Be the mouse

All over Australia, new PhD candidates are starting their degree. Welcome! You might value this advice from Katy Williams who passed her PhD in Biological Anthropology at the University of Durham in February this year. Katy Williams was born in America, raised all over the world, and studied at universities in England. Between 2011 and 2016 she worked as the Field Team Leader for the Primate and Predator Project in South Africa, had a baby and did a PhD. Katy has recently submitted her PhD in Anthropology at Durham University, UK. Her doctoral research focused on brown hyaena ecology and their relationships with humans. In her spare time Katy reads books such as ‘That’s not my penguin’ on repeat to her 1 year old son, doodles, and goes on safari.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.22.59 AMWhilst in the early stages of writing up my PhD I had a baby and now I find myself simultaneously immersed in academic journals and picture books, lab work and bum-wiping, searching for references and for tiny sun hats.

Independently PhDs and babies can take over one’s life. When combined, everything from both of these crazy overwhelming worlds melds into each other. For example I inadvertently labelled the homemade mixed vegetable baby food ‘Butternut squash et al., 2016’.

Now in the final few months of my PhD, I find myself making comparisons between the process of doing a PhD and ‘The Gruffalo’. Perhaps lack of sleep is responsible for jumping to these strange conclusions, but hear me out, I think there are lessons to be learned from a simple story of a mouse and nut.

So why is ‘The Gruffalo’ like doing a PhD?

  • Like the mouse’s quest to cross a large predator filled woodland and find a spot of lunch, the PhD student has a long and treacherous journey ahead. A lot of the time I feel small against the PhD’s enormity and all the odds that are seemingly stacked against me.
  • In the face of these looming dangers, the mouse sets out alone. Ultimately despite support from supervisors, friends and family, the PhD is a lonely process. At the end of the day it’s you verses your thesis. You and only you have to defend it alone. Terrifying stuff for a children’s book.
  • Along the way the mouse encounters several animals that attempt to eat him. Does he loose his cool and run squeaking back to his cheese filled house? No. He anticipates their presence, and then uses creativity and confidence to outwit these fearsome creatures. There is no denying that there will be bumps along the PhD road. It’s a good idea to try to predict them and be prepared just in case you run into them.
  • After overcoming three sharp-toothed problems, the mouse is feeling pretty damn good about himself. That is until it all goes so very unexpectedly wrong. Oh help! Oh no it’s the Gruffalo! The mouse never saw that coming. This is the rock bottom point in the PhD student’s journey where his drafts are accidently deleted, she can’t find any of her collared study animals, or a key assumption that is the foundation of the whole PhD argument is wrong, completely and utterly wrong.
  • After seeing the Gruffalo’s terrible tusks and terrible claws, the mouse has a short and well-deserved wobble. Who wouldn’t? Then he makes a plan and solves his Gruffalo problem. This seems like a good approach to preserving through the worst and most unanticipated PhD roadblocks.
  • And then ‘all was quiet in the deep dark wood, the mouse found a nut and the nut was good.’ The end. So maybe that’s it. After years of PhD highs and lows and really lows, you get to sit down quietly, smile proudly and know you made it. You survived and now you have a really awesome ‘nut’.

I think the moral of this story is to be like the mouse. Be creative, be confident, don’t give up, and don’t get eaten. Accept that you will feel scared and small along the way, but also that you will make it through. They don’t call it the deep dark wood for nothing.

No matter how complicated your PhD is or how lost you may feel on the journey, for sanity’s sake, it’s worth simplifying it. Head to your nearest book store and instead of flicking through heavy academic tomes, plonk yourself down on the floor of the brightly coloured children’s section and read ‘The Gruffalo’.

Be the mouse.

Thanks Katy – I loved reading the Gruffalo 10 bazillion times when Thesis Whisperer Junior was small 🙂 Do you have any advice for newbies? What animal provides you with inspiration for the PhD journey?

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18 thoughts on “Be the mouse

  1. Cecelia says:

    Katy, Thank you for sharing your fun and inspirational writing. I really enjoyed your use of the mouse and gruffalo / student doing thesis analogy. Very creative. Keep writing you’re very good at it!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Loved this analogy. I also think of “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”: You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, oh no! You’ve got to go through it”. Also doing a PhD with two now school-age children and have to stop comparing myself to those doing the PhD without kids. We get there!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Just starting, great advice! I’m sure I will reflect on this story a number of times in the next few years.

  4. Kariema says:

    Thank you for the inspiration! For me it is the octopus, having so many balls to juggle, wishing I had more tentacles, doing a PhD, with a growing business to manage and three kids. Sometimes I need to a rock to hide under so I don’t get swept out to sea. My lesson learnt thus far, finding something or someone to anchor you.

  5. greg2304 says:

    I do really love your posts and this is one that I find simple to understand as I have two small children and an almost 18 yr old daughter. This made me smile.



  6. Sandra says:

    Thank you so much for this gorgeous piece of writing! I actually laughed out loud at the labeling of the baby food 🙂 And then I teared up at the end!

    I’m at the other end of the journey, as I’m just beginning my fourth year thesis, with plans to progress to a PhD. This was great advice to read at this point on the road! Thanks x

  7. edharri says:

    “…the mouse found a nut and the nut was good.’ The end.” Haha, I might add this to a t-shirt, or is that plagiarism?

    Great post, great advice. I’m just starting out, and I know it’s going to be a very bumpy road, but trying not to isolate yourself is so important I think.

    And definitely kudos to those who have a baby at the same time as PhD-ing. Are you WONDERWOMEN? (and WonderMen of course, though you miss out on the pain).

  8. MG says:

    This struck a chord! My PhD always reminded me of breastfeeding. No idea how to do it, whether it was enough and NO-ONE SAID HOW MUCH IT WAS GOING TO HURT! But both my sisters breastfed their twins and other children, so nothing was going to stop me breastfeeding my singletons. Likewise, two of my friends started their PhDs after me and submitted before me (I took time out to move countries and successfully fight off breast cancer – several years after my three children had survived babyhood), so nothing was going to stop me submitting mine. Dogged persistence and an unattractive competitive streak perhaps, rather than intellectual brilliance, enabled me to finally submit in December 2016. It feels GREAT and all the suffering was totally worth it! Muttering John Dory’s ‘Keep on swimming’ and ‘words on paper, words on paper’ while writing up and attending Thesis Boot Camp at ANU were probably what helped me most.

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