Alison in Wonderland, Observant, Maastricht

If you’ll excuse me a moment, I need to have a rant. I had to go to a lecture today called ‘How to give a lecture’. This wasn’t a problem in itself: in fact, the idea of going to a lecture on lectures – a meta lecture, if you will – rather pleased me. But you know what I really wish? That professors who were born three hundred years go would stop trying to teach PowerPoint to students who’ve been using it since they were four (“You can use PowerPoint to write points down on slides. And see this? This here is a pointer. For pointing at things. To highlight them. Like so.”). That said, the last slide was called ‘Take-home message’. And you know what the take-home message was? To have a take-home message. Pleasingly meta.

Collective crises of confidence

Alison in Wonderland, Observant, Maastricht

I’ve been diverted by politics lately, so it’s time to get back to something I actually know about. Isolation, confusion, crises of confidence – the usual hallmarks of a PhD. The good news is, you’ll find a great deal of empathy among your fellow PhD students. Even those in completely different fields – in fact, especially them, because they aren’t competing for your supervisor’s attention, and will be less tempted to infect you with the latest strain of meningococcus from their lab. Consider the innocent lunchtime conversation starter, ‘What did you do this morning?’ Answer: ‘Spent the morning sobbing over my laptop.’ A normal, real-world response might be: ‘Awful! Are you ill? Did someone die?’ In PhD world, everyone simply nods knowingly and says, ‘I hear you. Spent all last week doing the same.’

Science is the real winner

The real winner of the US election? The social sciences, according to Slate magazine. Voter preferences are often obvious: Alaskans and church-goers tend to vote Republican; African Americans and Harvard grads are likely Democrat. But others seem to be sitting ‘on the fence’, and are therefore assumed to be undecided. The Democrats realised that this is only because there is no data on them; they’re not members of the local yacht club, for example. But they may well be diehard Republicans – in which case, there is no point bombarding them with anti-Romney campaign material. Obama’s “competitive advantage”, apparently, came from sophisticated voter analytics and statistical algorithms to target true fence-sitters more effectively. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign stuck to posting campaign materials to people on church lists, who were likely on their side already. So there you have it: science wins the day.

The glorious living museum of socialism

Step right up, ladies and gentleman, come and see, the great, the glorious living museum of socialism! While Obama is vilified in the US for wanting universal healthcare, the Dutch ‘conservative’ party VVD is cutting deals that could see high income earners pay 24 times as much for their monthly health insurance than those on benefits. If I were a high earner in the Netherlands, I’m not sure I’d be impressed (though who knows, I’d be making great dough after all). But as luck would have it, I’m not. What I am is a fan of cheesy word play, so the branding of the VVD leader as ‘Marx Rutte’ is endlessly amusing. In any event, one thing is clear: American school kids should be dragged to the Netherlands on mandatory field trips, just to prove the point that things can be done differently. What the hell – bring the politicians as well.

Hold your stupid head up high

Alison in Wonderland, Observant, Maastricht

When they say you’re stupid, you must ignore them. Sir John Gurden, who this month received the Nobel Prize for his research on stem cells, came dead last in school biology. According to his teacher, his dream of being a scientist was nothing short of ‘ridiculous’. What’s more, research published in Science this month shows that scientific papers rejected on first submission but eventually published elsewhere end up with more citations (presumably because the initial ravaging by reviewers ultimately makes them better). And J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were famously rejected by a solid ten publishers before taking the world by storm. History is full of such stories of vindication. So: when they say you’re stupid, ignore them. Unless, of course, you are stupid. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.