THE Scholarly Web - 13 March 2014

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

March 13, 2014

Completing a PhD is child’s play, right? So who better to ask for advice than a toddler?

This is the premise of a blog by Jonathan Downie, an interpreting studies PhD student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. His post, entitled The Toddler’s Guide to Doing a PhD, is hosted on The Thesis Whisperer blog.

“I am the proud dad of a toddler (and, by the time this goes out, a new baby too!),” he writes. “As any parent will tell you, you learn as much from your children as they learn from you.” He then delivers his shortlist of essential PhD skills that you can learn from toddlers.

First, Mr Downie says, it is vital to “learn from everyone and everything”. “When was the last time you paused on your way somewhere to stroke a wall, explore the feeling of a hedge or touch a tree?”

For his son, the answer is “almost every time you leave the house”. “It was a while into my PhD before I realised that this kind of wide-ranging curiosity is a good practice for researchers too.”

He cites Kristin Luker’s book, Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, saying that “if we are going to do cutting edge, boundary-pushing, interdisciplinary research, we can’t be too restricted on where and what we learn”.

“The more we restrict ourselves to one sub-field, one set of journals or one approach; the less scope we give ourselves for accidentally brilliant discoveries,” Mr Downie says.

The second tip is simple. “Get used to falling”. “The more a toddler falls, the more they learn to fall properly. They go from falling any old way to purposefully making sure they fall on the most padded part of their anatomy: the bottom,” he writes.

The lesson? “On your way to becoming a fully-fledged, hooded academic, you will occasionally (or more than occasionally) make mistakes, have lousy ideas or just plain mess up. Good for you! Messing up or falling intelligently is an incredibly effective way of learning.”

Next on the list is learning to “cry for help”. “The problem is, when we grow up we mistakenly become more reticent to ask for help,” Mr Downie writes. “Read any PhD forum and you will find countless stories of students who have spent months trying to fix a research design, understand a theory or apply a method but are no further forward than when they started.”

The blog attracted a series of comments from current PhD students, and those who have already completed their doctorate.

“I’ll be holding on to your idea of ‘falling intelligently’!” says Tamara Cumming, a PhD student at Charles Sturt University in Australia. “I think that toddlers also show us that there are many ways of looking at things, and of putting things together – also good for we researchers to remember.”

Kirsty MacLeod, a PhD student in behavioural ecology at the University of Cambridge, adds: “It’s so easy when you’re starting out to feel like asking for help is a sign you’re not good enough – and there’s always the desire to be possessive of your work and data.

“It’s good to learn (and never too late to do so!) that asking for help often leads to the lightbulb moments you describe.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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