05 February 2018

Book Review: The Old Man, the Sea and the PhD by Martin Lukačišin

The best thing about The Old Man, the Sea and the PhD is that it’s very short. I read it while travelling to the airport and waiting at the security check. It reads very well and it’s packed with ideas. Each idea is presented using a parable which makes them very easy to remember.

The last chapter likens the life of a PhD student to Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, which is where the name of the book comes from. I found this analogy the best and most memorable.

During my time in academia, I wanted to write similar thoughts in a blog post (or two) but I always deleted what I wrote, since I didn’t believe that academia could be fixed and thus my drafts were pure rants. The author is slightly more optimistic and tries to provide solutions, though he still admits that the book is very negative about academia.

I think academia will never get fixed, since it’s stuck in a bad equilibrium, just like schools, medicine, politics or airport security checks. We think academia is about science, schools are about education, medicine is about health, politics about improving lives of ordinary people and airport checks are about security. However, all of them are primarily about something else and the stated purpose is at best a secondary side-effect.

The real issue with academia—in my opinion—is that it’s primary about academics gaining prestige and status among other academics. Science ends up being a secondary side-effect of this process. The author hints at it in the very last paragraph of the book but unfortunately doesn’t expand on the idea. For this reason, I recommend complementing The Old Man, the Sea and the PhD with Elephant in The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. You’ll have a better understanding why the life of a PhD student is as miserable as Martin Lukačišin describes it.

Note: this review has also been published on Amazon.