Shedding blinkers

What is the difference between a human and a horse? A trick question, obviously. Sure, we are bipedal beings, defined by how we perceive and change the world. But just like the horse, our actions are defined by what we believe to be worth pursuing: A carrot on a stick.
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Let it be said that I am a German student of medicine, coming from a system too obscure to explain in due shortness – we don’t graduate as Ph.D, but ‘Doctor medicinae’, if at all. But this shouldn’t invalidate the point: when discussing whether doctoral students are obliged to publish, blame is easily put on the system. However, one must not forget personal motives and beliefs: a system is enabled by its members.

Why do we care?

In medieval Europe, being part of a scholarly society came along with social benefits and obligations.1 Consequentially, a system of admission into privileged positions had to be established. The scholars of Bologna therefore awarded a first known doctorate in 1219.2 Today, it qualifies for many positions within research and industry, proving elementary qualities required to lead own projects. Such proof is necessary because research is costly, requiring both competence and diligence. Graduation should therefore enable juniors to operationalise hypotheses, handle data and cope with disturbances, being all about personal skills and mentorship. Ultimately, however, there is the need for an audience. Findings must be discussed and examined to have an impact. This might be why doctorate typically demands a publication to be discussed and examined by peers: dissertation. By that, the very title incorporates publish or perish. In the end, a dissertation is either written or not. There is no middle ground.

This correlation is what some might call flawed. Yet, its effects are rooted within our minds. After all, ‘it’s going to get better as soon as this damn thesis is done, isn’t it’? With the dissertation defended, one finally joins those scientists fit to pursue own projects. But while one hopes for more freedom, the system does not change. Science is based upon review. And suddenly, people quit research or start publishing paper after paper. Even if several findings could have been combined into one larger, comprehensive release instead. Why does this happen?

It might be because most, if not all, decisions regarding a course of study could be based upon a cost-benefit equation, perhaps related to those which affect animal behaviour in general.3 Question being: how does one reduce the costs, if “doctorate” equals benefit? To put it simply, one can restrict the thesis to something a supervisor has cooked up, effectively eliminating many risks. One might take a balanced path, bringing own ideas into an existing project. Or go all-in and test something entirely new, facing high costs but potentially greater reward.

Choosing the prepared track might reduce the risk of failure and speed up the process of graduation. But at what cost? Following the same old trodden path, ignoring the opportunities that lie besides due to blinkers put on the very own head. Ideas eliminated as risks. And just like the partially sighted horse pursuing the carrot instead of finding its own way, us students might end up pursuing plain papers equalling short profit instead of elaborate approaches, perceived as inducing long-time trouble. Once adopted, this behaviour might persist. Therefore, we must not forget the benefits of creative, innovative ideas when making such equations!

Don't be that guy

That's easier said than done. But after all, we believe that there is some special reason for research. And yes, there is: it’s about asking new questions by answering the old, living out an innate curiosity every day. But the goal is sometimes buried below a pursuit of publications as guarantee for recognition and grants – which end up being used for even more papers serving the same purpose, generating a perpetuum mobile. One ends up seeking answers without thinking about the questions. So, what to do?

When looking at the system, small changes might have an impact. Why are students given closely prepared subjects to work with for most presentations and projects? Let’s make finding one part of the job at times! On a personal scale, when defining a thesis’ fundamental question, another one must be answered clearly: Do I really want to answer this? Be bold!

Don’t just think about numerical progress. Think about contribution. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side.

(1) Verger J.: Doctor, doctoratus. In: Bautier R.-H and Auty R. (eds.) (1986): Lexikon des Mittelalters 3 Codex Wintoniensis bis Erziehungs- und Bildungswesen, column 1156 München: Artemis Verlag
(2) Dinzelbacher P. (ed.) (1992): Sachwörterbuch der Mediävistik, p. 183 Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag
(3) Ha R.R. (2010): Cost-Benefit Analysis. In: Breed M.D. and Moore J. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, volume 1, pp. 402-405 Oxford: Academic Press. Chapter last seen on 10th October 2019 under

Picture 1: Matt Brooks: Incentivize.
Picture 2: Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Header: Rainer Schüll

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