Why it might be good to admit you made mistakes – or learn French

One of my favourite books on the subject of doing a PhD is by Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre called “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” The authors talk about PhD students as academics in training who are being groomed to be future colleagues. What academics look for when assessing (or employing) a PhD student, these authors reckon, is a person who is similar to themselves. How can we use this knowledge to our advantage?

A post or so ago I made the case that a thesis is kind of like an avatar – the examiner uses it, in your bodily absence, to judge whether or not you have the right set of scholarly capabilities and attitudes to be admitted into the Doctor Club. But how can you work out what the right set of attitudes you need to show? A good way to find out would be to ask some academics.

On Friday I participated in a focus group to develop a new set of ‘academic capabilities’ for RMIT (it had nothing to do with the free lunch on offer I promise). The focus group was related to the drafting of a new strategic plan for the university. The question the group was asked to consider was: “If you had to replace yourself, what sort of person would you look for?”.

Now strategic planning sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry, but bear with me. What is interesting about the process for me is not so much the strategic plans that come out, but how the process forces academics to reflect on who they are. I think the group was a pretty representative sample of academics (albeit small). There were some lecturers, a couple of research fellows and post docs along with two professors. What did they have to say?

Well, the discussion revealed some interesting ideas about what academics think academics should be able to do and why. I may talk some of the others in later posts, but what stood out the most for me was creativity.

Of course there was some talk about creativity and the history of universities, in particular the idea of the academic as ‘maverick’ thinker or visionary – wizard in the ivory tower – who can see what others cannot. I am pretty skeptical of this idea of the lone genius academic who soldiers along at the frontier of knowledge.

While some in the room talked about people they had known who were successful at being lone wolves, I think it was significant that no one in the room put their hand and said they were one. I think this reinforces the idea that the ‘wizard in the ivory tower’ is a metaphor that never really described academic practices. After all the oldest universities developed from monasteries – how much more collective (and conformist) can you get?

Most of us around the table indicated we were creative in the more everyday sense of the word – as problem solvers. We agreed that creative problem solving is a quality which helps an academic get things done, despite the various barriers that might arise. Everyone at the table (including myself) saw themselves as a creative person and valued this quality in others for the pragmatic good it can do.

How might these ideas about academic creativity manifest in a thesis? My answer is to think about admitting to your mistakes.

Now many students might be a bit wary of including in their thesis errors: false starts, mistakes, miscalculations – stuff ups of any kind. The temptation is to produce a smooth and perfect thesis which shows you to your best advantage and generally I think this is a good thing to aim for.

But how can you best demonstrate your creative problem solving ability if you are always so perfect? If you never admit to mistakes you miss the perfect opportunity to show what a scrappy little problem solver you really are. By showing how you encountered and overcame difficulties you show an examiner that you would be just the kind of guy/girl that they would like to have in their department. Someone they could take their own problems to for help.

Now admitting to your errors might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps another way to demonstrate your creativity is to show how much you learned while doing the thesis. If you picked up an amazing new skill during your time you show that you have the right kind of attitude to be a great problem solver.

A woman in my office was once a circus acrobat and did her thesis on contemporary circus art. She told me that almost all of the literature on the subject of ‘new circus’ is in French (it’s amazing the things you learn in the lunch room). The problem was my colleague couldn’t speak French – not at all. So what did she do? She spent her first year taking classes and learning enough French to get by. She reckons she still can’t speak it – but she can read it pretty well.

That’s some serious effort, but perhaps effort not leveraged to the full extent if she didn’t tell anyone about it. I haven’t asked her about this, but if I was her supervisor I would have made her to include a bit of a researcher biography in the introduction.

An examiner would have to be pretty hardened not to be impressed if she mentions that she was once an acrobat. Not only does she gain credibility (this woman knows circus) she shows that she is flexible in more than body. If she casually mentions she had to learn French to do the thesis she gets brownie points for creatively solving a problem – and showing some resolve in the process.

I’m very glad I didn’t have to learn French, but everyone learns to do something they didn’t know how to do before – something which demonstrates what kind of person they are. How might you go about showing it?

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