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The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, a metaphor for Ph.D. Studies?


This Christmas (2005) I got the book “the Life of Pi” from a former Ph.D. that I had co-supervised, the now happy Ph.D. Inger Boivie. Ingers inscription to me said “Thanks for all help and all support! Without you it could not have been done”. While reading the fantastic story of Pi, with these words from Inger and with my full confidence in that Inger intentionally would give me something to think about, I saw the saga as a metaphor for Ph.D.-studies and maybe Ingers struggle. Now I suggest all who think of pursuing Ph.D.-studies to read the book, or those who are half-way through and feel unconfident about theories, writing or any other struggle within academia, and of course any one who have done the rafting and now wants to reflect on it. That is almost all.

The saga is as the “about being stranded on a life-boat in the middle of the pacific ocean with only a menacing 450 pound tiger for company” as the cover text says. Quite a struggle one must admit. But how does that connect to Ph.D.-studies? Well, to start with, Ph.D.-studies is to many also quite a struggle.

The story is about Piscine, named after a swimming-pool, who in the first section of the book struggles for his odd name, and renames himself Pi with a confidence of a Ph.D.-student who wants to tell the supervisor that this is how the world should be understood. Pi wins and the first section further elaborates on topics dealing with belief, and especially multi-beliefs of world-viewing, and on the matter of making territory and feeling comfortable in this territory. Pi himself is the son of a Zoo-director and lives in India and he is pursuing almost all forms of religious beliefs that are at hand in India. Pi also has firm interest in animals. All these aspects are of course of utmost interest for any Ph.D.student to reflect upon; what is a reasonable belief? How can they be combined?  Why don’t people think they can be combined and why do they think their own religion is the most righteous? Furthermore, what is a right understanding of a subject, in Pi’s case the understanding of animal’s co-habitation, their territorial struggles and animal’s relation to people – among many other issues. There are many both amusing reflections in its own right but they will also tell you about how one can take different perspectives on any subject. Of course one must read it with an open mind.

The next section is the main story, the story of how Pi is stranded on the life-boat with the tiger. A tiger is of course something which one must approach with special care. The tiger is always present and Pi cannot escape it, but Pi builds a raft from where he can view the tiger from another angle. He realizes that he must master the tiger and with greater confidence and a great cunning mind he approaches the tiger who occasionally approaches him fearless and sometimes almost with the same care as Pi is approaching the tiger. The saga is a very detailed story of how to feed the tiger, as well as appreciating new kind of feed for one self. It is also about finding a niche in an almost overcrowded space, struggling against storm, sharks and other stuff that a very narrow space in the pacific can hide. The sea of knowledge one might say. The dangerous tiger of theory. The oscillating confidence of a young apprentice. The section gives many perspectives on the life of a Ph.D. student where mastery of academic practice is slowly getting greater and greater. The almost feverish crescendo is the island, the thesis, where everything looks calm and harmonious during daylight, with occasional disturbance by a dangerous tiger of course, but hides a secret to science during nighttime. One has to depart and take just another angle on what one may has made up or what one really in a sense of fantastic facts has discovered.

Finally, the third section is the dissecting and almost surgical dissemination of ones life. The ministry of Japan, the opponent, doubts your story, is questioning all your mastery and experience. You have to retell the story in a revised version. Much dryer. The story is re-told into its bare bones of trivial facts [or maybe only those facts that will be believed by the ministry]. All in all, your story and your facts will only partly shed more lights to the world at large and to the ministry in its search for a specific question it will only confuse. But for comport your story will elicit many more questions. And still you have made the rafting, whichever of the stories the ministry choose to believe.

The story is about Pi. It is a saga. It is a fantastic saga. It is a marvelous read. I cannot even come close in trying to tell you how good it is. But you should read it as a metaphor for the life of Ph.D.-studies. One could maybe rename this book “the Life of Ph.D.” A must read for any becoming Ph.D. student.


Henrik Artman, who is much grateful to Inger who gave me the book and gave me the appreciation,


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

KTH, CSC Henrik Artman
Uppdaterad: 2006-01-09