“You Must be Very Intelligent” is a gritty first-hand account of a young scientist’s PhD journey. The novel is a sharp and candid look into academia and addresses some of the biggest challenges of being a scientist, while being filled with unrelenting wit and humor. We were fortunate to snag an interview with the author of the book, Dr. Karin Bodewits. You can purchase the book on Amazon. For more on Karin, you can follow her on Twitter and check out her website.
Julie Charbonnier (JC): Can you explain the title of the book: “You Must be Very Intelligent? Why did you choose this title?
Karin Bodewits (KB): To be honest, a friend suggested the title. I mentioned that I often felt a bit phoney when random people at parties would say, ‘Wow, you must be very intelligent’ after I told them I was doing a PhD in chemistry. I had learned, to my surprise, that sometimes perseverance counts for a hell of a lot more than intelligence when doing a PhD. So, the title is ironic.
JC: One of my favorite quotes - and one that I think summarizes the book is - “It was an education. And it taught me to be wary of education.” Can you expand on this quote?
KB: Yes, that’s not ironic at all. I wish formal education was completely valid and proved you were educated. But I learned the bitter truth: having a degree from a famous university does not necessarily mean much. It might not even mean squat. The reputation of an institution does not necessarily translate into an excellent education. Having said that, many people finishing a PhD degree at the same university will have had an excellent education.
What’s more in this quote is that I am wary towards seeing undergraduates as customers to be satisfied. Though student satisfaction is important, it should not get priority over the quality of education. There is an irreconcilable conflict of interest for modern universities because of how they are financed; they have to provide a degree and give marks to students in their role as paying customers. Sometimes this conflict devours all value in the qualification. In other words, quality of tuition can conflict with commercial interests - a paying customer feels they have the right to be satisfied, and some expect to leave with a degree regardless of their academic achievements. This commercial mayhem is stronger with overseas students, who pay higher tuition fees.
JC: In the beginning of the book, we see an ambitious young scientist with a very romanticized view of science. Do you think most people going into science romanticize science? Why do you think that is?
KB: Idealism is certainly a big driver in science. One of my PhD peers once said ‘I wish I had zero interest in anything. I would have become an accountant and be earning a proper salary now.’ I guess that sums it up. Scientists are driven by the desire to make the world a better place through the advancement of knowledge.
JC: Your book is a very real perspective on science, research and academia. It touches on several major problems in academic science - poor mentorship, “pathological competition”, unclear expectations, sexism - do you think, despite all these challenges, going into science is worth it? If you could do it all over, would you get a PhD again?
KB: Yes, science is great! I was naïve and unlucky and rushed my decision about which PhD programme to join. My book is not only a humorous novel about PhD life, but also serves as a warning about pitfalls.
I would still choose a scientific field again for my undergraduate studies. Scientists have been proven to be more open-minded and flexible compared to other people. At the same time, we are less sociable, more arrogant, and dominant. Not surprising; it is a somewhat weird bunch of people and in most universities, we are not punished for our weirdness. It is scientific output that counts. To a certain extent, academia seems to be a drip can of weird personalities, where everyone is welcome. It makes for a strange but often interesting work environment. It is this environment, where you have the freedom of being yourself, which, despite its drawbacks, I came to love. So, I´d probably decide to go for a PhD again. A different PhD.
If I ask myself whether I would recommend for others to do a PhD, the answer is much less clear. One should realise that scientists are really going through a tough time due to an enormous amount of competition. Quite frankly, we have way too many PhD students these days and many of them would have better chances on the labour market without a PhD.
JC: You mention your previous time in industry. Would you recommend a career in industry to readers looking for jobs outside of academia? Or does industry present its own set of problems?
KB: This is hard for me to answer, on a personal level. The reason I returned – though I never really left – to academia, was that I found the research in industry unsatisfying; too far away from my ideals. For example, creating shampoos which make hair even shinier, doesn´t give me the feeling that I am doing something useful in the world. Of course, how useful the research is greatly depends on the industry.
Although in academia you fully depend on funding bodies finding your research attractive enough to fund, you still have a great deal of freedom with whatever you are working on. In industry, I would struggle with other people, sometimes unrelated to science, making decisions on whether my project would continue. I wrote an article ‘Returning to academia- the price I am willing to pay’ on exactly this topic.
JC: You mention that you did not suffer from depression, because of your strong friendship with Lucy. Can you expand on the importance of friendship with labmates or other researchers, especially if that kind of support does not come from family?
KB: Scientists are kind of modern nomads, a highly mobile and international crowd. Sometimes it is underestimated how much it influences the wellbeing of individuals to live so far away from family and friends and to relocate to a completely new environment every other year. I’ve met many scientists who, like me, got ‘tired of’ moving and constantly leaving friends behind. Some suffer from loneliness and light depression. I think this sadness should get much more attention as it can cause great researchers to give up on promising academic careers.
I lived and worked in five different countries and have learned that friendship is incredibly important for my happiness. Friendship is security, the substitute for family when you are far away from home for years – at least to a certain extent.
JC: The main character in your book, Ka, is verbally abused by her advisor. Having one person single handedly determine a student’s future is standard practice. Additionally, most mentors have no experience or coursework in management, leadership, or communication, essential skills for running a research group. How can students identify good versus bad mentors?
KB: The only reliable and honest source of this kind of information is the (in-)direct network. It is tricky to obtain this kind of information when changing universities. I would recommend visiting a research group and talking with other researchers out of earshot of the advisor, before signing up for a PhD. Even then, you can never be sure.
On a positive note, in the UK the supervisor is not handling their PhD students alone. There are second supervisors who can intervene in case of trouble. That´s a really good idea. Also, the universities in the UK put pressure on the PIs to let students finish within four years. This protects students from eternal PhD life; a protection not all other European countries have in place.
JC: “Mark doesn't seem to care what kind of people we are and how we behave towards our colleagues” Several times you mention that being a good person is different from being a good scientist. Should scientists strive to be good people?
KB: Everyone should strive to be a good person. However, you should not underestimate the effect of your work environment on your behaviour. Academic science is a unique, detached environment in which some sort of stress is inevitable.
From a leadership perspective, it doesn´t make sense that a group leader accepts atrocious behaviour from team members. It drags down the productivity of the entire team.
JC: “We are looking for selfish affirmation while pretending to search for scientific truth. We are all desperately yearning for recognition- after long and lonely hours on the bench.” Competition is necessary for progress, but you showcase how it can hinder progress. How do we keep competition healthy rather than pathological? How do you think science can move past this issue?
KB: Big questions! You touch on the Gordian Knot of modern academia. Meritocracy and competition sometimes seem to rub up against fairness and decency. Some things could have the potential to help the situation:
1. Stop funding so many PhD students. Reduce the number of PhD graduates. There is a huge inflation of PhD degrees in recent years, which fuels the competition in an unhealthy manner as there has been no noticeable growth in jobs for PhD graduates. Many PhDs feel desperate when they realise the paucity of their prospects.
2. Giving good and realistic career guidance to young researchers, inside and outside of the ivory tower; even actively encouraging young researchers to leave academia if they do not make it to a professorship. Poverty and lifelong disappointment might otherwise be their fate.
3. Establishment of Good Scientific Practice. If it is really put into practice, it can counter-balance the unhealthy and unfair developments in modern academia.
JC: At one point in the book, there is a tricky discussion on authorship. You decide to ignore the problem and it seems to go away. Can you talk about how one might deal with this?
KB: In the book, ignoring the problem inhibits publishing the paper. Of course, this is a lose-lose situation for all parties involved. In a situation where a co-worker is verbally threatening you to have a name on your paper, I would strongly recommend searching for an independent mediator or even an independent decision maker. Academia has improved in this regard. Second supervisors and ombudspersons can be incredibly helpful, as counsellors and mediators in such difficult times.
If a peer asks in a friendly tone to have his or her name on your paper, I would recommend asking about the interests of the other party and really dig deep to why he/ she thinks authorship is appropriate. Don’t judge before you know the exact motivation behind this request. Maybe the person did do something for the paper you are unaware of or have forgotten.
Of course, this is all theoretical and requires you to put your emotions aside for a bit to react rationally. As we all know, that can be tricky when the red mist descends.
JC: “We have all come to understand that our academic success strongly depends upon the resources we can access. Our intelligence, work rate, and burning desire to make a difference to the stock knowledge of mankind are all but trifles.”
This quote encapsulates success in science- it’s about luck and access to critical resources (money, time, help, materials). Do you think most students realize this?
KB: I believe many students do not realize this before signing up for a PhD. I might be wrong, but I do not think many supervisors point this out during the PhD interview either. As a mere Master´s student, it is hard to critically inquire about the resource situation and all too easy to get blinded by promises and fancy equipment which you might never actually be allowed to use.
JC: “For years ago, I had dreamt of becoming an excellent scientist. Now I don't even have the confidence to be sure I would make a good toilet cleaner.”
Grad school is known to be incredibly challenging and it has its ups and downs and you deal with enormous pressure and stress. Do you think this lack of confidence happens to most students at some point in their career? Do you think this is just a part of science or can it be avoided or mitigated if you have a good mentor?
KB: It´s certainly true that both too much and too little confidence are problematic - and equally commonplace among grad students. Excellent supervisors guide their students, giving confidence in moments of despair and realism in moments of exuberance.
JC: Many of our readers are prospective and current PhD students. Do you have any advice for them?
KB: Don´t buy mere titles and labels - look behind them and try to see what you´re really signing up for.
And, if worst comes to worst...To be honest there is admirable strength in being able to say; 'This is not for me; I'm wasting my youth and putting up with hell just to get three letters after my name. I'm off to get a life." Walking away can be harder than staying - but after some uneasy looks- mostly by yourself to be honest- such a step might be the best decision you will ever make.
Julie F. Charbonnier completed her PhD in Integrative Life Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on amphibian and population ecology. She is also interested in scientific writing and science policy. You can follow Julie on Twitter @modernecologist