Should I do a PhD? or… Name? Occupation? Specialist subject? by Cora Beth Knowles



I’m often asked, ‘Do you think I’m clever enough to do a PhD?’ This question presumes that: a) you need to be clever to do a PhD; b) everyone who does a PhD is clever; and c) there’s a standard of cleverness which hits the target of ‘clever enough’ to qualify. None of these presumptions is accurate, with Presumption B being the most painfully inaccurate of all. Let me explain with a Mastermind analogy.

Imagine for a moment that you’re watching the specialist subjects round on Mastermind. Algernon, the first contender, has chosen to answer questions on French literature. He scores quite a low score. Ermentrude, the second contender, does much better on Gone with the Wind. Now you know, in your heart of hearts, that Algernon is the clever one, the one with impressive knowledge of a vast subject; but Ermentrude is the smart one. You roll your eyes and say dismissively, ‘I could’ve done that, just by rereading the book a couple of times!’. But you didn’t: you just sat at home being critical. Ermentrude is the one who came up with the subject, did the reading and answered most of the questions correctly, wiping the floor with poor Algernon because of a smart and manageable choice of subject. No brilliance required, just common sense and commitment. (In case you’re wondering: Ermentrude chooses Father Ted for her subject in the final. She knows how to play to her strengths.)

A PhD is exactly the same – even down to the live interrogation at the end of your years of study. Cleverness is irrelevant. You need common sense and commitment: common sense in knowing your strengths and choosing a subject you know you can manage, and commitment in seeing it through. You need to be an Ermentrude.

However, it should be noted that my Mastermind analogy is flawed, because to win Mastermind Ermentrude also needs to succeed in the general knowledge round. There’s no general knowledge required for a PhD. In fact, most PhD students have a conspicuous lack of general knowledge, and often spend their three years wondering how to put new paper in the photocopier, and where their other shoe went.

For a PhD, you need a specialist subject only: and that’s likely to be something you’ve already worked on. Think back on that Ovid essay you really enjoyed writing: could you make it a lot longer, and branch out in a few different directions? Think about your long-standing (notice the pun?!) interest in Hadrian’s Wall: how could you use that? Remember how long it took you to cut down your last EMA to the painfully restrictive word limit: do you still have the ream of notes you made? Ask yourself: what would Ermentrude do?

So my answer to the question is always ‘No’. No: you’re not clever enough to do a PhD, because you don’t need to be clever and there’s no such thing as ‘clever enough’. But are you smart enough to know your strengths? Are you confident enough to choose ‘The Jurassic Park Films’ when other people are choosing ‘The History of Music’? Are you practical enough to select an area that you already understand, and devise a question you can properly answer? Are you an Algernon or an Ermentrude? Those … I’ve started so I’ll finish… are the questions you should be asking, and you’re the only one who can answer them.

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