…and after three drinks, came up with a clever idea for some novel research into community dynamics in fragmented tropical forests.
In my first week at Queen Mary as an undergraduate, I had a genetics lecture from a guy who’s a bit of a legend at our university called Brendan. He put up some comics on the projector that explained the scientific process as ‘try and do something, fail, go to the pub, try again, fail better’ in a loop. At the time, I remember thinking this was a joke based on the student drinking culture, but it soon became apparent that no, actually, that’s sort of how it works. He was referring, of course, to how utterly invaluable conversation with other academics is, and it just happens a room with beer is the environmental niche of good ideas.
I’m applying for a PhD programme at the moment, and part of the application is a piece of written work that more or less constitutes a research proposal. Not necessarily for the project I’ll be doing (it’s a one of those courses that’s structured in the first year and delays decisions on projects), but basically for them to see how my brain works and to give us something to talk about if i make it to interview. I’d spent a good proportion of the last few weeks thinking up and rejecting ideas, getting good ones but not being able to finish them, and being generally frustrated and probably overthinking it. But then on Friday I went to our local Wetherspoons with some of the academics in my department, as we do most Fridays. We got talking about the things I was interested in and eventually had a collective brainwave and thus, my research statement was born. I wrote it the next day, sent it off to a potential supervisor at the university I’m applying to, and got a bit nervous.
Today, I went to said university, had a look around the city (which is beautiful) the departmental building (which is not, but still cool), and some of the places I could live. I spoke to the course administrator who was very helpful and motivating, and then ended up meeting my potential supervisor in the afternoon. I told him about how my research idea was born in the pub, which he was amused by; he was generally positive, as were his nest of grad students in the office next door to his. After I left, I got an email from him that said my statement ‘looks great’ and he couldn’t think of anything to add for improvements. Now, that’s what you want to hear!
I like it when things work out like that, but I must say of all of the long-term life lessons I learned as an undergraduate, “go to the pub” was probably the best one; not just for entertainment value but also because this isn’t the only time problems like this have been solved with good conversation. In fact, it’s helped in most situations I’ve been stressed, vexed or stuck, and I think in all likelihood it’ll be the one piece of advice I’ll offer friends and peers most consistently throughout my career. Just be careful you don’t get so drunk you forget the clever idea you have, because that’s less good.