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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