A salamander and a Star Trek uniform: perfect Christmas gifts for academics

Got some last minute scholarly Christmas shopping to do? Glen Wright has got your back

December 18, 2017
Spock Santa

The festive season is like a keynote presentation: expectations are always too high for me to fully enjoy it. And with each passing year the insidious Christmas consumerism pushes my ambivalence ever closer to outright disdain. 

My approach to festive article writing has traditionally been one of avoidance, but this year I decided to put together a list of interesting gift ideas – in an effort to at least save academics from death by socks and novelties. 

Despite my best efforts, I have failed (not least because there are only six shopping days left until Christmas). My methodology was severely flawed. In my guise as Academia Obscura, I asked my 104,000 scholarly Twitter followers a serious question.  

Because @AcademiaObscura is essentially a pretty silly account, my call resulted in 400 replies, almost all of which were sarcastic. 

“I'm putting together a list of cool xmas gifts for academics,” I tweeted. “What do you want Santa to bring you?” 

Responses ranged from the usual tired tropes and geology jokes that I don’t understand, to the person requesting a giant salamander toy from the Kyoto Aquarium online store (below).  


Most replies were middling reflections of the deep-seated existential dread that characterises the profession. Common items on the wish list include: a PhD, a job, funding, time, a holiday, unconditional acceptance, and tenure (a request from the appropriately named @GradGirlProbs). 

@DrDeborahFisher had a different take. “I have tenure which means ‘you are guaranteed a job, but not a salary’,” she tweeted, adding that she herself would like to receive a “coffee and food subscription so I eat some damn vegetables”. 



Rob Daley (@RD531) asked for “a pay rise in line with that of UK vice-chancellors over the last five years”. 

Others aimed high, while wisely noting some more realistic alternatives to their dream gifts. For @MadProfIsal, completion of his PhD or a tenured position would be the ideal present. But he would “settle for an oil change and a coupon for Taco Bell”.  

@EllenKPayne, meanwhile, would ideally get a reduction in teaching hours and more money to travel – but would be content with “red pens and a travel mug”. 

A considerable proportion of academics would be content with highlighters, while two people said they would settle for a unicorn (in the absence of a finished thesis and an end to office politics). 

For the rest of us, here are a few gifts that I think would bring some cheer to any academic Christmas. 

First up, “SciArt”. Skip the novelty junk and get something unique from an arty scientist. My favourites include the brain and pipette pin badges by Two Photon Art (available on Etsy). 

Books are always a good shout. Every academic covets at least one prohibitively expensive magnum opus from their field (used copies of mine start at a highly reasonable £371.97). Ask first though: no use buying The History and Social Influence of the Potato if your niece’s PhD is on the properties of expanding universes. 

Mind you, some are not so picky. In response to my call for presents, @ListMonica tweeted that she would like, simply, “all the books”. 

As an incorrigible fidgeter, I am always on the lookout for interesting office toys. Current favourites include the timeless Rubik's cube, the fidget cube, and the inescapable fidget spinner (if you don’t know what I am talking about, you must have been under a rock). 

I have been eyeing up high-end spinning tops machined from obscure metals like tungsten and black zirconium, but they are way out of the postdoc price range (up to US$885) and I don’t have a rich uncle. 

Therefore, you’ll likely need a back-up plan. Being derailed by a sudden hard drive failure is a distressing rite of passage for academics, yet many continue to rely on a faith-based approach to backup. Why not be someone’s saviour with an external hard drive and a subscription to an automated online backup service? 

Or you could just get a cat. Mainly because I run the annual #AcademicsWithCats photo competition, and it is always great fun. 

Of course, the real joy of the holiday season is spending quality time with family and friends. With that in mind, the greatest gift any academic could hope to receive is that their loved ones refrain from asking if the PhD is nearly finished, what a postdoc actually does, and when they will get a real job. 

If all else fails, stick to the classics: booze, chocolate, and a Star Trek uniform

Glen Wright is the author of Academia Obscura: The Hidden Silly Side of Higher Education, which he also feels would make an excellent present. 

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