Sunday, 15 April 2018

You Must Be Very Intelligent

It's very rare that I'll write a whole blog post about one book. It's not that I couldn't, but they never really gather much interest which is why I prefer to do monthly reading wrap-ups. So I only really do it when I have a lot to say about a particular book.

Turn the kettle on, get yourself a cuppa, I got a lot to say about this book. 

Now, I love a good gossip. I'm a hairdresser's daughter. They gossip all the time. Sue me.

So when I heard whispers that a woman who completed her PhD in the same chemistry department as I study in has written a book that's all about how horrible her experience and her supervisor were? I was curious. 

When I realised that the book (You Must Be Very Intelligent: The PhD Delusion by Karin Bodewitz) was about £20 on Amazon I was a bit put off of reading it. To be honest. I've been almost solely using the library for the past year so the prospect of spending £20 on one book? Hmmm.

But then a friend of mine noticed that you could read it online for free here if you're on an academic network (aka using a university computer/VPN). And then I thought, well if it's free then I'll tuck in. 

It wasn't just the prospect of some good ole hot goss that had me interested in this book. Like most students reaching the end of the science degree, I've been questioning whether I want to finish at the Masters degree or carry on with a PhD. And so an honest account sounded like something I could really do with. 

If I had to sum this book up in one sentence it would be this: the author raising some really interesting and valid points but totally undermines every single one of them by being a total dick.

Let me explain. 

This book is a semi-autobiographical account of her experience applying for, completing and graduating with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. AKA my home turf. And I have a problem with the 'semi' part. It's not hard to work out who her supervisor was. It took me about 5 minutes of crafty googling with a basic knowledge of the staff. And her supervisor still works for the university.

And as it's unclear as to what parts of the story are true and which are false. It makes me feel a little uncomfortable because if any of the parts where her supervisor is treating her badly are made up... what purpose does that serve but slander? Although I guess that her interactions with other students are the parts that are fiction.

This book was really quite hard to read because of how overwhelmingly negative the author is about absolutely everyone. Her descriptions of some people are straight up vile. Here are some examples.

When describing one of her lab mates she says that she has nice hair, then proceeds to make negative comments about her skin, teeth, face, makes a joke about her being overweight whilst drinking diet coke and then refers to her as diet coke girl throughout the rest of the book. Then when diet coke girl graduates, the author complains that the girl was never nice to her. Um... no wonder?

She starts to comment on another student who she has never spoken to, just recognising. He has acne and this is obviously down to drug use. She then proceeds to call him a freak throughout the rest of the novel. Call me British but I think that having such strong opinions on someone you've never interacted with makes you a  bit of a wanker why am I so insistent on trying to be polite that I just can't say wanker why does it have to be a bit of a wanker. Sorry, not sorry. 

She complains about her fellow students, she complains about men she dates, she complains about the food, the bars, the facilities on campus. She complains about her flat, she complains about the city etc etc etc. 

After 300 pages I was just so tired of hearing her complain so mercilessly about everyone and everything without admitting any of her own faults.

Karin did experience some real struggles during her PhD
  • Lack of funding.
  • Lack of equipment.
  • Poor supervision.
  • The temper of her supervisor.
  • The pressure that's put on PhD students to work a huge amount of overtime and never take holiday.
So this book really could have been an opportunity to really raise an important discussion surrounding the way that graduate students are treated. Because it's not great. But she doesn't come across as having a clear and structured argument. She comes across as bitter and angry and it doesn't make for a good read. I was snooping around on Twitter to find out what some other people thought of this and I saw someone describing it as an academic Twilight and that hits the nail on the head. 

It's honestly a little hard to believe that it actually got published and could be doing more harm than good to the argument. 

A quick look online tells me that the author has been doing very well for herself since she graduated. I'm glad of this. It sounds like her PhD was genuinely a very traumatising experience and it's reassuring to see that she seems to have found something in which she is succeeding. I hope that this book, despite its flaws, encourages more people to start sharing their own experiences and demanding better. 

The system has to change. I hope that the ball has already started rolling.

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