Monday, November 8, 2021

Three helpful stories

Having spent a big chunk of my working life teaching, I've learned how valuable metaphors can be when communicating. Some of the most effective metaphors are in the form of funny or amusing stories. This applies to doing research as well: with the Internet originating in universities, a lot of stories or parables related to research have been circulating on the Internet for a very long time.
None of the stories below are mine, they have all been circulating for a long time. They are, however, relevant to doing research.

The Pot Roast

One day a young woman was cooking a roast. Her husband asked her why she cut the ends off of the roast before putting it in the over. She replied "I don't know, that's the way my mother always did it". Later that night, she phoned her mother and asked her why she always cut the ends off of the roast before putting it in the oven. Her mother replied "I don't know, that's the way your grandmother always did it". So the young woman phoned her grandmother, and asked her why. Her grandmother replied "Because the roast was too big for the pot".

The story of the Russian sentry in the field is in a similar vein.

There might have once been a good reason for doing something a certain way, but that doesn't mean that that reason is still valid. Methods and procedures need to be re-evaluated regularly. Fixating on one way of doing things means that you can miss out on improving your methods and getting better results.

The Three Statisticians

Several versions of this story exist.

Three statisticians were out hunting when they sighted a deer. The first statistician fired and missed one metre to the left. The second statistician fired and missed one metre to the right. The third statistician cried out "We got it!".

Just because you can find an average of values, doesn't mean that that average is meaningful. This applies to other statistical measures as well. It might sound impressive if you use a complicated or obscure statistical method when processing your results, but if it's the wrong method the outcomes won't tell you anything. A good working knowledge of statistics and measurement theory is essential when analysing, and interpreting, data and results.

The Rabbit and the Fox

Another story were there are several different versions online, but all have the same punchline.

One day a fox was walking through the forest when it came across a rabbit sitting outside its burrow, reading a pile of papers. The fox asked the rabbit "What are you doing?" to which the rabbit replied "I'm doing the literature review for my thesis". "What's your thesis on?" the fox asked. "It's on the superiority of rabbits to foxes. Would you like to come inside and discus it?". The fox licked its lips hungrily, followed the rabbit into the rabbit burrow, and was never seen again.


Some time later, a wolf was walking past the burrow when it saw the rabbit sitting outside, poring over a thick volume. "What are you doing?" the wolf asked the rabbit. "I'm proof-reading my thesis" said the rabbit "It's on the superiority of rabbits over wolves. Would you like to come inside and discuss it?". The wolf licked its lips hungrily, followed the rabbit into the rabbit burrow, and was never seen again.

A few months later, a hare was hopping through the forest past the rabbit burrow, and saw the rabbit sitting in the sun, relaxing. "What are you doing?" the hare asked the rabbit. "I'm having a break - I've just defended my thesis on the superiority of rabbits to foxes and wolves. Would you like to come inside and discuss it?". The hare followed the rabbit into the rabbit burrow. In one corner was a pile of fox bones. In another corner was a pile of wolf bones. Sitting between them was a lion.

So, it doesn't really matter what your thesis is about, as long as your supervisor is a lion.


Getting good advice when you are starting out is essential. The right mentor can set you up for life. The wrong mentor can ruin you. I've seen students lose their careers before they began simply because they chose the wrong PhD supervisor. These people have lost years of their lives and gone thousands of dollars into debt, for no gain. Some of them were pushed out before they submitted their thesis, while others failed their thesis examination because their supervisors failed to prepare them for the examination process. Be very careful when choosing a supervisor or a mentor. Better to choose a lion than a fox.

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