Risk management for academics

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 22 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:703
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary health care
  1. University College London

    I was recently sent a PhD thesis to mark. As well as the smartly bound thesis, the parcel included an eight page glossy leaflet entitled “Safety—everyone's responsibility.” On my forthcoming visit to viva the candidate, I was informed, I should take reasonable measures to stay out of danger and not to harm others. I should place my used batteries only in bins labelled “toxic waste” and avoid blocking fire escape routes.

    On the basis of my previous experiences with PhDs, I think I'll return a full risk assessment checklist:

    1. Personal injury. I once dedicated an entire Soundings column to the injuries I had sustained by falling over my own half written thesis, which, along with continuous feed printoutsof two years'worth of data, had taken up residence in a large wooden box in my hallway. The risk of broken bones applies mainly to the candidate, but over-attentive supervisors who keep multipledrafts of their pupil's past work should ensure that the container is stowed securely under a desk.

    2. Déja vu. This phenomenon is most commonly experienced in the Literature Review, but on some occasions can occur throughout the work. My husband, a fellow academic, once passed me a thesis he was marking. I scanned several paragraphs and confirmed that I had written every word myself.

    3. Inability to swallow. This is a near universal peril encountered in the Discussion section. The candidate, after summarising (more or less accurately) the findings from a humble and parochial empirical study, and desperate by this time to reach a fitting conclusion to his or her story, presents a series of sweeping and grandiose recommendations for changes to practice and policy. Examiners should ensure that this section is approached from a sitting position with a cup of peppermint tea to hand.

    4. Nausea and vomiting on reading the Acknowledgments. This section has generally beenwritten last, in a flood of relief and remorse, when the candidate, emerging blearily from their garret after six months' writing up, realises that their partner is not only still around but hasbeen coping single handedly with washing up, small children, in laws, etc. In the interests of health and safety, supervisors should routinely remove this section with a clean razor blade beforethe thesis is posted, and send directly to the appropriate Significant Other.

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