Seven PhDs

So a few days ago I stumbled across Josh Raclaw’s tweet:

And this is the result:

Some conference organisers evidently believed in ‘brain food’. James had been to conferences where they practically piled pastries and fresh fruit into the introductory goodie bags, and provided caffeine in IV drips.

This conference was not of the same ilk. After the three-hour morning session – with some questionable timekeeping – James had made full use of his height and pointy elbows to get to the break tables and grab at a coffee and a small, dry cake before the horde descended. He retreated to a corner of the hotel’s foyer between two poster boards and hunched protectively over his precious winnings, eyeing up some of the nearby delegates who hadn’t been so quick.

In theory, one was supposed to spend the time between sessions networking with respected colleagues, but after three hours of the arse-numbingly packed programme, he appreciated a moment to simply stop and breathe. Food aside, it was a good conference, and well-worth the depletion of his personal development budget, but he wished they’d spaced the talks out more. Half-way through the cognitive therapy theme he had had to admit defeat and open his laptop to check some emails. He would have liked to review his PhD student’s latest chapter, but multitasking had never been his strong suit.

Across the crowd, he spotted Evelyn Connors showing off what a competent human she was by talking merrily with a woman he didn’t know. Evelyn spotted him and raised her coffee cup in salute, mentioning something to her companion and making a bee-line towards him. Evelyn could barely make it across the foyer without  having to stop and say a quick ‘hi’ to various members of the academic community, so James felt safe enough to take a bite of the crumbly Victoria sponge. It was a small bite, but still demolished half the cake, and he found himself chewing industriously on what tasted suspiciously like frosted sawdust. And of course, Evelyn chose that moment to up the pace and complete her approach. “James!” she cried, grinning at his frantic mastication. “How are you doing? Enjoying the morning session?”

James nodded and chewed all the quicker, suddenly conscious of how pretty her friend’s dark eyes were as they studied the way his clammy hands tried to balance the arrangement of saucer and coffee mug.

“Have you met Tambara Davies?” Evelyn continued, as though he wasn’t doing an impression of a cud-chewing cow, “She works at Penn State.”

“Davies!” he managed, swallowing the last of the cake and feeling the lump descend slowly down his oesophagus. “You guys did that review last year. I love it, we’re basing our next trial on it.”

Tambara flashed pearly white teeth in a grin, “Thanks!” she sounded surprised. “You can tell that to our reviewers. It got rejected from two other journals.”

“No,” he could see the self-satisfied smirk on Evelyn’s face out the corner of his eye, but he tried to ignore it. “It saved us a load of time.”

“Reviewer Two thought we needed a more senior scientist on it to give it credibility.” She rolled her eyes.

“It’s always Reviewer Two, huh?” he asked, and tried to ignored Evelyn’s showy yawn, just slightly behind her friend.

“Anyway!” Evelyn clapped her hand on Tambara’s shoulder. “I thought you two should chat because James here has a Bruce of his own.”

This made Tambara stand a little straighter and she looked back at James with renewed interest. “Oh really? Who’s yours?”

“What’s a . . . Bruce?”

Evelyn took a gulp of coffee, winced, frowned into the mug, then smoothly set the mug down behind a poster-board. “Bruce is on his seventh PhD, but first with Tambara, right?” Off her nod, Evelyn smiled at them both. “Like your student, uh . . .”

“Stephen,” he supplied.

“Yeah – the Strange one.” Evelyn winked at him and drifted off to resume her networking extraordinaire persona.

Tambara set her coffee down to join Evelyn’s and stepped a little closer. “So how many PhDs does your student have already?”

“Only the one, but he’s also an MD.”

“Well everyone agrees that at least one of those doesn’t count,” Tambara scoffed. “I’m the second supervisor on Bruce’s seventh PhD. I actually thought it might be easier, supervising someone who’s done one before?”

“Oh, rookie mistake,” James found that he needed both hands to gesticulate properly and added his cup to the two already hiding behind the poster-board. “At Steve’s one-year review, I had to explain the difference between peer-reviewed literature and grey literature. He cited some very old religious texts as a primary reference on how ‘energy flow’ affects human health.”

This made Tambara chuckle, and James wanted to award himself a point. “Bruce is actually a pretty good writer. In fact he’s writing a lit review for one of my grants. I feel bad about it,” she said quickly, “I always swore I wouldn’t use my students when I got them but he offered. Said he wanted the experience.”

“Hey, you don’t need to tell me. Steve is amazingly good at lab work, it’s like he’s running a hundred parallel experiments. I even asked him if he could take over a trial for me. He seems okay.”

“Does he fit in with the other students? Bruce is like . . . oh he breaks my heart. The other students just don’t accept him.”

“No, Steve too. But I don’t think he particularly wants to fit in with the others. He insists on having all his mail addressed to Doctor Strange.”

One of the excitable undergrads was circling the talking groups, ringing his silver bell and asking people to return to the auditorium. Tambara sighed and arched her back, grasping the back of her neck with the palm of her hand. “Ugh, I don’t know if I can go back to those chairs yet.”

“Tell me about it.”

She shot him a calculating look. “So . . . since the coffee here is so terrible, and we seem to have some research interests in common . . . I, uh, heard there was a great little coffee house in the mall across the street?”

In one of those rare moments of blinding insight, James was sure he could hear Evelyn cackling with glee as she told him this was the moment he missed out on a date. “That sounds . . . great,” he said slowly, stealing a quick look over her shoulder to check where the enthusiastic undergrad was. “Because I would love to talk to you about why you recommend a universal primer.”

As he passed Evelyn, he was sure she mouthed ‘yasss queen’ at Tambara before Tambara upped their pace away to escape the sea of poster-boards faster.

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