My thesis will be bound in navy blue. It’s not finished yet, but I’ve already decided. Navy blue cover, elegant silver lettering, my name in full on the front.
The cover will bind together a little over 200 pages of beautiful thick paper, which will hopefully stay in a library long enough to turn slightly yellow at the edges. Each page will contain – to paraphrase Matthew Arnold – the best that I have thought and said over the past few years. It will be a thing of beauty, my thesis.
But it’s not the be-all and end-all.
My thesis is tightly focused on a single topic. If an interested onlooker were to focus exclusively on my thesis, they might think that I’ve only learned about that one topic over the past few years. True – I know an awful lot about genetic engineering themes in contemporary Western literature and their relation to historical modes of dehumanisation. But I’ve yet to see that written on a “help wanted” sign, and I’ve given up hope of ever using that knowledge to win a pub quiz.
Fortunately, my education is much, much broader than my thesis topic.
My education represents not only the best things I’ve thought, but also my next-tier thoughts, the slightly dodgy thoughts that were reined in by my supervisor, and the ultimately irrelevant tangents from which I learned a lot, but which never made it into my thesis.
More importantly, my education represents the way I’ve been trained to think. The value of a research degree is in how it changes your brain forever. I’ll be able to find information and synthesise it intelligently forever. I’ll be capable of thinking through a problem carefully and sensitively for the rest of my life. I’ll get decades of use out of my skills in managing a complex project. I’ll be a lifelong question-asker and solution-finder. Even on my deathbed, I expect to see a frustrated hooded figure tapping his scythe in frustration and answering a zillion but-why questions before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
I won’t ever know everything, even about my tightly defined thesis topic. In the years and decades after my thesis hits the library shelves, research in my field will advance. My thesis might remain relevant; or it might become rapidly obsolete. Perhaps it will never be read by anyone other than my supervisor and examiners.
But an education cannot gather dust.
Perhaps that’s why people who have completed the most intellectually demanding research degree get to change their title. The letters “Dr.” don’t imply that the bearer knows it all, and they don’t stand for Definitely Right (though kudos if you can convince your spouse / family / kids / friends otherwise). But they do signify that someone who is experienced in research is changed, in a way that impacts upon their very identity.
And that’s even more elegant than navy bindings with silver lettering.