What is your dark side?

Sometimes I think PhD students have become the ‘problem children’ of academia. Governments around the world are not happy with how long some take to finish their degree, how often they drop out and how difficult they find it to get jobs when they finish. This debate has lead some people to question the point of PhD study at all.

One explanation I hear bandied about is that PhD students somehow have unique problems because of the kind of people they are: they are ‘bad communicators’, ‘think too abstractly’, ‘can’t write’ or ‘can’t project manage’. A lot of this is rubbish of course, but the perception is there and the attrition numbers don’t lie. While many of the problems PhD students are actually problems with the system and academia more generally, this blog wouldn’t exist if there weren’t some common complaints about doing PhD work . As much as I want to avoid simplistic arguments like the ones that started this paragraph, perhaps some of these common complaints do exist because of the type of people who are attracted to PhD study in the first place. I say this because I am beginning to wonder if it’s our talents get us into trouble, not the skills we supposedly lack.

A few years ago I had a few drinks with an old friend who got me thinking about this. He was annoyed with his partner, whom, it seems, was always complaining about people taking advantage of him (this is a gay couple, which makes pronouns a bit confusing).  My friend called this tendency of his partner to complain the ‘dark side of nice’ – the complaints were the price my friend paid for having such a nice partner in the first place.

Recently @themarquise clarified this idea of the dark side for me. She pointed out that some of the biggest problems we all encounter in life are caused by the things we are good at. She explained that when she worked at a fast food chain as a teenager she was always the one at the end of the shift who had to mop the floor. This was the hardest, nastiest clean up job which everyone else avoided if they could. One day she complained to her manager that it was unfair that she was stuck with the job all the time and he said: “Of course you end up mopping the floor – you’re really good at it”.

The dark side of your talents can creep up and smack you upside your head when you aren’t looking. As Yoda cautioned Luke Skywalker:

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (If you have read this blog for awhile you may be getting the perverse impression that I am obsessed with Star Wars. I’m not… well, just a little bit).

What Yoda was saying is our natural reactions to the world, if not channeled appropriately, can have consequences which might be unpleasant – we can even fall into large pools of molten lava if we aren’t careful.

For example, good researchers are very curious people. They want to KNOW. The thirst for knowledge enables the human race to do amazing things, but it has a dark side for the individual researcher. To write a thesis you have to learn to channel your curiosity in productively narrow ways. But many students (including myself) find this hard. Their curiosity, once unleashed, is relentless. Some of them can barely finish reading a paper because they want to dive off in all the other exciting references and directions it suggests. A person who can’t finish their literature review might have have a curiosity problem, not a project management problem.

Likewise with scholarly confidence. PhD students are intelligent. They get used to using this intelligence to analyse arguments and look for flaws. Much of the work of the literature review is to sort out what, of all the writing in a given field, is worth paying attention to. The dark side of being intelligent creeps in when you start to turn this analytical power onto your own arguments and ideas. One of the things I like to do in the online Critical and Creative thinking course I moderate is give students a series of questions, based on this list of fallacious arguments, which they have to use to review an article. The students quickly realise that these critical thinking tools, when they are ruthlessly employed, destroy almost any piece of scholarly writing.

Of course part of the process of becoming a scholar is learning how to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of your work. But there’s a difference between trying to do good quality work and cutting your own head off with your scholarly lightsabre. As I eluded to in my previous post, a person who has trouble finishing chapters on time might have an  intelligence problem, not a writing problem.

So how do we conquer the dark side? I’m with Yoda on this one – remember that your reactions to the stresses of scholarly life, while natural, are not inevitable and should be examined closely. While we should hold ourselves to high standards, none of us can be perfect all the time. There is no such thing as ‘the right’ thesis – only good and bad ones.

Do you have a dark side? What talents do you think have the potential to get you into trouble with your PhD?

Related Posts

PhD paralysis

Doing a PhD is getting to know yourself

Are you getting in the way of your PhD?

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19 thoughts on “What is your dark side?

  1. erika pearson says:

    When I talk to my students, I call this the ‘magpie problem’ (ooh! shiny! ooh! shiny!) One strategy I use to help with this is to have a magpie box (a folder on your computer, a literal box under the desk, whatever). Everything interesting but not directly relevant to the problem at hand goes into the box. When I finish the problem at hand, I dive into the box and see what next grabs my attention/curiousity and work on that.

    It’s just a little cognitive workaround for the curiousity problem, but by having a space to put these digressions to one side helps me actually finish one problem before i get distracted by the next 😀

    • Colleen says:

      Nice analogy. I actually wrote in my journal not long ago that I felt like a chicken pecking at shiny things! Less glam version of a maggie! I definitely have an ‘i think about things way too much’ problem and get easily distracted by beautiful abstract ideas.

  2. Gabriel Oguda says:

    Great blog, Inger. I am one of those who gets distracted from the main coursework by “digging deep” into other stuff I find interesting in the course of scouring literature for my project. I am tempted to try Erika’s suggestion up here and see how far I might go with it. Is there any other blog post that deals with this subject of ‘curiosity’? Timely.

    • Caroline says:

      Indeed – just what I’ve been thinking too and I’ve just been writing about how to control my runnaway though processes on my recent blog post:
      I’ve recently joined twitter, and have started following institutions and individuals with links to articles etc. that catch my attention and I’m desperate to read more. I end up opening tab after tab on my browser, then I flick through them, find what’s interesting and what’s not, and if I think they look interesting I ‘tweet’ them which gives me a list of things to go back to and read in more detail. Then at the end of the week, or when I have enough time and energy to get my thoughts together, I put my thoughts down in a blog. Which I find helps get my thoughts together, as well as in effect ‘purging’ them from my system, while noting why they’re interesting (for myself and others) so that I can go back to them at a later date if I want to.
      Here’s a good article from the Guardian on how blogging can keep you sane:
      For papers, while I haven’t tried it yet, I’ve taken a look at Zotero, which seems like a good (and free) programme for bookmarking references and linking them through tags so you can see what relates to what. Something I need to do for all the growing number of articles I am also collecting.

      • Ellie says:

        I have that problem with Twitter and tab after tab being open too. I discovered Instapaper, which adds a little button to my browser labelled ‘read later’. Then I have my Instapaper account set up to send the articles I add to my Kindle. I went for once a day, but there were different timescales available. Instapaper is free, too. (And I am in no way affiliated!!)

  3. Sarah-Louise Quinnell says:

    I have the curiosity problem, I think that lead in part to my divorce! If you have a radically different personality or set of issues than your supervisor life can become quite complex quite quickly!

    • ingermewburn says:

      I loved that post! Thanks for pointing it out Jo.
      I think my own dark side is being helpful. This is a wonderful trait when used for good, as I think this blog proves. However the dark side appears when I am too helpful – sometimes I let others take advantage of my urge to fix their problems and the next thing you know I am copy editing their document or something equally mundane. Other times I can stray into territory which isn’t mine and take up work I shouldn’t be doing. I now call this – thanks to @themarquise ‘mopping the floor’ (MTF).
      My (late) New Year’s resolution is to do less MTF.

  4. Thijs Muizelaar says:

    Where to start….

    Curiosity is a killer for productivity of being able to keep an overview. But it’s also the thought of not having enough. If you would make a graph of all the papers you could read on a subject, it would be really helpful, to sort out the most linked ones, as a start. But then again, if you’re doing a multidisciplinary research, that’s not very likely to stop you from being curious for other methods and theories. I definitely have a dark side with being curious.

    And as a PhD you are one of the best to criticise other documents and research, but you are king of knowing and pinpointing the problems of your own topic and research. If you had to defend your thesis for yourself, it’s hardly possible. Especially if you combine it with the curiosity, and see what others did, or what other options in the vast amount of literature are available to apply to your own research topic. It helps to make a clear scope for your research project, not directly at the start, but after a few months. It’s like doing projectmanagement, managing the devils quadrant, whereas cost might not be that important, time, scope and quality certainly are. Thinking about this quadrant and the implications for your research give a clear overview of risks you need to deal with in your research, and thus how you can manage them.

    I guess I ran pretty fast into the dark side… 🙂

  5. Karenmca says:

    I absolutely agree about scheduling. I did the same as Inger – worked out how many weeks I had, how many chapters to write, and how long I thought it would take to do things like format the bibliography and footnotes, get the thing printed, bound, turned into a .pdf for the library etc.

    I also gave a summary of my schedule to my supervisor, and emailed reminders, along the lines of, “As you’ll see from my schedule, I’m starting Chapter 5 next month, so it would be very helpful if I could have a bit of feedback on Chapter 4 between now and then…”

    The other thing I did was keep a record of words written and hours spent writing, totalling per chapter as well as the overall thesis total. You might or might not like this approach, but it was certainly a powerful incentive for me.

  6. Jacquie Tran says:

    Sometimes I feel like academia purposefully pools together the brightest prospects with the highest midi-chlorian counts you’ve ever seen, only to run them all in a deadly pod race to find out who is the one who will bring balance to The Force.

  7. Ben says:

    This is brilliant, writing up my PhD made me very aware of my dark side. I have a chronic magpie problem. I’m constantly chasing shiny things. The only problem is they lose their shine quickly and I have to chase the next one. Working like this and then trying to write a coherent thesis is quite tricky :s. I also identify with the mopping the floor story. It does seem unfair that the more you do, the more you get asked to do… but it also makes sense from the supervisors perspective.

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  9. Eve Avion says:

    That’s an excellent point about unwieldy curiosity turning against it’s user. Learning to manage it is how to overcome this problem. This is the way.

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