The four stages of ‘hottie research envy’ – a response to the Thesiswhisperer

Do you ever suffer topic envy? I did – I still do.

From designers, writers, animators and dancers to computer geeks, nano particle engineers and bio-scientists: there’s an incredible spread of research here at RMIT. I am forever hearing about amazing PhDs and sometimes thinking “I wish I could do THAT one!”.
Evelyn Tsitas wrote an interesting post about research envy just before Easter ( I’ll have what she’s having: hottie research envy). She is reflecting on her experiences of research envy and it inspired me to reflect on my own PhD journey. My addition to the debate is that I believe ‘research envy’ changes over the course of your PhD and has different stages, four of which I will outline in my post below. My post is also a cautionary tale of finding the right balance between a ‘sexy’ research topic and disciplinary academic conventions that are still very powerful and should be taken into consideration if academia is a professional option for you. So here is my four-stage model of research envy based on years of self-reflective empirical research ;) :

Stage 1 [Year 0-1.5]: ‘You should do your PhD on that!’ 

Stage 2 [Year 1.5-2.5]: ‘Other mothers have pretty daughters, too’ [German proverb]

Stage 3 [After fieldwork-∞]: ‘Why is the new generation doing so much more interesting stuff?!’

Stage 4 [The ‘aftermath’]: ‘We are looking for a more traditional publication profile’, the head of the search committee explained

Stage 1: ‘You should do your PhD on that!’

You should be excited about your research topic when you start your PhD and having others admire your topic is also something that happens from time to time. I guess the biggest challenge is to figure out whether your fieldwork, your favourite HBO show or the niche that ‘nobody’ has research done on so far is actually more than just an interesting, illustrative case study that can hold together a thesis. As much as I believe that ‘everything’ can be used for research and is ‘data’, I would be more cautious to promise reinventing sociology through analysing, say, Mad Men. Outsiders may be envious when they hear about your topic, but it is quite possible that your ‘hot’ topic may become a case study that only comprises 17.6% of your final thesis. In other words: ‘Sexy’ is often not a sufficient criterium for a great thesis.

Stage 2: ‘Other mothers have pretty daughters, too’

Once you hit the conference circles or attend more ‘interesting seminars’ at your university, you will likely develop first feelings of research envy. Believe it or not, other colleagues have great ideas, too and you may get the feeling one commentator of Inger’s post expressed:

‘You all do amazing stuff!! So interesting and outside of the box!!’
It’s the ‘outside of the box’ part that worries me a bit and that will be addressed in stage 4 in more detail. For me, stage 2 may be the most ‘rational’ stage of research envy.

Stage 3: ‘Why is the new generation doing so much more interesting stuff?!’

The real envy sets in once the PhD ‘honeymoon’ is over, the interviews have been conducted and you actually have to sit down starting to produce something that in the end looks scaringly similar to many other theses of your department/school/university. As you seemingly slow down, everybody else seems to get into gear for more/better/sexier research/publications. During stage 3 you are also likely to experience first cases of ‘submission envy’: Everybody around you is finishing their thesis and one of the reasons seems to be the fact that they did not do a multimedia global anthropological quantitative econometric study on the history of early sociology in the south of France.

Stage 4: ‘We are looking for a more traditional publication profile’, the head of the search committee explained

Another commentator wrote on Evelyn’s post:

As my supervisor said, “your thesis is all about educating” the (un)sympathethic examiners as well as the “outside” people. But a cool and sexy topic, definitely pull in ‘the crowds’ at conferences, dinners or your kids playgroup sessions.
I do not want to be the ‘post-Easter Grinch’, but I wonder if ‘outside people’ or ‘the crowds’ are the ones who are likely to decide over your post-doc funding applications or CV to invite you for a job interview. Chances are they may not be part of these groups. Multi-disciplinary, out-of-the-box, ‘hot’ research should be balanced with more traditional academic outputs. This may be a debate for another post, but many universities and academic systems find it difficult to hire ‘innovative’ researchers if they know that a lot of your time will be consumed by teaching introductory undergraduate classes and contributing to external research evaluation discourses that favour ‘first class’ peer-reviewed journal articles. You may be able to get one or two articles out of your thesis, but there will likely be questions about your future research profile. The final stage of research envy sometimes consists of finding out that a colleague with a more ‘conventional’ project may find it easier to fit into paid academic employment.

I am definitely not suggesting that you should treat your PhD journey as an instrumental exercise in ‘building a career’ for the sake of fitting into academic discourses. But ‘research envy’ is likely to take on different forms during your PhD and partly because ‘hottie research’ and academic traditions oftentimes do not get on very well – but thanks for an inspiring post and interesting comments – even if academic blogging may not be the traditional output that many search committees would like to see ;)!

My previous post on PhD choices and international development may be relevant for some of you:

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

P.S.: Why not stay connected with @aidnography?


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