Workload, timelines, advisors, funding, pressure

A very good blog post on what to expect from a PhD program (and especially what the university itself won’t tell you): So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?

Two paragraphs which are especially informative for people who don’t have recent personal experience in a PhD program:

The most important person in the process is your advisor, who is generally a senior member of the faculty in your department who shares your specialization. I struggle to find words to communicate how important this person will be during your graduate experience.. Graduate study at this level is effectively an apprenticeship system; the advisor is the master and the graduate student is the apprentice and so in theory at least the advisor is going to help guide the student through each stage of this process. To give a sense of the importance of this relationship, it is fairly common to talk about other academics’ advisors as forming a sort of ‘family tree’ (sometimes over multiple ‘generations’). Indeed, the German term for an advisor is a doktorvater, your ‘doctor-father’ (or doktormutter, of course) and this is in common use among English-language academics as well and the notion it suggests, that your advisor is a sort of third parent, isn’t so far from the truth.

If you are considering graduate school with an eye towards continuing in academia who you choose as your advisor will be very important: academia is a snooty, prestige conscious place and your advisor’s name and prestige will travel with you. But there’s more than that: your advisor, because they need to check off on every step of your journey and you will need their effusive letter of recommendation to pursue any kind of academic job has tremendous power over you as a graduate student. You, by contrast, have functionally no power in that relationship; you are reliant on the good graces of your advisor.


2050 Post-Carbon conference, McKibben, and conservatives on climate

Today I was at a conference on “Building a Post-Carbon Future” by 2050. It was certainly not bad, but I felt there was a huge disjoint between the Paris Agreement targets frequently referenced (to keep global warming to less than 1.5–2.0 ˚C above pre-industrial levels) and the scale and ambition of the policies and actions actually proposed to get us there. Say what you like about the people who argue that climate change is fundamentally a symptom of capitalism, and that we need to get rid of the latter to solve the former, but at least they have a plan.

One frequent line of discussion in my one-on-one talks with today’s attendees was about what we need to say to get the general public to act in the right way and solve the problem. I’m very skeptical about this kind of approach. In everyday life, I think presenting selective or misleading information to try to manipulate behaviour is generally a bad plan, primarily because of the overconfidence it demonstrates about what explains a person’s current behaviour and how to alter it. Think of the arrogance of deciding based on the observable behaviours a person has shown you that you understand the deep workings of their mind (workings it would probably take them a considerable effort to think through and explain) so well that you can craft a tailored intervention that will shift that whole cognitive machine onto the track you want. Also, taking this approach throws away the opportunity to use that person’s judgment and knowledge to try to solve your problem: you’re taking it all on yourself because you’re assuming you’re smarter, or you know what ought to be done, or that the other person will never act in the right way based on complete and accurate information.

Anyhow, I am skeptical about political arguments like: “You need to give people hope or they won’t act” or: “If you tell people the true seriousness of climate change they will become apathetic”. We have never solved a problem like this before, so nobody can be really confident about the long-term consequences of any approach.

This evening’s keynote address was by Bill McKibben. To me it was passionate and well spoken and also all quite familiar: summaries of where came from, their pipeline resistance campaign, and their involvement with divestment. It was certainly well-delivered and got a solid response from the sold-out audience.

After the talk I spoke with McKibben briefly. He recognized the t-shirt I wore from the summer 2011 Keystone XL arrests in Washington D.C. Prompted by my concern about risks in trying the fight against climate change so closely to a collection of other left-progressive causes, I asked him how we can enact climate change policies that can survive changes of government, and how we can get conservatives on board.

He said that in the short term he thinks we can’t get conservatives on board, and that the priority task needs to be breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry. Without that, policies like the Green New Deal can’t succeed. He told me: “This is why we need movements”. He also pointed out that there have been climate policies which have been helpful and which have survived changes of government, like the B.C. carbon tax.

I don’t know how satisfying an answer I find that. The fossil fuel industry certainly hasn’t only sought to influence or bribe the politicians of the right. I feel like the problem is more ideological — related to some of what I discussed in my paper on resource inequality and have discussed in the ‘why is this important’ sections of many justifications of my PhD work. Humanity’s new ability to dramatically affect all life on the planet is a sort of shock that all political philosophies need to incorporate. Those like liberalism and socialism which from the beginning have incorporated some conception of interdependence among people who aren’t kin are perhaps more straightforwardly equipped to start incorporating a species-level or an Earth-level ethic. By contrast, individualistic conservatism founded in a (false) notion that people can somehow go it on their own is profoundly undermined by a problem where the unintended consequences of one person’s actions anywhere in the world are felt by everyone else for centuries. Resolving that contradiction in a genuine way seems to require jettisoning a lot of the emphasis on personal autonomy which is dear to conservatives, which perhaps helps explain why so many have been willing to just deny that the problem exists.

I would love to see a longer account from McKibben about how reducing the power of the fossil fuel industry solves the problem of each new government facing the temptation to scrap unpopular taxes and restrictions meant to protect the climate, or to tap any fossil fuel reserves which we have left unused for the greater good. Likewise, it would be good to see a theory for winning conservative support for climate stabilization policies, over any kind of plausible timescale. There are too many people who hold such views and support such parties for us to reject the need to appeal to them, even if activists are more comfortable dealing with people who they broadly agree with on other issues, and even if they have crafted their movement to be progressive and diverse in the ways they value.

M.Phil results

This afternoon, after my final meeting with Dr. Hurrell, I got back one copy of my thesis and my grades for the M.Phil:

To put those in perspective, have a look at the scale of marks. The thesis grade is a bit of a disappointment, especially considering how I expended well over one hundred times more effort on the thesis than on the exams. I only began serious exam revision after getting back from the Lake District on June 3rd. Based on the very crude method of taking the mean of the five grades, I got 70.2 overall.

Since the thesis is now publicly available in the Bodleian, it seems appropriate to make it publicly available online as well: Expertise and Legitimacy: The Role of Science in Global Environmental Policy-Making.This version has about two dozen minor errors corrected. If you find more, please let me know and I will make the appropriate changes in the electronic version.


This afternoon, my mother kindly passed along a list of 28 minor spelling and grammatical errors in my thesis. Curiously, there seems to be an direct correlation between the number of people who read a particular chapter and the number of errors. The same goes for the length of time that passed between writing and submission. 25 of the 28 errors are in the three chapters for which Dr. Hurrell gave me comprehensive feedback.

  • Chapter 1: 8 errors
  • Chapter 2: 9 errors
  • Chapter 3: 8 errors
  • Chapter 4: 1 error
  • Chapter 5: 2 errors

Chapter two was the single most edited of the lot, with 25 major revisions prior to the one submitted. This seems to confirm the Law of Editing: “For each correction or clarification made, an equal and opposite error will be inadvertently introduced.”

Since the thesis is 30,000 words long, the version that will reside in the Bodleian has about one error per thousand words. The PDF that I will put online once the thesis has been graded will be better, and probably more widely consulted. For those with access to the appropriate restricted pages on the wiki, the corrected version has been uploaded.

Wadham climate change discussion

Today’s Wadham Research Forum on climate change was very interesting, despite how all the ideas expressed were fairly familiar. The extent to which the points highlighted are the same as those in my thesis is both encouraging and dispiriting. It suggests that I have not missed the mark completely, but also that I may not have contributed anything terrible novel. Of course, there is a good chance that the key issues to be considered are obvious enough, and that it is the approaches taken that generate the value of a particular assessment.

and in the darkness bind them

My printing graph clearly applies to a great many circumstances. Having finished my thesis last night, I could not print it in Wadham because their printer was broken. I couldn’t print it in St. Antony’s because every scrap of paper had been used by other people scrambling to finish their own theses.

No problem, I thought, Temple Bookbinders says on their website that “photocopying service from disk or proof is also available.” As it turns out, the website is inaccurate in this regard. The nearest place that could print it was “around the corner,” by about a mile and a half. There, my thesis was printed at the rate of one page every 23 seconds (I timed it). For the 222 pages of black and white printing, they charged me £16 ($36 Canadian). The thesis will be bound and ready to be picked up at 11:00am tomorrow.

On the plus side, I did manage to see the Headington shark house.

[Update: 5:00pm] I have returned my thesis books to their various libraries of origin, re-filed the books I own into my normal non-fiction classification system, and put my box of thesis related articles out of sight.

Ironing out final wrinkles

The thesis is made of coffee

Turns out it’s a good thing I printed off a draft thesis to scrutinize: a significant number of little typographical and grammatical errors were there to be found. Many of them, it seems, were actually introduced during the previous round of revision, especially in places where I was converting passive sentences into active ones. Somehow, I seem to have lost dozens of connector words like ‘the’ and ‘for.’ They are being systematically re-introduced.

Tomorrow morning, I am joining a convoy of fellow M.Phil in IR students cycling to Headington where – it is promised – there is a printer who can produce hardbound copies of our theses for less than £30 a copy, ready in time to be submitted on Monday. I wanted to have it done for tomorrow, but I found out today that having a copy prepared for tomorrow would be absurdly expensive: more than £50 a copy. Even £30 seems pretty steep. After all, we are talking about two pieces of cardboard, some plastic, and a few minutes of labour. I suppose the print shops here have a captive audience to exploit.

[Update: 1:00am] The thing is now in its final digital format. In eight hours, I am cycling over to Headington to have it printed and bound. I would print it myself, but I have no access to a printer that is (a) not broken and (b) stocked with paper.

This thesis is carbon neutral

Thanks to a gift from my mother, I have been able to add the following to the opening section of my thesis:

This thesis, which generated about six tonnes of carbon dioxide from flights, paper production, printing, heating, and electricity usage has been carbon-neutralized through NativeEnergy. This was done by capturing methane from an American farm.

Six tonnes should cover my personal energy usage, as well as flights to and from Vancouver and emissions associated with printing the thesis. I have also included an estimate for my share of the power used by the server hosting this site. Methane is twenty-one times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 and livestock agriculture produces about 18% of global emissions (discussed earlier).

The majority of NativeEnergy is owned by the The Intertribal Council On Utility Policy: a not-for-profit council of federally recognized Indian tribes in North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, with affiliates throughout the northern Great Plains. The gift is much appreciated.

While I realize that carbon offsets are not a viable mechanism to deal with the whole problem of climate change, they are a good way to make a statement about the issue, as well as avoid charges of hypocrisy when expending energy on climate research or advocacy. They have been discussed here before.


Thesis books

Somehow, no language can express the concept of ‘thesis struggle’ quite so well as German can: a fact that is evident even to those who don’t speak a word of it. If I could use twenty character compound words at will, the word limit would be less of a concern. As it stands, I am trying to figure out ways to reduce the number of words used up in footnotes. The incentives created by including them in the count are quite perverse: I am removing useful little bits of additional information, as well as reformatting citations into forms that will be more difficult for the examiners to deal with.

I look forward to being interesting again. That is to say, having the time and brainpower to write about anything other than the thesis.

PS. Looking for something new to read about? Try the island of Gukanjima, near Japan. Once a coal mining centre and the most densely populated urban space on earth in 1959, it is now totally abandoned. Have a look at this short documentary or this history, more detailed than the one in the Wikipedia entry.