Faulty Metaphors for PhD Experience

[this post was originally posted on my Tumblr, which is mostly reblogged memes, short lists of the minutiae of my life, and photos of myself with wine]

I’m so sceptical about all those ‘how to get through your PhD’ motivational inspirational blog posts and whatnot. Motivational texts often rely on metaphors to get their point across. Imagine your pain is a ball of fire, now imagine extinguishing it. Marriage is like a tightrope. When there was one set of footprints, that’s where He carried me. And so on.

In News from Thesis-Land, I’ve recently heard the following: writing a thesis is like giving birth, and your supervisor is like your spouse. Sometimes these two go in tandem, sometimes they occur separately. Either way, they frustrate me because they perpetuate what I see as deeply problematic thinking: that emotions have a place in your PhD candidature.

Now let me be clear: emotional intelligence is extremely important to your PhD. Being able to accept, analyse, and deal with your emotions is what, in part, will allow you to write 50000-100000 words of original academic material in 3 years, because it is difficult and confronting and confusing and it will hurt, emotionally. But those emotions need to be channelled and controlled, or they will swamp the work.

I refuse to think of my thesis supervisor as a spouse or significant other. I also refuse to think of my thesis as a baby that I’m birthing, but that’s different issue. I’m seeing a number of heterosocial academic relationships being compared to the central, defining, capstone experience of heterosociality: marriage.

But I refuse to model the supervisor-student relationship on some inequitable marriage in which one partner is entirely faithful and the other is having relationships with half a dozen other people. Or a marriage in which one’s significant other is being paid to be there. At an absolute stretch, I might say that my thesis supervisor is like a person I’ve married in order to obtain citizenship for the land of Academia. They get a small amount of compensation, I get a PhD, we get ‘divorced’ and then one day maybe I’ll ‘marry’ someone from my homeland (Undergradonia) and the cycle repeats. Of course, the logical flaw here is that my supervisor is still ‘married’ to five or six Undergradonians at once and this is quite normal, as opposed to in the real world, where it would be the scammiest of scams.

I accept that metaphors don’t have to be perfect and maybe you just need them to get you over a hump, but let’s face it, the quality of a metaphor is measured on how fitting it is, and the supervisor=spouse thing is just outlandish*.

My supervisor is my boss.

I don’t cry in front of the boss. I don’t bring my emotional baggage. I take responsibility for my work, I do what I’ve said I’ll do by the deadline I’ve been given to the best of my abilities. I don’t expect my boss to help me look after this mind-baby. I expect my boss to keep me informed about what I need to do in order to keep my job (i.e. get the thesis written and keep my candidature going). I don’t expect my boss to behave as though my life and my problems are the most important things in their life.

My supervisor has lecturing, other supervisions, and their own research to accomplish. They, in turn, have a boss.

Saying that they’re like my spouse implies that a) they also have half a dozen other spouses, b) that they’re also ‘married’ to whoever is dictating their own research agenda, and c) that they’re just as responsible as I am for the offspring of our union. It also suggests that to be a good partner, they should put up with my pouting and whining and drama.

My supervisor, my boss, has a number of other employees, and is equally loyal to each. He has a superior to whom he must answer with his own work. He has no responsibility to do my work for me, and overseeing my work is only a small fraction of the work for which he is paid. And if I have a problem with my workload or feel overwhelmed, I take that home with me (to my actual partner, or my cat, or my stuffed toys, or my friends or my mum or my blog or whatever) and I still get my job done and/or shoulder the responsibility if I don’t.

This has nothing to do with affection. It’s about respect. And although, yes, I adore my supervisor on a personal level, we both need to show the same maturity as anyone who shares a workplace with a friend. My supervisor is my friend and he’s my boss but he can’t always be My Friendly Boss, because sometimes he needs to pull rank. And everyone’s life would be so much easier if more people could accept this model, instead of pretending like we’re all equal and loving and getting all the gooey heart stuff involved.

*so, too, was my Green Card analogy, but hey, I’m not on trial here.


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