as publishing five papers in peer-reviewed journals, I generated a lot of publicity for the university and my work was shown on several TV programs, including Four Corners, Landline, even ‘BTN’, and I was also interviewed by a number of radio stations and newspapers. This led to me being inundated with phone-calls and emails for the next six months or so, and I still get one or two a week even now. The university loved all this publicity I was generating for them, and harassed me into putting on song-and-dance acts at their open day and other similar events.

    Of course I made a big mistake in assuming that I might get something in return and did terrible things and really abused the situation, like apply for a scholarship, and I even had the arrogance to ask if I could have my own computer, instead of using a shared computer in the undergrad lab.

    So all that came to an end with me being told in no uncertain terms to pack up my papers and GTFOOH.

    After that I started some study in fine arts (sculpture and ceramics), and I must admit that that was pretty sexy and even though it was only at undergrad level, got me to plenty of parties!

    Unfortunately that didn’t pay the bills, so I ended up getting a part-time job working in a hospital. I got the job quite by chance – I was walking along the road one day and said hello to someone I had met somewhere previously and ended up chatting for a while and being offered a job.

    Subsequently, I was cajoled into starting a PhD at another university on the incredibly stupid and pointless topic of a new type of cancer therapy. I was advised, fortunately right at the start, not to even bother asking about a scholarship for such a puerile topic, as only hot, sexy and scientifically rigorous or socially significant topics, like those relating to were-rabbits and their relationship to dogs called Gromit and the like, are worthy of financial assistance and official support.

    As a result, I hide in my little cubicle, only occationally daring to venture outside, where, once in a while I bump into someone in a shopping centre or some other place and who says hello to me and tells me that they would be dead and buried otherwise. I can only pity these poor fools, thinking that if only they were dead, buried and werewolfized, then they might be the topic of some hot and sexy PhD thesis, instead of some dull and useless one.

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