I’ve used this term, in passing, once or twice already this month, but today I’d like to concentrate on this as an aspect of writing your thesis. But first the customary digression. I may have given the impression that the thesis is the be-all and end-all of doing a doctorate. In some respects it is – if we recall the guilds analogy, the thesis is the Masterpiece (mixing up our degrees) which is judged by those who are already Masters. It’s a demonstration of skill and ability, literally of mastery of your craft. But a doctorate is more than just the thesis. It’s an opportunity of freedom that you will never have again. It’s an opportunity to learn new techniques, and whether you think it takes 20 or 10,000 hours to master a skill, you’ll be a long way past ‘competent’ and probably the department’s ‘go-to-guy’. It’s an opportunity to build an arsenal of transferable skills that you can take to a very different job if you decide that research is not for you afterall. It’s an opportunity to build a network of contacts around the world.
All of these opportunities come with a price though. You need to be Jason Ogg. Wait, who? Jason Ogg. He is the Smith in Lancre (on the Discworld) and he is the inheritor of a pledge made long ago in his family. He’s the best smith, but the price of being the best is, being the best. Anything, anything, that is brought to him, he has to shoe. This ranges from Death’s horse (Binky) to an ant (that you can still hear clattering around the forge on quiet nights) to a unicorn (with a little help to hold it still…).* So, the price of being the world expert is that you have to be the world expert.
*If you haven’t read any Discworld, then I recommend them to you; they aren’t just humorous – there’s a great deal of thought provoking material too. Everyone has their favourites, and everyone has the one’s they recommend starting with. Given that it’s a special year for Shakespeare, I’m going to go with Wyrd Sisters.
Being the world expert can appear to be a little daunting – but no-one else can be the expert of your thesis, not even your supervisor. They are there to ask hard questions and steer you in the right direction. It’s much easier to ask hard questions than it is to answer them. Arguably, if you are not the world expert on your thesis, then you do not deserve your doctorate.
The good news, perhaps, is that whilst it is a job for life, being the world expert is not too onerous – it’s tricky for about 2-3 hours (see yesterday’s post). But it does mean that you need to get your thesis right (aaaand we’re back on track). When writing, you need to be authoritative without being a boor or a bully. You might disagree with someone else’s view point, but you need to demonstrate why you disagree. You need to show that you have learned your craft and that you know of which you speak. You need to have the facts at your fingertips.
It doesn’t happen all at once, but you should be close before you start writing in earnest.
So what do you need to know to be the world expert? Well, I think that that is what I’ve been trying to tell you over the last month, but in a nutshell:
1) You have absolutely knowledge of a (probably very narrow) slice of the literature, for at least the last ten years, and with an understanding of where your field originated.
2) You can summarise your research concisely, explaining it to a non-expert – what used to be called the ‘Granny Test’, before that was deemed ageist.
3) You are prepared to keep going to make sure that you have your facts right – you double and triple check your results, you check every step in your argument and you proof-read every sentence to make sure that it makes sense and is in the right place.
4) You know when you are reaching the limits of your comfort zone. Which is not to say that you can’t work outside it, but that you remember to pause, and reflect that you might jus be arguing with the world expert on their turf.
So in terms of your thesis, you are, or will be, the world expert. Be proud of that, but be humble too. You are not more clever than the next person, but you have taken the time to delve into a subject to a point or in a way that no-one else has done before. But it doesn’t matter a hill of beans if you can’t communicate it to the world, you can’t defend it (especially to your examiners) or you won’t take the time to pass on what you have learned.