Thursday, April 10, 2014

What Homer Simpson Can Teach You About Writing a PhD Thesis

“But wait a minute”, you say, “Homer Simpson is really stupid. What can he possibly teach me about thesis writing?”

Have I gone crazy? No! There really is a huge amount of wisdom in Homer’s words …

“Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

If you have been reading other blogs on thesis writing or PhD research, there’s a fairly high chance you will have come across a blog post that starts something like this.

They are usually based on some tortured analogy in the title, for example:
  • Why thesis writing is like baking a cake
  • The superhero’s guide to PhD supervision
  • Why PhD students are like meerkats
  • Packing your bags for your PhD journey
  • Which Game of Thrones character describes your writing style?
  • Why doing a PhD is like giving birth to a baby giraffe
Not all of these titles are fake.

I’m all for the use of metaphors and analogies when they help to make a point clearer, but when the metaphor becomes the only memorable thing about the blog post, what’s the point?

“The internet? Is that thing still around?”

One of the great things about using analogies is that if you are creative enough you can pair any two ideas together.

You could write a blog post on why thesis writing is like taxidermy, or why a good literature review is like a finely matured cheese, but if there is no original and useful insight into the actual problem then the cleverness of the analogy does nothing more than serve the writer’s need for attention.

I could find 10 Homer Simpson quotes and find a way to relate it to some PhD advice. It would get a ton of hits and countless retweets, but would it really help anyone? You could argue that it has entertainment value, but if that’s what you’re after, go and watch an episode of the Simpsons.

I understand novice bloggers doing this, searching for an original angle or even just searching for anything to say. I wrote a few like this myself (How to write your thesis faster: think like an Olympic athlete), but they were lazy, unhelpful, and not particularly original in their conception.

A good analogy can help make unfamiliar concepts easier by drawing parallels with more familiar ones. But if you have to distort the advice to fit the analogy, or when you have to introduce the post with a rhetorical “have I gone crazy”, then it’s probably gone too far.

Rant over. You people have stood in my way long enough. I’m going to clown college.

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