PhDs and Hammers

Imagine the problems you face as a PhD student as a bunch of nails you need to hammer into something. The nails come in all sorts of different sizes so it’s a good job you’ve brought your toolbox along with you. It contains three items: one small hammer, one medium and one large. Now at the beginning of your PhD, you are kind of innocent, a little bit unskilled, maybe a bit pretentious. Your adviser comes along and tells you that this particular nail – probably small, let’s face it, this is year 1 – needs hammering. In good faith you grab your little hammer and start bouncing it against the nail’s head. Without too much trouble the nail gets hammered into place. I mean fair enough; you’ve got a masters in hammering so this should be easy-peasy.

Next time your adviser comes along with a rather bigger nail. Compared to the first this one looks nasty. So you grab your small hammer from your tool box knowing full well that the medium hammer would probably work better, but also knowing that the medium hammer is kind of heavy, you’ve only used it once during a semester project before and frankly you can’t be bothered. Oh, and the small hammer worked fine the first time, right? Off you go, ‘bang, bang, bang’. This time the nail is tricky, but if there is one thing you’re sure of, it’s that you’re stubborn (‘determination’ is a key word on your CV). Your adviser comes in, at which point you have a half-way in wonky nail and asks you how it’s going. With your biggest smile, you answer that there were some unexpected details which held you up for a while but now everything is tickety-boo. ‘Mmmm’ says your adviser and there is some vague mention of a research paper using something which looks awfully like the medium hammer to hit this nail. He leaves with you nodding. Frantically, you hit the nail’s head with increasing intensity with what appears to be an ever-smaller hammer. As beads of sweat begin to form on your forehead, the nail reaches its resting place: beautifully flush with the surface, its traumatised shaft buried deeply whatever program you used to solve the problem. But you’ve learnt your lesson. PhDs are meant to be hard, so next time: you’ll use the medium hammer.

Soon enough, your adviser arrives with the same type of nail you had so much trouble with last time, but you’re prepared, you’ve been discreetly practicing your medium hammer swing. So ‘BANG’, nail nailed. First time. Your adviser is impressed, and you’ve got a bit of a rush of blood to the head with a feeling of ‘I’m so smart’.

Time goes by and towards the middle of your PhD your adviser turns to you with a nail which honestly you find scary. This nail is huge, it’s nothing you’ve seen before. At university there were only rumours of this kind of nail and now it’s yours to handle. Timidly, you grab your medium hammer and just watch it as it and your weekend plans shatter on this nail’s massive head. You glance down into your toolbox, therein lies the big hammer, but quickly look away. “Just learning how to swing the big hammer is going to take 6 months…” you think. As you leave the lab, resignation takes hold, you’re going to have to use that big hammer. The next weeks are spent on how to best pick up this guy, let alone swing it. Weeks turn into months as you adviser seems infinitely patient (has he been through this before?). Finally, on schedule (so about 3 months later than you planned initially), you start hitting that nail with your big hammer. And it works! It’s tricky and the hammer is a bit unwieldy but hey, every day the part of the shaft you can still see is becoming smaller.

One day it’s over, you’ve cracked it! Such satisfaction! Now when faced with those small nails you just grab your big hammer so you can go home early. As you walk through sunlit streets for the first time in 3 years it dawns on you. Your adviser knew all along about the big hammer, he could have been doing it for you! He just knows how annoying it is to learn how to use it properly, so he’s willing to wait a bit instead of doing it himself! In full admiration of your advisor’s craftiness, you decide that the most important thing you’ve learnt during your PhD is probably how to convince unsuspecting smart people to do all the tricky things for you. Looks like management might be for you after all.

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