By Fraser Raeburn |

We’ve had a run of guest posts lately which make bold cases for your PhD being a metaphor, be it a relationship or TV show. These posts have been both hilarious and incredibly popular, which coincidentally are words that I’ve always wanted to be associated with.

phd metaphorsJust once.

Anyway, metaphors are pretty great. They help us understand things better, using words. Much like a PhD when you get right down to it.

Yeah, I just used metaphor as a metaphor for a PhD. Boom.

phd metaphorsThat noise? Oh, just everyone’s minds getting collectively blown

For the pedants currently thinking that it wasn’t so much a metaphor as a simile, here’s a few more to distract you from writing angry comments:

Your PhD as a train: PhDs are long, winding and segmented. Doing one in Britain is generally a surprising and unpleasant drain on your finances. There are never enough tables for everyone to work at all at once. They require a single-track mind to see all the way through to completion; derailment leads to disaster. It’s very trendy to try and combine them into an integrated, interdisciplinary system, although this only ever seems to work well in a minority of cases. PhDs are subject to unexpected, inexplicable delays.

phd metaphors‘For the last time, signal failure is not an excuse for not finishing your chapter.’

Your PhD as a meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant: A PhD drastically reduces your surplus income and often involves going into debt, unless someone likes you enough to pick up the tab. You keep telling yourself that the experience is totally worth it, although you have nagging doubts that you don’t want to express because everyone around you looks really natural and at home in their surroundings. Everything you need to read seems to be in a foreign language. You have an irresistible urge to chronicle everything on social media. Nothing that you end up with on your plate looks anything like what you expected it to when you started.

Your PhD as an art-house film: In your desperate quest for originality, you leave logic, sanity and good taste behind. You fill it with allusions and references to more successful works in the hope that it confers some sort of relevancy on your own creation. Only a small minority of people are able to understand what it is you are doing; even they tend to misinterpret it. You’ll present your work at specialised gatherings in odd places across the world, after which there is usually a Q&A. A scary committee will rate your work before it’s allowed to be released to the general public. Making any money or becoming popular usually requires selling out and losing the respect of your peers.

niall fergusonWho, me?

Why is it that our PhD metaphors have proven so popular? It probably helps that they’ve been well-written and entertaining, this post notwithstanding. But do metaphors speak to something deeper, a more primeval way to understand concepts? For all our education, are we nothing more than cavemen huddled round a fire, looking to someone to explain a complicated universe in terms we can relate to? If so, that’s strangely comforting. Even prehistoric tribes needed PhD students.

Fraser is a Pubs and Pubs editor, and also relatively sure that he wouldn’t be all that useful in a prehistoric setting. For more of the moderately pointless blathering that made up the first 90% of this post, check out his Twitter feed. For a similar level of pseudo-insight to the final 10%, check out his research on

(Cover image (c); Image 1 (c); Image 2 (c); Image 3 (cc); Image 4 (c)