Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book review: You Must Be Very Intelligent (The PhD Delusion) by Karin Bodewits



Some time ago, I was happy to receive a review copy of Karin Bodewits's first novel "You Must Be Very Intelligent" with as subtitle "the PhD Delusion". This book is a hybrid between memoir and work of fiction about Bodewits's years as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

The short summary of the book is as follows:
You Must be Very Intelligent is the author’s account of studying for a PhD in a modern, successful university. Part-memoir and part-exposé, this book is highly entertaining and unusually revealing about the dubious morality and desperate behaviour which underpins competition in twenty-first century academia.

This witty, warts-and-all account of Bodewits´ years as a PhD student in the august University of Edinburgh is full of success and failure, passion and pathos, insight, farce and warm-hearted disillusionment. She describes a world of collaboration and backstabbing; nefarious financing and wasted genius; cosmopolitan dreamers and discoveries that might just change the world… Is this a smart people’s world or a drip can of weird species? Modern academia is certainly darker and stranger than one might suspect…

This book will put a wry, knowing smile on the faces of former researchers. And it is a cautionary parable for innocents who still believe that lofty academia is erected upon moral high ground…


The book is structured along the three years of the PhD program in Edinburgh. While staying lighthearted, it touches upon all the facets of the PhD years, including the interview for a PhD position, getting started in a program, the drudgery of failed experiments, making friends on (and off) campus, struggles with the PhD supervisors, and trying to graduate and get out. As Bodewits describes it, in terms of research finances and possibilities for the PhD students, there are research groups that have a gilded robe as their group leader, and others that have a mere peasant frock. But to her demise, she learned that her research group was threadbare underpants - there was not even money or space for a desk and computer for her when she started her PhD!

While I was reading You Must Be Very Intelligent I smiled a lot, and at some point I laughed so hard that I woke up my baby daughter. There are smiles of recognition when seeing the sketches of the typical characters one encounters in academia. There are smiles in sympathy for the struggles and mishaps of the leading character, who goes through all the struggles that are part of the PhD trajectory. There are cheeky smiles when there is too much liquor and smokes involved, or during the quest for a decent and free cup of coffee.

You Must Be Very Intelligent is a quick and captivating read - I read large parts of it with my e-reader propped up on my breastfeeding infant's head, and I just couldn't put it down. If you are looking for an entertaining read for your summer holidays, don't look further and get yourself a print or digital copy of You Must Be Very Intelligent.

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