If you read the documents from your university that describe what a thesis is you will probably find phrases like this:

“The originality and significance of the contribution to the field, and the rigour of the independent, critical thought should be high enough to suggest that the candidate can initiate and conduct independent research leading to publication in a scholarly journal or equivalent.” (from the ‘guidelines to examiners of research theses‘ at RMIT)

In non bureaucratic language this means that you should be a ‘grown up’ scholar by the time you finish; able to judge the quality of your own work without needing someone to check it all the time.

While developing the scholar within is the aim of a research degree, I find this expectation is rarely talked about with students. Towards the end of your degree your supervisor should really be making suggestions, not commands, although some supervisors will keep ‘correcting’ work until it is finished. Of course, with masters degree students this is entirely appropriate, but as a PhD student, especially at the end of candidature, it’s vital to weigh up the advice you are given and make a conscious decision whether or not it is worth following. This is where you need a well developed inner scholar who can guide you.

It’s difficult to learn to trust your inner scholar because (and stay with me here) your inner scholar is a bit like Yoda. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the last 35 years, Yoda is the little green sage who helps Luke Skywalker discover and use the force in the ‘Star Wars’ movies. (I’m talking about the original Yoda from ‘Return of the Jedi’ here – I don’t really buy the ass kicking 21st century version!).

Here’s why I think so:

You’ve just crash landed on a foggy planet…

Luke sets off to find the legendary Yoda in order to become a Jedi. But the first thing that happens is he loses control of his ship and crash lands on the foggy planet of Dagobah. Then his ship sinks in a swamp, leaving Luke with only a few power bars and R2D2 for company.

Starting a research degree can be a bit like crash landing your ship and losing it in a swamp. You are probably used to having a successful professional career, or the comforting certainty of under graduate study where there are clear expectations and milestones. This does not put you in a position to immediately start trusting your judgment. It takes awhile to adjust to the research degree jungle where there are very few manicured lawns and neat hedges.

Yoda is an alien.

When Luke first meets Yoda he doesn’t recognise him for what he is. That’s because young Skywalker has an image of Yoda in his mind as an ass kicking warrior who lives in a castle somewhere with a whole load of sidekicks. Of course, when he meets the tiny green guy, Luke jumps to all the wrong conclusions and treats him with barely concealed contempt.

At first your inner scholar is an alien. A sign of its presence can be discomfort – you may be reading something and find yourself disagreeing, but not able to put your finger on why. At other times it might feel almost like a rush of excitement, where an idea or concept suddenly makes sense or comes into focus. These feelings may only add to your initial confusion.

Yoda has grammar bad.

One of my favourite Yoda quotes is: “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.” Yoda is telling Luke wise and sensible things, but the delivery makes it hard to understand what he is on about.

When your inner scholar starts to come out it usually happens in your writing. Phrases like “According to Miller et al…” and “Mewburn (2010) states that…” appear. The purpose of this language is to shift you into an analytical mode, but that may not be a way that you are accustomed to writing. It can feel like you are just faking it at first, but it’s important not to worry about these feelings too much. Eventually it will feel natural… then you have to unlearn it!

Yoda makes you do weird things.

Luke finds Yoda’s training regime frustrating. Yoda makes him run for long distances and do menial work – not the kind of high brow philosophical stuff which Luke thought he had signed up for. Most of Yoda’s training is aimed at breaking down Luke’s habitual ways of thinking and doing – unlearning him if you like. Luke, being a hot tempered lad, resents this and spends a lot of energy resisting – mostly because he’s in a hurry to save the universe and stuff.

Likewise with research you may find yourself doing strange things which appear to have no purpose or value. For instance, early in my degree I discovered a method I could potentially use, but every time I applied it to a bit of data I got no insights at all. A friend suggested I just needed to keep doing it, mechanically on the whole data set, without trying to guess where it would lead all the time. This turned out to be the best advice anyone gave me – eventually I started to see shapes in the data darkness.  Suspending expectations of what the process would lead to made me relax enough to see them.

Yoda is usually right, but it can be hard to do what he tells you.

Once Luke is open to the Force he starts to be able lift rocks and other cool stuff, but his powers lead to a disturbing premonition. Believing his friends are in mortal danger, Luke rushes off to rescue them – against Yoda’s sage advice. As a consequence he falls into a trap laid for him by Darth Vader and gets his hand chopped off.

Occasionally your inner scholar will suggest a course of action, but you will ignore it, maybe because it seems like too much work. Usually this leads to a month or so of wasted effort and frustration. Inefficiency is built into the research process, so there’s not much you can do about it. But make a note not to fall into the trap next time!

So that’s my idea of the inner scholar… If your inner scholar was a film character, who would it be?

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