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?

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