The perks of being a PhD student… (or 2 reasons why I believe PhD theses are a waste of time)

file0002062790027As some of you might know, I am currently finishing my PhD. For those of you wondering what that means: it’s all about spending endless nights behind your computer, skipping meals, neglecting friends and family, smashing your keyboard into pieces and working off your frustrations on your partner. But all of this is for the greater good! After all, I’m writing a 150-page book that no one will ever read, filled with stuff that I already explained multiple times. Wait, what?

Okay, I admit, I guess I shouldn’t write a blog post purely out of frustration. I should sleep on it, wait a few months until everything is over, look back on it and smile, thinking “wasn’t it all worth it”? But for some reason, I can’t get rid of the feeling that it isn’t really worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about my PhD itself. I loved doing it, I learned loads of stuff, I thoroughly enjoyed my research and the variety and finishing it is – at the moment – my major goal that I would give anything for to achieve. But really, why the book? I’ve done my research, I’ve published my papers, I’ve presented posters and gave speeches on numerous conferences. In a few months, a jury will judge my abilities by asking me tough, intelligent questions for about an hour. Therefore, I cannot help but feeling that writing a PhD thesis is useless: it adds nothing new to the entire PhD idea, except frustration. That’s reason 1.

On to reason 2: nobody reads it. I, myself, have read about 2 or 3 PhD theses during my entire career. And no, I didn’t really read them, I scanned through them, mostly to learn ‘hey, how did this guy explain this or that basic concept, because I have no clue how to explain it myself’. Reading the entire thing would cost me way too much time, and I can learn much more simply by reading that person’s journal articles. That’s why I read several hundreds of articles and only 3 PhD theses. Even worse, it’s a public secret that a lot of PhD jury members don’t even read the PhD candidate’s book (or at least not all of it). Why would they? You’ve presented all of it so many times before.

So why do we do it? I’m not sure, but I believe it has something to do with accomplishement. I want to feel the rush of pride and happiness when I can see my work combined into a single book, when I can hold it, feel it, touch it, smell the ink on the freshly printed pages. I want to feel my heart glow a little bit inside when I see my book standing in the department’s library, or when my parents are proudly showing it to their friends and relatives. It’s much like running a marathon: you sweat and curse all the way through, and your main goal is not to win, but to sit down in the sofa afterwards with a cold beer, thinking “well, well, wasn’t it all worth it?”.

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