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It’s been a week of transitions around these parts. Firstly, We had a student pass their PhD viva. For those outside the academic fold, to get your PhD you need to have accomplished two things: the first is to have undertaken enough original research and developed a sufficient understanding to produce a fairly lengthy thesis and the second is to successfully defend that thesis in a freeform exam called a viva.

In the UK, the viva involves you, the PhD student, in a room with two examiners both of whom are experts on the field of your research, one from your own university, the other from a different institution. There’s no time limit, and the examiners are free to ask you absolutely anything they whether it is covered in the thesis or not.

Make no mistake, this is a very difficult process and a definite right of passage. Most scientists will talk about their viva in a similar way to warriors in tribal cultures might talk about a spirit quest and it is certainly not something you forget. This week one of our students went through the crucible and emerged anew the other side. She has a few minor changes to make to her thesis (which is about the best result anyone can hope for) and will shortly be entitled to call herself Doctor.

The other transition this week was the inaugural lecture of a new Professor. This is a much more civilised affair. At about 5pm we all shuffled off to see an excellent presentation from a newly promoted Prof, who gave a thoroughly entertaining account of his work in image registration and shape categorisation. Excellent speaker, excellent research, and an audience of at east a couple of hundred.

I guess where I’m going with this is an observation about the career pattern of scientists – it’s very much like the progression of a traditional artisan. A PhD is very much like an apprenticeship: despite the funding structure in the UK they usually take about 4 or 5 years in practice, and they lay the groundwork for all the basics: lab or analytical techniques, critical thinking, familiarity with the literature, independent working and thinking, technical writing and presentation, and a nascent network of collaborators and allies.

After the apprenticeship we become journeymen. I am unabashedly a journeyman scientist – refining my skills, learning new ones, helping out with teaching the new lot and helping the group run smoothly. Just as with other artisans, many Journeymen remain so for the rest of their careers. (Right now I’m not sure I will ever be anything else, but I must admit I kind of like it that way).

The final stage, though, is to become a Master. In academia we call them Professors. One you get here you should be at the top of your game, world class and well known in your field. In fact, really, you should have made th sort of contribution to your subject that is at least deserving of a footnote in the history books. In a couple of hundred years, some dusty historian of science should know who you were.  Like I say, not everyone gets to this stage.

I find this similarity a little pleasing. The fact that the pursuit of knowledge can be thought of as a craft, and that the pattern established so long ago to reflect skill, learning, and diligence is as applicable now as it was in the middle ages is all pleasing and reassuring and provides a connection with the past. Of course, you could also take this as a criticism that science is very old fashioned, but having just returned from a non-academic job in an insanely bureaucratic organisation, I’ve seen first hand that you can certainly do a lot worse.


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