PhD thesis unread? British writer hits on novel solution

Political scientist Jack Williams’ debut novel draws on his experiences as a PhD student at Princeton and Zurich

December 8, 2022
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When Jack Williams heard his PhD dissertation would likely be read by just a handful of people, he decided that a novel approach to expanding its reach was needed. Literally.

“On average, only five people will read a doctoral thesis – and one of them is usually your housemate – so I thought it would be good if I could smuggle something of my ideas into a book,” said Dr Williams, whose debut novel, Pond Life, is published by RedDoor Press.

While his editors cut most of the deeper reflections on political philosophy from the book’s final draft, the central narrative of a British graduate student taking a doctorate at a prestigious American university leans heavily on Dr Williams’ own experiences at Princeton University, where he was based for a semester while doing his doctoral degree at the University of Zurich.

“At Princeton, every chair or professorship is named after a benefactor, which got me thinking about what would happen if a poor British PhD student accepted a grant from someone, or a source, that turned out to be a bit dodgy,” Dr Williams told Times Higher Education.

“I started writing down ideas or funny stories that people told me – such as the lecture where the wrong speaker turned up and spoke because they had the same name as the intended speaker – and would write my thesis in the day and do 1,000 words on the novel in the evening,” added Dr Williams, a political scientist who has established a research institute at Zurich focused on resolving global conflict.

Britain’s most famous campus novels – particularly those such as David Lodge’s “campus trilogy”, Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim – have centred on academics and professors, while the US’ “dark academia” canon, which includes Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, concerns undergraduates. University of York graduate Dr Williams  believed that focusing, instead, on a PhD student provided more potential for comic literature – given their liminal and insecure position within academia.

“Universities are so interesting in terms of hierarchical power, and the PhD researcher has an interesting place within this hierarchy – they are teaching but still a student, while they are also expected to be researchers but they aren’t faculty. It’s a nice perspective to explore how power dynamics within a university play out,” he said.

While the exploits of Pond Life’s protagonist, Tom, a “modern-day Adrian Mole” who is swept into progressive political activism on campus following the election of Donald Trump, are primarily comedic, Dr Williams said he hoped the book would also highlight more serious issues of privilege and inequality in academia.

“It’s a satire but it raises some important points,” he said. “When people are laughing, there is an opportunity to get them to think about ideas in a way that they wouldn’t if you approached them very seriously.”


Print headline: Can a PhD thesis be a best-seller?

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