The Doppelganger

I want to tell you today about a fear, common, I suspect, to every PhD student at one time or another. It is the worry that somewhere, out there in another university, another country, another continent, there is someone doing the same research as you. Your doppelganger.

It may be even worse than this. It may be that there is no-one doing the same thing as you right now, but rather that there once was someone, even someone famous, who has already done all this work, read all this material, written all the articles many years ago. In short, that it is in fact you who are the doppelganger, the tardy shadow to a successful academic.

There are many resources that trade on the fear of this academic double. Who has not used Google Scholar or their university library catalogue with apprehension, fearing to see another’s name attached to a book or article, whose title indicates that what you thought unique to yourself has been thought (and published) by another? In France, you can even use to discover the subject of current theses, and so – one worries – meet the doppelganger who is truly your mirror image. In Britain, and of course elsewhere, one can also review the dissertations of past PhD students, and so – perhaps most terrifyingly of all – find a student just like yourself, who walked the same road as you, reading the same books, thinking the same thoughts, and failed: their ideas (which must be yours too) found unpublishable, their work and approach (yours too) unemployable.

There is limitless material here, and it is no great challenge to spin nightmares from three basic positions the doppelganger might occupy. Your double might have preceded you, either with success or without; or your double is your contemporary, your competitor. In my case, it is the first of these variants that is most applicable (as far as I’m aware). You see, I know of one scholar, a man called Peter Holland who, after doing (like me) his thesis at Cambridge, has gone on to lead a distinguished career with a professorship first at Birmingham and now at Notre Dame. His interests – Shakespeare, acting, editing, performance theory, the Renaissance and the eighteenth century – all closely match mine, and it is rare indeed that I ever write something without finding he has a relevant article. Compare my thoughts on Johnson, for example, and his article on ‘Editing for Performance’.

I must admit, though, that I’m not kept awake at night with nightmares about Peter Holland. This is in part because of something my supervisor, a veteran of many anxious PhD students, said to me early on in this doctorate. No two people, said he, can ever write the same thing. Just by virtue of it being me who is writing this thesis, it will be my own. For better or for worse, my particular set of experiences, talents and opportunities will separate me – to a greater or lesser degree – from any doppelganger, past or present. All that matters is that I do the best I possibly can, and try and learn from those who have gone ahead.

Put like this, it all seems obvious, but the fear should still be acknowledged. That no two people are alike, and so, for all the coincidences, will never write the same depends upon the idea that academic writing, at least for the humanities, is something personal. Is our worry about doppelgangers a sign that this belief in the personal is under threat? If it is, one might point to the increased capacity for search and communication that we have as researchers these days: it allows us to work with greater efficiency, true, but also reminds us that we are never alone, indeed often little more than an impersonalised entry on a page of search results. Another, related, reason might be that funding pressures for discrete and measurable outputs is pushing the arts closer to the sciences, bringing with it the scientific malaise of having your work invalidated by another. Who, after all, has not heard of a mathematics PhD who dropped out after a student at another university found the proof he was being funded to achieve?

Enough of fears, be they of the doppelganger or, perhaps more worryingly, of an eroding belief in the personal qualities of research. I’ll finish instead with a fourth kind of doppelganger, one I deliberately excluded from my summary: not the past, nor the present, but the double who is yet to come. I’ve been doing a great deal of teaching these last few weeks, and it has brought the truth home to me that so much of what I do has its clearest value when I communicate it to another. I strongly doubt that any of my students will go on to become a version of myself, but I may now think from time to time of some hypothetical PhD student, many years from now, looking at my take on things that he or she is interested in, at first despairing that all has been said but then recalling that one response does not preclude others, for if it did, what would literature be?

2 thoughts on “The Doppelganger”

  1. Yes! Great post. Such a common fear indeed. But as you say, we’re so privileged as Arts & Humanities people – can you imagine spending years trying to find the vaccine against death, only to have someone else publish about it in Nature before you can. Nightmare. I don’t know if you do this too but when you suspect in conversation that someone’s doing vaguely the same sort of stuff, you find yourself asking leading questions in the hope that they will confirm that they are, in fact, doing a completely different thing. And then when it turns out that they are, indeed, doing something completely different… well, you’re sort of happy but also weirdly sad, as if you’d been somehow secretly hoping that they would be indeed doing ‘your thing’.

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