Why a Really Good Doctoral Candidate is Like a Ballet Prima Ballerina

Dr. Niall MacGiolla Bhuí, Senior Editor, Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic


“Choreograph the daily griefs, dramas, joys, the little harms And let them know our love for them is sound, We that have known the ripple and the wingspan in the arms, The attempts at flight that never leave the ground”

– From Vedic by John Ennis

I’m often asked as a Doctoral Mentor in private practice, what makes a really good Doctoral candidate? This is usually asked when a student is deeply frustrated by the quality or direction of academic supervision she or he is in receipt of. And, I am reminded of a time many years ago when I attended a Ballet in Waterford where l had the privilege to watch a wonderful Russian Prima Ballerina dance Swan Lake. Indeed, the above quotation is taken from a poem inspired by that very evening.

Having supervised for over two decades at this stage, it seems to me, it is in the interpretation of technique that one finds true mastery and not just in the execution of technique to the letter…This is where one finds beautiful poise and balance, but is akin to an excellent Masters Degree student. No. The really good Doctoral candidate is unafraid to fall, to jump that little higher, twirl that little more when already embracing technique and flowing with the music. This is when the audience gasps in appreciation and the flowers are thrown to the stage. We want to be inspired. We want to be moved. We want to remember.

So, if you are a Doctoral candidate wondering how you should approach your Thesis, let me suggest that you are do so with the cloak of fear of failure removed having embraced the beauty and imagination of your chosen craft. Really good writing is like really good ballet – years of (painful) preparation, joyful in the execution and where one challenges the accepted conventions of the day.

Have you ever come across the names of Anna Pavlova, Ekaterina Maxima, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makanrova, Margot Fonteyn or, more recently, the bad boy of ballet, Sergei Polunin? There is a reason why you may have – even if you are not a lover of ballet. It’s because, more than anything, they dared and dare to push the boundaries. A really good Doctoral candidate, more than anything, should adopt such an attitude. ‘Unique’ is a much overused word. But, every so often in one’s life, one gets to experience something unique. Try to make that happen in your studies.

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