A Screwtape letter to a doctoral student

My dear Wormwood,

I note with grave displeasure that your doctoral student has decided to pursue her doctorate. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the consequences from this transgression. In the meantime, we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair yet. Hundreds and thousands of these students tried to claw their way out of the doctoral limbo but are still struggling, demotivated and directionless. All the habits of the doctoral student, both mental and emotional, are still in our favor.

One of our great allies at present is the Academic Institution itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the academic institution as a bastion of knowledge but instead a place filled with politicking, fickle-minded and egotistical scholars. Fortunately, this side of academia is quite invisible to these mortals. All your doctoral student sees is the glorious achievement of earning a doctorate, the significant contribution to her field, doors to her future opening widely and her family’s collective pride and joy.

When she goes to class the first day, leverage on her excitement and giddiness and remind her what it was like to go back to school. When she gets to her class, and looks around her, she sees a group of eager, smart classmates. You want to lean pretty heavily on those classmates. Make her mind flit to and fro between each person, making mental judgments and sizing each person up. It matters very little, of course, who sits next to her. Your doctoral student, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those classmates say something stupid, or make a foolish impression or seem odd, the doctoral student will quite easily believe that their class is made up of weirdos. At her present stage, you see, she has a vision of the doctoral journey in her mind which she supposes that all she interacts with are highly intelligent and articulate people, but which, in fact, is largely fictional. Never let it come to the surface; never let her interact with people who are truly intelligent, creative and yet deeply humble, low-key and truly seeks opportunities to transform.

Work hard, then, on the disappointment which is certainly coming to the doctoral student during her early semesters of coursework. The Enemy welcomes this disenchantment to occur at the beginning of every human endeavor. It occurs when she picks up her weekly readings and encounters hifalutin words and terms beyond her knowledge. It occurs when she starts preparing and studying for her comprehensive exam. Create opportunities where collaborative work becomes ripe opportunities for differences in opinion and clashing egos. In every milestone of her doctoral journey, remind her of the times she’s missed and given up on her family and social relationships. Keep her focused on the stress of taking out more student loans to continue and finance her education. Guide her into using her time wisely to tackle dead-end research and invest her time on fruitless research leads. And there lies our opportunity to mislead her causing undue anxiety, frustration and discouragement.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the hardships of the doctoral journey is well concealed in the eyes of the doctoral student. Of course if it isn’t—if the doctoral student knows that writing the dissertation is like pulling all wisdom teeth and having a root canal at the same time; or her adviser is too overwhelmed to guide her through dissertation completion; or that the department is too hierarchical and political; or her research subjects and methodology are not credible to begin with—then your task is so much the easier. Keep her overwhelmed from having to balance graduate school, work and family. Make everything else hazy in her mind and keep her up most nights so that she will be tired, cranky and unproductive the following day at work and in school. You will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself of seeing her crying in the bathroom with the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Most importantly, keep in close touch with our colleague Malacoda, who is in charge of the adviser, and build up between them a healthy habit of mutual distrust, divergences in opinion and points of view. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your doctoral student that particular tone of criticism which she learned to dislike early on, and let her think how much she dislikes and feels disrespected by her adviser. Let her assume that the adviser knows how critical he is and does it to malign and sabotage their relationship and by extension, the dissertation. And, of course, never let her suspect that her ego and inability to accept criticism similarly puts him off. As she cannot see or hear herself, this is easily managed. Handle her properly and it simply won’t come into her head. She has not been long enough with the academic institution to have any real insight and knowledge of how academia works yet. Keep her in that state of mind as long as you can. But also remember, there lies our danger. If are able to successfully navigate through this initial phase, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

Your malevolent uncle,



One response to “A Screwtape letter to a doctoral student

  1. This is fantastic! Thanks for posting. 🙂

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