By Aglaja Kempinski |

To me, the most shocking news about refugees are not the horrifying investigative journalism reports that depict a gruesome reality of real people which stands in such stark contrast to a widespread society that refuses to care.  Nor is it the outright ridiculous Trump-esque calls for kicking out all Muslims. What I find scary are articles that seek to justify maintaining the status quo by rationalising the problem as fundamentally immutable and constant. Now, this Post is not about the refugee crisis (If you are interested, this, for example is a good place to start). Rather, it is about why we as academics have a responsibility to apply originality and critical reflection not only to our research, but also (and possibly more importantly) to the world at large.

One of my favourite things about being a PhD student is that it allows me to not quite grow up yet. I greatly enjoy the pink jukebox and the Mario Brothers themed bathroom in my flat. But that’s okay, because technically I am still at school. At least that’s what I tell myself. Of course, I understand that this is not a watertight argument and not everybody will agree with me here. Doing a PhD does require all kinds of growing up: finances, self-motivation and discipline, planning independent research trips, worries about finding a job after your PhD can all confront us with harsh realities of adulthood. Also, I am aware that a lot of people are doing a PhD after having entered the real world, having started a family or similar adult things.

However, the concept of writing a PhD does have some features which inherently require us to not grow up too much.  A PhD, by definition, is an original contribution to knowledge. As anyone who has had seemingly fantastic idea for a research project, only to find out it’s already been done by someone else can painfully attest to: it’s just not good enough to follow the trodden paths of what is considered established knowledge. Rather we have to step out and go beyond to explore our chosen field with childlike wonder. We experiment with ideas, we dig deep, and we question. Sometimes we might stumble on our path, but that is okay – we can always back up and explore a different rabbit hole. At it’s core, a PhD has to be playful, to explore it’s field like a playground in order to create something original.


(representation of how writing a PhD feels to me most of the time)

I am, of course, not arguing that critical originality is something unique to the seekers and holders of a PhD. Every human has the potential to – and many do – rear up against preconceived ideas and challenge societal norms with original thoughts or actions. However, with originality at the core of our modus operandi we do not only have the opportunity, but more importantly the responsibility to contribute to innovation. This is the price we pay for the luxury of having the freedom and resources to treat the world as an intellectual playground.

Innovation – continuous change in aid of trying to make stuff better – is pretty darn important and defines all areas of the way we live. This is not only confined to the more obvious examples of a technological nature or advances in medicine. Rather, some of the most significant innovations are social: Women’s suffrage, the Geneva Convention, the NHS and pensions, marriage equality. What’s more, despite all the terrible things happening, global violence is on a steady decline (for uplifting statistics, check this out). All of this is because someone, somewhere started to question established knowledge and provide new solutions which eventually shifted a paradigm.


Now, it is our responsibility to contribute to the stream of innovation. Climate change, global poverty, rising inequalities are all essentially problems that we need to find an answer for. This does not necessarily mean that we have to directly apply our research there. There is nothing wrong with researching something that does not seem immediately valuable to the advancement of humanity. Rather, it is our responsibility to respond to new voices with an open mind. To contribute to a community who is ready to be critical of the status quo.

One area where critical reflection and challenging of the norm is of particular urgency right now is the refugee crisis. Chances are that, whichever university you are at, you have some kind of weekly newsletter buried in your inbox somewhere informing you of public events or debates pertaining to these issues. Go to them. Or, alternatively, just apply your childlike curiosity and intellectual rigour to everything you read about the real world out there, not just to your bibliography. And once you have formed an opinion of it, stand by it with the same conviction as you do when talking about why a particular text from 1367 will forever change the way we think about Shakespeare, or why it is of the upmost importance to figure out whether midges can hear. Our privileged position to be able to spend all day thinking creatively and critically is a gift. We should use it.

Aglaja is a third year phd student at Edinburgh. After training as a camera (wo)man during my undergrad years I haphazardly stumbled into a masters program doing Anthropology of Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I am now happily merging those two directions into my PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. I have no idea where this process is going but 8 years in higher education have provided me with enough faith in what is happening with my academic endeavours for me to know it is going some bizarre interesting place full of imposter syndrome and wonder.

(all images © Flickr)