As our About Us page mentions, I’m a Ph.D. student in biology, specializing in environmental toxicology. Since I’m at the University of Ottawa and I didn’t have the requisite UOttawa Student Who Doesn’t Work With Fish human sacrifice, my model organisms are fish. When I’m not blogging or cleaning aquaria, I’m pursuing that degree: reading scientific papers, trading Emails with the aquatic facility regarding space and fish, injecting fish with things, collecting fish tissues, and otherwise living the demanding life of a soon-to-be Doctor of Philosophy. This isn’t an unusual life for an atheist blogger. Dozens of us are involved in education, science, or both, and I can name several relatively big names who are working on their graduate degrees at present. This experience, and the background required to get this far, has colored my perspective as a writer and thinker on issues surrounding atheism and continues to inform my approach to many of my creative endeavors.
So why don’t I talk about it more?
A lot of it has to do with Jen McCreight. Once upon a time she wrote several posts addressing this very same question, and most of those situations apply to me as well. I blog under my own name, more-or-less, and I’ve made no particular effort (other than not using my last name very often) to create a wall of plausible deniability between this blog and the rest of my life. Ania’s and my business cards have both of our full names on them; we refer to our personal affairs regularly; I even mention every now and then what university will eventually be on my diploma. So, my commentary here may end up reflecting on me either as a potential hire someday or as part of some review of my relationship to my university. I cannot afford to vent my occasional frustrations with my professional relationships in a public forum under my own name, even more than someone like PZ Myers who is already in a tenure-track position. I take enough risks with the above; I go no further.
Another problematic aspect is the nature of my research. Part of the requirement for Ph.D. work is originality, which means that a Ph.D. has to represent a body of new pieces of scientific information not previously known. Where a master’s degree, depending on the institution, might permit the bulk of one’s work to be confirmatory or otherwise not entirely new, I do not have that option. Every similar project that someone else is doing, at whatever stage in their career, is potentially a threat to mine. If someone else publishes something that answers one of the questions I’m asking, it’s likely I will have to dramatically reevaluate one of my planned experiments and one of the chapters of my future thesis, at substantial cost in time (both sunk and about-to-be-sunk), resources, and the goodwill of my supervisor. Worse, since I’ve already hit snags with other experiments and had to go with backup plans that otherwise might never have seen the light of day, I currently skate on a particularly thin layer of newness atop substantial bodies of older work defining my fields. So, it’s not in my interest to publicize my unpublished work any more than being a scientist absolutely requires. I presented a poster this week at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Valencia, Spain, which was an intensely informative and helpful experience in addition to being in fracking Valencia. But dispersing my ideas further than that just yet, before they’re published and unambiguously mine, is not a great plan. If I get scooped, I might not get my degree.
There’s also a simpler reason why my work doesn’t impinge on this blog very much: It’s my work. This is my hobby. This is one of the things I do to get away from what I have to do. As much as I enjoy being a Ph.D. student, part of what makes that intense job liveable is being able to step away from it. Getting to think more broadly and about things other than the minutiae of my very specific future contribution to the world’s knowledge is absolutely vital to my sanity, and I maintain that by keeping my professional and blogging subjects at least that separate.
When I have some published results to celebrate, we’ll hear more about my Ph.D. research, and I’ll render a delectable expose about how it, like everything else in science, makes more sense in a world without fairies and devils than with them. Until then, not so much.
But there is one aspect of my degree that merits more commentary now, and that’s the teaching requirement.