The Hidden Footnotes


There it is then. Right there on my table.

Four years of my life, compressed into 260 pages of a small coffee table book.

It’s quite terrifying, really: to see that such a long period – four years. that’s four times 365 days – can be compressed into a book that small. Of course, it’s in very small print, but still. To realise that it all ends here, with a tiny book weighing just a few hundred grams. It holds everything I’ve done during the 1460 days of my PhD. The endless hours in the lab. The long days of data processing. The failed experiments. The successes. All of it.

There are people who doubt the need for such a volume. After all, the main currency of academia is measured in publications. In visibility. In journal papers. Why write a book no one will read? After all, publishing the data is all that matters, no?

I’m terribly sorry. But I disagree.

A PhD is more than just a quest to produce and publish data. It is an apprenticeship. A degree. It exists to turn inexperienced, undisciplined BA or MA students into researchers. It is there to slowly guide them towards the ability to ask questions and solve them by doing solid science. And when all is done, to write it all down into a document with a clear scientific narrative. Of course, most of the questions will remain unsolved. But that is how science works. And that too is part of the learning process, as is publishing journal papers.

Writing papers is part of how science works. You need to get the results out there so they can be discussed.┬áSadly perhaps, it has also become an important part of academia and university politics. And that goes way beyond the scientific aim of what a journal paper actually should be. A coherent story built around solid data. And a PhD is a chance, perhaps the only chance you’ll ever get, to write several of those stories and place them into a context. To frame them into the bigger picture of which they are an inherent part.

My PhD is about the effects of radioactivity on plants. But while it’s new and exciting fundamental research, it still exists within a context of pollution, public opinion and policy. Things which are briefly mentioned by research papers in the first paragraph of the introduction as context, but then hastily forgotten when the exciting data are discussed at the end. And that is alright. But there is a reason why a PhD takes this long. It covers a lot of ground, formulates a lot of questions. More than it can ever hope to answer. And when you put all this work together, you have to ask yourself: What does this mean for the bigger picture? Scientists aren’t there to make policy. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t think about the questions related to their work. Writing a PhD is therefore an exercise in framing your research questions into a bigger picture. And it doesn’t really matter if there is not really a good conclusion waiting at the end. Some questions are just meant to be asked, not to be answered..

There’s another thing, though, that strikes me when I look at this picture.

There are a lot of things that the little book does not tell. Hundreds of events and facts which aren’t visually documented into its pages. These last four years, I have lived through several of the most emotional moments of my life so far, both personal and professional. These four years have seen joy, outrageous joy and excitement, but also disappointment, anxiety, fear, several nervous breakdowns. And just recently, they have been witness to one of the saddest and toughest decisions I have ever had to make. And all of that, all of these emotions, are there when I look at this book. When I leaf through its pages. When I read the conclusions. They are there when I remember how I really needed to catch this flight to England just when the experiment failed on page 123. How I really had a very good walk in the park just before I wrote page 200. How I presented the results of chapter 6 at a conference after only 3 hours of sleep.

They are the hidden footnotes to the story, notes to what have been four of the most delightful, terrifying, fulfilling and stressful years of my life.

If I were to write them all down, I would need more than 260 pages.

And most certainly a much larger coffee table.