Let’s embark upon a second classic scientific exercise by trying to deconstruct this disastrous dynamic. Us academics believe this is key to solving problems, despite all the well-known examples of scientists trying to understand a problem and normal people going ahead and solving it. Why do PhDs get so nervous when having to answer a seemingly very simple question? Wouldn’t a concise “well” or “not so well” do? Unfortunately not, and the further you get down the road the less suitable such an answer will seem. Because, what are the criteria against which we’re measuring here; going well for whom? Having spent the past 1.5 years (re-)formulating the objective of my research, I am now finally coming to terms with the messiness of there being at least four sets of interests at play. Working on invasive plant species in the Caribbean Netherlands, the straightforward objective would be to supply the islands with the data they need in order to take well-informed decisions on management of invasive alien species. Secondly, at the end of this project a committee of highly erudite professors (probably all balding men in funny robes) will scrutinise me over the rim of their glasses for signs of having developed academic skills worthy of a Doctor of Philosophy title. Although academic skills is a fuzzy concept, I tend to think they are not synonymous to generating data ready to use by practitioners. Thirdly, being supervised by four professors offers ample opportunity to cherry-pick from their research preferences, but also generally results in having pleased at best only one and at worst none of them with the cherry you picked. And last and probably also least, there are my personal preferences, based on lofty criteria such as “what’s most fun?!” and “what would I definitely not like to end up doing in 10 years from now?”. So tell me, that nice friend asking me about my research… from which perspective should I answer that question?
Which doesn’t really yet explain why the question is so painful, to the contrary! The average scientist loves pointing out the ambiguity of a question, and how it requires an overly nuanced, unnecessarily complex and downright pretentious answer-that-just-raises-more-questions – starting now and taking the coming 2.5 hours. What makes this question painful, or at least to me, is that my research is inevitably letting some party down. Reconciling all the aforementioned objectives is impossible, and in practice like all normal human beings PhD candidates are influenced by their environment. Thus, the past half year I’ve spent at my university desk has unquestionably directed my focus away from the Caribbean needs. If I were to St. Eustatius tomorrow and try to explain what I’ve been working on to the first local I’d come across, that person would probably ask the second most painful question to ask a PhD candidate: “So…who exactly is supposed to care about all this?”.