In 2007, Tiphaine Rivière began a thesis on the novelist Albert Cohen at the University of Paris III, funded by a lowly administrative job at the Sorbonne.
Three years later, she says, she realised she “wasn’t made for research”. She had produced a cartoon book for a wedding with her siblings and knew she had found her vocation: “When I began producing cartoons, I thought about them all the time. When I woke up at night, I would start thinking about how to tell a story. With my thesis, when I wasn’t at my desk, I stopped thinking about it.”
She developed her cartooning skills while continuing to work in university administration. This gave her endless ideas for characters, including a vast and endlessly obstructive secretary: “I felt I weighed 300 kilos when I did that job because I was completely unmotivated. I created the character of the secretary thinking she could be me if I weighed that much.”
Her work led to a blog and has now resulted in a sharp new graphic novel exploring the perils of postgraduate life that has just been published in English as Notes on a Thesis.
In the finished book, doctoral student Jeanne is initially thrilled to be “join[ing] the events team at the university”, only to discover that it means endless form-filling, booking hotels and restaurants, and dealing with prima donna academics who complain about the size of their names on conference programmes.
Yet the sharpest satire is reserved for exploring the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors.
Jeanne is taken on by the eminent Alexandre Karpov. Every time he makes brief visits to campus, he is besieged by needy students declaring: “I’ve written a 700-page rough draft. I’m hoping you can read it overnight, otherwise I might top myself.”
When Jeanne asks for his advice on how to approach “the labyrinthine motif in the works of Kafka”, he blandly assures her that “it would be wrong to constrain you with limiting directives at this point".
Unfortunately, this leaves her completely in the lurch about how to get going on her PhD.
She becomes increasingly messy, antisocial and despairing, splits up with her boyfriend and begins to dread family parties where her mother describes her as “dragging herself around like a great slug” and a cousin patronisingly announces that he’s doing a proper PhD, since he’s “a scientist with an actual lab”.
Although Ms Rivière describes her own supervisor as “rather kind and understanding”, she admits that her darkly comic book depicts a dysfunctional system in which many doctoral students abandon their PhDs in despair.
She would like to see “a clearer selection process at the start”, mutual support groups of students and a greater use of post-docs to provide the kind of encouragement that ageing, arrogant and overworked supervisors often cannot offer.
Nonetheless, she believes that people often benefit even from unfinished PhDs: “Studying great authors teaches you lots of things about how to tell stories – I wouldn’t have been capable of creating a narrative of 200 pages if I hadn’t started that thesis.”
Tiphaine Rivière’s Notes on a Thesis, translated by Francesca Barrie, was recently published by Jonathan Cape.