Saturday, 5 October 2013


If you stumbled upon this article looking for advise on how to effectively wage a subtle war against the lab next door over who gets priority on the multiphoton microscope, then this is not the place. I will however be offering advise on how to wage a different kind of war. A war that drafts children as young as age 6 and takes them to the front-lines  Do not be deceived, education is one huge war. Every test is a skirmish, open days are reconnaissance missions, every exam is a battle and it all culminates on the final battle field called University. So like a big brother to a little brother, a general to a recruit, a Jedi master to a Padawan, this is my list of 8 things you need to know if you are stepping onto this final battlefield. As the great general Shang Tsung once said (not to be confused with the great general Sun Tzu), let Mortal Kombat begin. 

1. Know yourself

"Know yourself and you will win all battles" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

We are made to believe that peer pressure is a social problem limited to the teenage years but nothing could be more false. No matter the age or institution so long as people have to interact with one another, peer pressure continues to exist albeit a bit more subtle as one gets older. So know yourself, where you excel and what you suck at, when pulling an all nighter means staying in the library or in the club. In my experiences Science degrees assign more lecture hours than the Arts, whereas the Arts entail more continuous assessments than the Sciences. The two degree programs cannot be approached the same way. 

For a postgraduate taking on education's pinnacle challenge to be awarded the title of 'Doctor' (sorry you do not get a complimentary TARDIS, - I asked) you need a secret weapon when something like this happens...

.....and you hit a dead end. That secret weapon is the answer to this one question; 'What is your goal and what motivates you?'. Agreed that could be two questions but the answers are usually intertwined. Know this answer and know it clearly.  Recite it as your own personal mantra, write it on your doorpost, on your dog and on your supervisors forehead. When the going gets tough, that personal mantra is what will see you through. 

2. Know the terrain
"To know your enemy you must become your enemy" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Everybody makes it into University these days and having excellent grades to show potential employers....., well these come a dime a dozen. Know that you are not alone on this battlefield and to take out your enemy in one shot, you need a clear line of sight. So if you are not naturally blessed to be heads and shoulders above your colleagues, take a page out of Zacchaeus's book and climb a sycamore tree, actually any tree will do and if all the trees are full build yourself a tower. Simply put, you need to stand out and to do this you need a plan and you need it now. There is nothing worse than coming up with a good plan half way through your course only to realise time is not on your side to be able to implement such a perfect plan. 

3. Suck it up
"To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear" Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu was onto something here. In primary school you may be applauded for doing your homework, at secondary school you may be applauded for perfect attendance, as an undergraduate you may be applauded for thinking outside the box, as a postgraduate all these things are expected of you as a bare minimum. So at whatever stage of education you find yourself know what is expected of you as a bare minimum. Most importantly do not expect to rewarded for every achievement or else you may just find yourself throwing a tantrum if you are not acknowledged especially if it appears others are been rewarded for doing the same things.

When monkeys do it, it's funny. When people do it, it's not. 

4. You are an army of two (or three but hardly four or more)
"He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight" Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

If you are wondering who the other members of your elite team are, well that will be your supervisor or supervisors. From the moment you start a PhD you enter into a very complex relationship unlike any other and regardless how it turns out there is always one thing you need to remember; Your supervisor is for you. If you excel, it looks good on your supervisor. If you publish it goes towards your supervisor's REF. If you present at a conference it raises your supervisor's profile. So in most cases what's good for you is good for your supervisor as such they will help you achieve your ambitions. In the same vein what is good for your supervisor could also be good for you. After all if your supervisor's profile is raised you can brag about working under such an amazing and world renowned person. Sadly there are a few exceptions to this symbiotic relationship and I recently read one such account which was not so pleasant. 

To be continued.......

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