PhD Problems: You’re a Smartass Even When You Think You Aren’t

John Skylar, PhD
5 min readSep 5, 2018

Living in a household with two academics is a strange experience. My wife right now is rounding the bases to complete her doctorate. I've had mine for just a few years now. It shows in how we approach life, and each other.

We’re both trained against saying things that are unsupported by evidence. So well-trained, in fact, that sometimes we’ll reflexively hedge our compliments to each other. After all, she’d need a much bigger sample size to be certain I’m really the best. Statistically speaking.

This reflexive nitpicking comes from intense, difficult training in research methods. That training instills a person with instincts to not commit to a statement or course of action until they have exhaustively attacked their uncertainty about the potential outcomes. That’s pretty important in research, where everything is an unknown and there are a lot of risky paths that you could follow for years before you realize you are headed nowhere.

On the other hand, in my personal life, such instincts can make me a real pain in the ass. Business culture is not set up to reward indecision, and partners on a team trying to execute a project do not like to hear hedging or uncertainty about when or how your part of the work is going to get done. Decisive plans and statements typically build trust and cohesion; dissembling erodes these things.

When your career experience has been in academia, this can be really uncomfortable to adjust to. Spending five years or more in a world of “Question everything you hear, and question your own work even more,” does not practice you in decisive planning.

This worked on the X-Files, but ever notice that Fox Mulder wasn’t beloved by his employer?

Instead, it makes it easy to sound like a smartass. You may think that a meeting is being held to pick apart a project and analyze the points of its rationale, when all that your colleagues are interested in knowing is whether the work is going to be done by next Monday or Tuesday, and what resources they need to line up to help support it. In that context, your academic tangents into the fundamental designs of the work are just going to irritate people. They’ll think that you are…

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John Skylar, PhD

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at www.johnskylar.com and www.betterworlds.org. Opinions my own, impressions yours.