I’ve been doing my PhD for a while now and in all honesty it goes through fits and starts with regards its progress, but on the whole I think that it’s getting there more or less.  I follow quite a few different people of on Twitter who are on a similar journey and often take a quick run through the #phdchat channel although because of a commitment on a Weds night with the British Red Cross I can never join the conversation.

British Red Cross...

I’ve seen a few comments over the past few months that a PhD is about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration… but it surely can’t be that straightforward, can it?  Since I graduated all those years ago I’ve usually kept a trio of books on the go at any one time, each one from a different genre: fiction, self improvement, and a technical book.  The self improvement book that I’m reading at the minute is called ‘Outliers’ and is all about those over achievers that sit far and beyond the datum of us mere mortals, but interestingly there are a few things in the book that have really got me thinking about this 90:10 statement.

One of the points raised in the book is that on average it takes about 10,000 hours to get really good at something, whether it’s playing the piano, ice hockey, or other activities.  This got me thinking about how much effort it is going to take me to finish my PhD, given that it takes about 4 years on average for a student to complete their PhD and most students work insanely hard at the end which I guess makes for a 50 hour week averaged out over the duration (including time for noodling stuff over and reflection) and that most people take a couple of weeks off a year for a holiday this gives a rough idea of how long it should take a typical PhD student.  After all gaining your PhD is essentially demonstrating that you know an awful lot about a very focused topic.

\[\Large \underbrace {50}_{Hours/Week} \times \underbrace {50}_{Weeks} \times \underbrace 4_{Years} = 10,000{\text{ }}hours\]

So the amount of effort seems to match pretty neatly on my guesstimated figures, but what about the 10% inspiration part?  It’s argued by Gladwell that once a persons IQ is over a certain point, say 130 or so then they’re deemed to be ‘capable enough’ to be a contended for a Nobel prize or a reasonable University education, in fact just as many people win with an IQ of 130 or so as compared to the ultra intelligent folk who have IQ’s of 200+.  Now clearly if you have a huge IQ, then the chances are you going to find it easier to grasp particle physics than say someone with a lower IQ, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to come up with that 10% inspiration easier.  Now I’m never going to aim as high as a Nobel prize, but certainly completing my PhD would be great!

As part of my PGCAP course I was interested to see how different people learned and one thing that I thought was interesting was a test for multiple intelligences as I really connected with the idea that different people will excel at different types of activities, but how can you argue that a musical genius is any less intelligent than a physics genius? Surely they have similar genius qualities, but they’re subtly different… My results for the multiple intelligences test are below which show I’m spread over a few different strands, but clearly I can barely hum a decent tune.  If you would like to see how you’re intelligences are distributed then you could take the test here.


Personally I think that the 10% inspiration part is going to be easier for the sort of person who likes to think of new uses for existing things, or indeed someone who can noodle over and think creatively and abstractly and I’m remaining hopeful that my experience designing buildings and other structures will be useful in thinking creatively on my PhD.

There is an interesting test that can be taken called the divergence test, this test asks candidates to think of different uses for a common everyday item such as a brick for example.  Creative sorts should be able to come up with all sorts of examples that are beyond the every day uses of this item… some people will list that they could build a house with it and a BBQ and then run out of ideas, a creative sort would be able to list all sorts of madcap ideas from weighing down the corners of your duvet, to using it in a smash and grab, to leaving a car supported whilst you steal the wheels.  I tend to fare pretty well on these sorts of tests and I’m one of the few that’s still writing ideas down as the time runs out and I’m hopeful that it’s this creative thinking that is going to help me draw upon the 10% inspiration part of my PhD.  The downside is though that I frequently go off on madcap related and unrelated tangents whilst I’m in this kind of thought process, so the biggest risk for me completing my PhD will be focusing on the task in hand I think.


Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: The story of success. London: Penguin.


One comment

  • Daniel
    January 28, 2013 - 22:05 | Permalink


    get back to work!!! you are off topic here… your PhD is in Light weight structures isn’t it? so be a bit more light hearted 😉

    good luck with the rest of your work

    all the best from Hamburg

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