Wanted: One gong for my PhD office

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Well, it’s not my office. I share it with a dozen other PhDs, each somewhere between one and six years into their doctorates. Technically, my desk is not even mine. And when I submit in (hopefully) a years’ time I will remove my files, food, posters and junk. There is one thing that I plan on leaving: an office gong. But my officemates and I have to find one first.

Why? Why would we want a gong for our office?

It comes down to a little thing I’ve learnt from working as a consultant (shhh! Don’t tell anyone. Consulting tends to be an activity looked down upon by the grizzled dons that lurk in named chairs, akin to whitewater rafting Sullivans Creek). Consultants and academics work in different worlds but they share a common fault. Most consultants’ bids are unsuccessful. Most academics’ grant applications are unsuccessful. Both continue to submit bids and applications in the triumph of hope over experience.

Many consulting firms will have a ‘victory bell’, which gets rung when a bid is won or a deal is closed, mounted in a central part of the office to be heard by all. It helps boost the morale, as consultancies live and die by the success of their bids, but it also helps those who worked on the bid let rip after working hard and having won a victory, despite all the previous losses they may have endured. There is a ‘bell etiquette’ and if it’s a big win then there’ll be a belting and food to follow up. A small ringing doesn’t go ignored: it raises the morale, humour and companionship within the group.

A victory bell celebrates the successes of the firm.

In my experience with academics, victory celebrations happen behind an office door or at the pub on Friday afternoon. Many new PhDs are quiet about their victories, some don’t even tell their officemates about their successes when they have them. Maybe it’s a size thing.

On the ‘how big is yours’ scale most PhDs experience only modest successes.

A $1,000 grant to investigate beetle coprophagy, a conference place to present two years’ worth of research in a lousy ten minutes, or a book chapter written and sent off for excoriation. They might seem trivial but these small successes are BIG in their own way for new PhDs. For some struggling PhDs, a $1000 travel grant might be the difference between researching malnutrition in Africa and experiencing it.

In the process of doing a PhD there are a plenitude of potential victories that will come with each candidature. Candidature acceptance, journal paper non-rejection (not even acceptance, just not rejection straight off the bat), successful capture of data/species/supervisors and winning of scholarships and grants might be some of the more common of successes that PhDs enjoy.

The only trouble is that in many labs and offices (ours included) small victories are not celebrated well and the gloom of trials and tribulations tend to dominate the mood. We slave away for years and there’s not a lot of good feedback that reinforces that we’re still succeeding in what we do. We were all pretty successful before we started our PhDs… what happened?

Like a prolonged ENSO dry spell, there appears to be multi-year success vacuum that starts with acceptance and finishes with submission.

I’m not claiming that other university groups don’t celebrate success. There are some labs that bring in cake or biscuits for celebration of publications. Unfortunately I think my baking threshold is a feature in Nature and my officemates threshold for enjoying my baking would be a year in the Pacific with Tom Hanks and a volleyball called Wilson. Our office wants a lower and less taxing threshold to celebrate our successes.

We want an office gong to celebrate the small successes we have along the journey of our PhDs.

My officemates are on board (‘Gong On!’ was the near universal reply to my initial proposal) and I have placed an ad on Gumtree. Like all good policy lessons, we’ve taken the principles of the consultant’s victory bell but adapted the format to suit the recipient location. A soothing office gong will be heard in place of the jangle of the victory bell.

So here’s to the modest successes of doctoral scholars. Our office is looking for a gong to celebrate them. I’m interested in the types of celebrations that other university labs and offices do too. Feel free to post them in comments to this piece and we can share our celebrations as well as our successes.

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