Not a disinterested mind in sight

Joshua Rothman published an article in the New Yorker: Why is Academic Writing so Academic? as this article follows on the heels of the vaguely infamous piece in the Times by Nicholas Kristof “Professors, We Need You!” I was wondering if the whole thing should be seen as an exercise in trolling. In particular when I came across the interesting sentence:

“Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds”

Disinterested? Really? Most academics can be called many things but disinterested is not one. I agree with Peter Medawar‘s (Pluto’s Republic, p. 116). description of scientists:

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.

It is not really possible to define scientists in any easy way. But all scientists are interested in their work, most are passionate, some are obsessive. There are famous arguments and grudge matches in academia to prove the level of intensity scientists feel toward each other. There are levels of passion for theories and objects studied that border on love.

Our published prose strives to be exact and specific but dry language should not be confused with lack of emotion – and definitely not be seen as disinterest.

Passion and perseverance, not poetry, make a PhD

Sad, but unfortunately not uncommon, news today… yet another bright young colleague has dropped out from his PhD. The easy reaction was to throw out the obvious question: Why? But in reality it does not really matter. The reasons for people dropping doctoral studies are as varied, as there are people and even if you asked could you ever get the true reason for people’s actions?

But I still want to comment on the doctoral process. In 2006 I wrote a post called Advice to a shiny new PhD student which still contains some good advice.

What I want to add is that the work of the PhD is not a sprint it’s more like a marathon on a bad day. Its seems endless and thankless when you are doing it – sure some people wave to cheer you up on the way but in reality nobody cares about your work – but it’s the end that makes it worth it.

In a marathon you don’t want to be a specialist… You want to be the beige super generalist.

The PhD student will be surrounded by people who are brighter, more poetic, more prolific, more intelligent, better read, more beautiful, etc. In fact no matter what trait you can imagine there will be someone who is better than you. And this is not a depressing thought!?

To survive a PhD is not about being the best in those ways. It’s about become the best at a certain subject. To become the best in academia you really need two things more than anything else. First, a passion for the subject. The reason why your topic is interesting is because it is unexplored. The reason it is unexplored is usually because it is obscure. You will not be loved for you subject, you will be alone with your subject. To survive with little outside stimuli you need passion.

The second thing you will need is perseverance – because it will be boring. No matter how interesting it sounds any topic becomes boring. This does not mean it will never be exciting again – but recognize that you passion for your chosen topic will ebb and flow.

So ignore the poetry and get on with it!