A significant portion of 50 Cent’s success has been tied to his ability to engage his foes in and ultimately survive beef. After moderate exposure under the tutelage of the late Jam Master Jay, 50 Cent flirted with fame. But his biggest look, prior to Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, was the song “How To Rob,” where he took subliminal and overt shots at dozens of popular rappers. The responses served as free promotion, and 50 subsequently increased his buzz by releasing a flurry of what he would later refer to as “aggressive content” via the mixtape circuit.
Some 14 years later, things are a bit calmer. June 3, 2014 marks the release of 50 Cent’s fifth official retail album Animal Ambition: An Untamed Desire To Win. Having instigated, survived and arguably thrived against various conflicts with fellow emcees, record label executives and even convicted crime kingpins, it’s a good a time as any to look back on 50 Cent’s track record.
50 Cent vs. Ja Rule
It’s almost unfair for the beef between Ja Rule and 50 Cent to be classified along with other music industry conflicts. By all accounts, this was a real life feud between two camps that generally hated each other’s guts. Prior to the diss records, 50 and Ja got physical on multiple occasions. The back and forth songs were merely the byproduct of disputes that had already taken place in the streets.
“A friend of mine robbed Ja Rule,” 50 recounted in his biography From Pieces To Weight. “That’s how the beef originally started. My man robbed him for a chain, and then this guy named Brown came and got the chain back for Ja. Later, Ja saw me in a club with the kid who robbed him. I went over to say, ‘What’s up’ to Ja, and he acted like he had a problem with me. But I’m not the one who robbed him.”
After repeated run-ins with Ja, 50 recorded “Your Life’s On The Line” around 2000. He and Ja ended up together on a bill during a show in Atlanta, and they eventually fought in an adjacent hotel parking lot. Things later escalated back in NYC, when Ja Rule paid 50 a violent visit during 50’s recording session at the Hit Factory. Over the course of several years, the pair exchanged punches, knife pokes, yapped chains and several diss records including “Wanksta,” “Clap Back” and “Hail Mary.” In 2011, prior to serving a two-year prison sentence stemming from a previous weapon possession charge, Ja told MTV’s Sway Calloway he was done beefing. 50 confirmed the truce, and Ja would later send out a tweet saying the pair sat near each other on a transcontinental flight with no issues. But as so many rappers have proven in past years, all bets are off when it comes to the infamous Summer Jam screen.
50 Cent vs. Jimmy Iovine
By 50 Cent’s own admission, there was a point in time when he had a great relationship with former Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine. But over the years, things quickly turned sour, and it’s hard to imagine 50’s 2011 threat to leak Dr. Dre’s next single helped matters.
Man I’m not releasing a album i can’t believe interscope is this f*cked up right now. I apologize to all my fans.
— 50cent (@50cent) July 27, 2011
I LOVE DRE but I’m putting his next single psycho out tomorrow at 2:00 #SK
— 50cent (@50cent) July 27, 2011
Your gonna love it its a big song I just don’t think it deserves a great set up sense they can’t seem to get it right when it comes to me.
— 50cent (@50cent) July 27, 2011
During his tenure on Interscope, 50 repeatedly lashed out at the label for what he felt were botched promotional opportunities related to his fifth Interscope album, Street King Immortal.
“Just get me off the actual label before the shit goes bad, because I’m not getting the actual response I want out of the material that I’m releasing with them, and it’s to the point that I’m not even trying to put the right thing out,” 50 told Power 99’s Cosmic Kev in April 2014.
Aside from an inability to continue making Top 10 singles, 50 says Iovine viewed his partnership with SMS Audio as a major sticking point.
“We had communication with each other, and he expressed that he didn’t like me,” 50 explained to Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex. “It stems from his passion for Beats [Electronics]… Steve Berman—at points when we communicated with each other—he’d say, ‘Youre competition.’ He’d get excited and say, ‘You created a competitive company; you’re the competition.’”
Ultimately, 50 entered into a distribution pact with Capitol and Iovine left Interscope after Apple acquired Beats Electronics for $3 billion in May.
50 Cent vs. Fat Joe
Given its seemingly simple origins, the length of the conflict between Fif and “Don Cartagena” was rather surprising. While 50 was arguably at the height of his popularity in 2004, Fat Joe joined Jadakiss on Ja Rule’s single “New York.” The unstated transitive property of Rap beef dictated 50 throw verbal shade at both Joe and Jada (more on that later), and Joe became a target on “Piggy Bank” and several of 50’s viral disses. In addition to calling Joe’s hit single “Lean Back” a dud, 50 repeatedly needled him about his sales and weight.
Never one to back down, Joe retaliated with the track “Fuck 50” (later retitled as “My Fo-fo”) and an undeniable verbal shot onstage at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards, saying, “I feel safe with all the police protection, courtesy of G-Unit.”
The end of the 50 Cent/Fat Joe feud was arguably the only silver lining associated with the 2012 death of Chris Lighty—who managed both 50 and Joe. During the 2012 BET Awards, 50 and Fat Joe performed together alongside fellow Lighty clients A Tribe Called Quest, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes.
“The same guy who discovered him, discovered me—Chris Lighty ,” Fat Joe told Hot 107.9’s DJ Q Deezy during an interview October 2012 interview. “He always wanted me and 50 Cent to make peace forever, but we were just being stubborn and ignoring him.”
50 Cent vs. Cam’ron
The minor tift between Cam and Fif pretty much includes all the necessary ingredients for a 50 Cent beef. Things began with 50’s usual “no fucks given” attitude, as he brazenly called Koch Entertainment (now E-One Entertainment) a graveyard and said he had the ability to shut down any Koch project. As one would imagine, Koch’s then general manager, Alan Grunblatt, took umbrage at the claims and decided to call Hot 97 on February 1, 2007 while Angie Martinez was interviewing 50. Fif quickly barked on Grunblatt and asked to speak to Cam, and that’s when all hell broke loose. A cordial exchange quickly went sour, as Cam and Fif argued back and forth over the recent sales of G-Unit artists along with Koch’s value and reputation. An audibly angry Cam’ron peppered 50 with questions punctuated with an exaggerated call of his government name, “Curtis.”
No less than a week later, 50 released the Cam’ron diss track “Funeral Music,” and Cam fired back with “Curtis.” Right when the beef transitioned from mildly interesting to a viral hot mess, Cam seemingly disappeared. He resurfaced in November, exclusively telling Miss Info he temporarily relocated to Florida to care for his mother after she suffered three strokes. In the meantime, 50 brought Juelz Santana and Jim Jones onstage with him to perform “We Fly High,” and Fif mockingly named his next album Curtis.
Chalk this one up to another beef that ended up getting squashed on peaceful terms.
“We had our little hip-hop beef or whatever you wanna call it, but ain’t no problem,” Cam’ron recalled during a 2011 appearance on MTV’s RapFix Live. “Jim and Juelz do stuff with 50 and they camp all the time. I don’t have a problem with 50 at all. It is what it is. We had our little discrepancy, and we moved on from it.”
50 Cent vs. Nas
These two Queens emcees (50 reps Jamainca, while Nas is a product of Queensbridge) have gone at each other on record before. On “Piggy Bank,” Fif infamously mocked Nas’ tattoo of Kelis and called him a “sucker for love.” In return, Nas struck back on “Queens Get The Money,” saying 50 was a porch monkey hiding behind 8 Mile and The Chronic. Ouch. But the best barbs between “God’s Son” and “Ferrari F-50” might be the ones that never became accessible to the viewing public.
Allegedly this all spawned from 50’s belief that Nas had him booted off a remix to the Jennifer Lopez 2001 single “I’m Gonna Be Alright,” when both Nas and 50 were still on Colombia. Songs like Nas’ unreleased “Don’t Body Yourself” hint at the friction (“Yeah we from the same hood but nigga what?”), but the real drama of songs like “Spastic” has since been lost in the pre-Internet ether (no pun intended). Summer Jam giveth, and Summer Jam taketh away. 50 hinted at something involving Nas in the weeks leading up to Hot 97’s infamous annual festival. And, in a show of Queens solidarity, Nas provided an intro of sorts for 50’s performance.
50 Cent vs. Rick Ross
Much like any war, the inclusion of spouses, children and innocent bystanders is usually an indication things have reached a new low. After the mother of 50 Cent’s child, Shaniqua Tompkins was forced to evacuate a Long Island home 50 Cent owned, the property was destroyed in a May 2008 fire. Rick Ross poked fun at the situation with the following bars from the song “Mafia Music”:
“I love to pay ya bills, can’t wait to pay your rent / Curtis Jackson baby mama, I ain’t askin’ for a cent / Burn the house down nigga, you gotta buy another / Don’t forget the gas can, jealous stupid motherfucker…”
And like that, it was on. On Feb. 2, 2009, 50 Cent posted an interview with Tiallondra “Tia” Kemp, Rick Ross’ baby’s mother, on his website Thisis50.com. In the interview, Kemp, who was engaging in a child support case with Ross at the time, confirmed Ross worked as a correctional officer. After the interview, 50 took Kemp on a shopping spree on 5th Avenue. The beef went viral, as 50 Cent introduced the “Officer Ricky” character to poke fun at Ross’ correctional officer past, and Ross took to calling 50 “Curly.”
Despite the usual threats to end each other’s respective careers, this beef didn’t so much get squashed as it died from a lack of fan interest. Aside from 2009, which saw Before I Self Destruct and Deeper Than Rap hit shelves in the same calendar year, 2014 marks the second time both rappers have released retail offerings within months of one another.
50 Cent vs. Jadakiss
Much like Fat Joe, Jadakiss was one of the many Empire State emcees 50 targeted for appearing on Ja Rule’s “New York.” But in terms of retaliation, ‘Kiss arguably flipped the script on 50 better than Ja or Joe, as he implored 50 and the listening Rap public to shift the focus away from sales and chart positions.
“I might never sell that much / But you can bet your last two quarters, I’ll never tell that much / Picture ‘Kiss not come out swinging’ / That’s like going to see 50 at a show, and he don’t come out singin’ / Yeah you got a felony, but you ain’t a predicate / Never the king of New York, you live in Connecticut,” Jada spit on 2005’s “Checkmate.” The track was complete with the standard issue 50 barbs about glamorizing being shot and allegations of snitching. But Jadakiss focused on skills, telling 50 his raps were preschool.
The Jadakiss and 50 Cent beef was easily squashed because it never truly got personal. In a March interview with Complex, 50 Cent revealed he planned on including Jadakiss on one of Animal Ambition’s collaborations. Fif even ventured to Yonkers, where fellow LOX member Styles P had also joined Jadakiss in the studio. The result was “Irregular Heartbeat,” which features Jadakiss and “Chase The Paper,” which features Styles P. Ultimately, good music (and what we can assume was some modicum of mutual respect) won out.
50 Cent vs. Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff
Some beefs reach levels of intensity that would make any quarrel between rappers seem as insignificant as two toddlers fighting over a toy. Consider the dynamic between 50 Cent and Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff one such beef. McGriff and the Supreme Team have been named dropped in Hip Hop at least as far as Nas’ 1994 album, Illmatic. Five years later, 50 mentioned both McGriff and Gerald “Prince” Miller on the song “Ghetto Qu’ran.”
“Yo when you hear talk of the Southside, you hear talk of the Team / See niggas feared Prince and respected ‘Preme / For all you slow motherfuckers, I’ma break it down iller / See ‘Preme was the businessman, and Prince was the killer,” 50 rapped. In a July 2006 VIBE magazine interview with Ethan Brown, McGriff confirmed he was less than pleased with the song.
“Yes, it was factual,” McGriff said. “He said in the song, ‘Preme was the businessman, and Prince was the killer’… When we was coming up there was a code on the streets, a code of conduct, which was you never speak of dudes whom may still be in the streets.”
After serving nearly 15 years in federal prison, McGriff connected with Murder Inc. founder Irv Gotti to license the rights to a Donald Goines novel. Things seemingly reached a head when 50 and Ja continuously clashed and Fif implied McGriff was responsible for the 2000 attempt on his life. By 2003 Gotti was hurt by a three-year federal investigation on charges of laundering money for McGriff. While Gotti was eventually found innocent, McGriff was convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and murder charges. There was no love lost between 50 and McGriff.
“Either way, he’s a wrap now, because the changes they don’t see is the financial transition,” 50 told XXL in a 2011 interview. “Same way the nigga that shot me wasn’t an in-house for them—he was just a shooter. I have access to that now. I have the finances. The shooters shoot as soon as the bag is dropped. So now, either they give him life, or they let him go and I give him life. They don’t understand the difference. The first album I was trying to explain it, Power of the Dollar. They had money when I didn’t have money, so I had to take bullets.”
50 Cent vs. Game
An infamous quote reads, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.” In the case of former Game, he may have been the ultimate pupil when it came to running an all out smear campaign against his former G-Unit general 50 Cent. Weeks of rumored fiction between Game and 50 were confirmed in February of 2005 when 50 told Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex Game was being booted from G-Unit due to disloyalty. Game’s desire to distance himself from several of 50 Cent’s multiple beefs didn’t sit so well, and the Compton, California native quickly found himself on the outs.
This quarrel then spilled over from the airwaves to the streets when Game and an entourage returned to Hot 97 after hearing 50’s remarks. Fellow Compton native Kevin Reed sustained a wound to the leg after a shooting outside the radio station’s offices. Shots were also fired outside of Violator Management offices.
Despite attempts by Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and others, there was only a short-lived truce between Game and 50. Both artists appeared at a March 9 press conference in Harlem, New York.
“We’re here today to show that people can rise above the most difficult circumstances and together we can put negativity behind us,” 50 Cent offered. “A lot of people don’t want to see it happen, but we’re responding to the two most important groups, our family and our fans.”
By the time summer rolled around, the truce was over again. Game appeared to thrive off the beef via fan responses to his G-Unot campaign, the song “300 Bars” and an about face at Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam. In July of 2009, Game publicly apologized for his role in the beef, telling MTV’s Shaheem Reid, “If we never [broke] up, I think Detox would have been out and we all would have been selling millions from Banks to Buck, Tony Yayo. I’m gonna apologize for my role.”
With Game likely headed to Cash Money and 50 going the independent route, the chances of hearing the original four-man G-Unit lineup together are about as likely as a Detox release. As 50 reunited with Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and Young Buck at the 2014 Summer Jam, Game was conspicuously absent.
50 Cent vs. Jimmy “Henchman” Rosemond
This one got very real as both of these men have legitimate ties to a street life that most Hip Hop artists simply emulate. Jimmy “Henchman” Rosemond was up for a murder-for-hire trial when 50 Cent took the opportunity to throw his customary jabs on Instagram: “LMAO THIS BOY SOLVED EVERY CRIME IN NEW YORK. Old gangsta jimmy,go a head tell some more s–t killer. Lol.”
The thing is, though, that 50 was speaking about a man who, as it came out during trial, was stalking and reportedly paying for acts of violence to be done to 50 Cent and G-Unit’s crew. On June 5, 2012, a jury in Federal District Court in Brooklyn found Rosemond guilty of running a drug trafficking operation responsible for $2.8 million with ties to 19 other people. Some 17 days later, the New York Times reported Rosemond was involved in hiring a hit on G-Unit associate Lowell “Lodi Mack” Fletcher. The assassination was supposed retaliation for an altercation Jimmy had with Tony Yayo before an awards ceremony at the Apollo in 2007.
Let’s think about just how completely nuts all of that is. Openly mocking a man that’s on trial for the murder of an associate of yours? Not to mention that the same man reportedly shot up Tony Yayo’s Bentley for the G-Unit rapper reportedly putting hands on Rosemond’s son, and plotted on your demise consistently over the course of a number of years? One that is now in federal prison for life for running an enormous drug-trafficking business through the shuffling around of music equipment. With all that said, 50’s gangster should never, ever be questioned… ever. This was a beef that happened almost exclusively off wax, and with dire consequences waiting in the wings at every turn.
RELATED:Position Of Power: Why “Animal Ambition” Won’t Make Or Break 50 Cent [Editorial]
My teaching break between Christmas and the university’s snowy reopening in January followed in the footsteps of Goldilocks and the three bears. I examined three PhDs: one was too big; one was too small; one was just right. Put another way, one was as close to a fail as I have ever examined; one passed but required rewriting to strengthen the argument; and the last reminded me why it is such a pleasure to be an academic.
Concurrently, I have been shepherding three of my PhD students through the final two months to submission. These concluding weeks are an emotional cocktail of exhaustion, frustration, fright and exhilaration. Supervisors correct errors we thought had been removed a year ago. The paragraph that seemed good enough in the first draft now seems to drag down a chapter. My postgraduates cannot understand why I am so picky. They want to submit and move on with the rest of their lives.
There is a reason why supervisors are pedantic. If we are not, the postgraduates will live with the consequences of “major corrections” for months. The other alternative, besides being awarded the consolation prize of an MPhil, is managing the regret of three wasted years if a doctorate fails. Every correction, each typographical error, all inaccuracies, ambiguities or erroneous references that we find and remove in these crucial final weeks may swing an examiner from major to minor corrections, or from a full re-examination to a rethink of one chapter.
Being a PhD supervisor is stressful. It is a privilege but it is frightening. We know – and individual postgraduates do not – that strange comments are offered in response to even the best theses. Yes, an examiner graded a magnificent doctorate from one of my postgraduates as “minor corrections” for one typographical error in footnote 104 in the fifth chapter of an otherwise cleanly drafted 100,000 words. It was submitted ten years ago and I still remember it with regret.
Another examiner enjoyed a thesis on “cult” but wondered why there were no references to Madonna, grading it as requiring major corrections so that Madonna references could be inserted throughout the script.
Examiners have entered turf wars about the disciplinary parameters separating history and cultural studies. Often they look for their favourite theorists – generally Pierre Bourdieu or Gilles Deleuze these days – and are saddened to find citations to Michel Foucault and Félix Guattari.
Then there are the “let’s talk about something important – let’s talk about me” examiners. Their first task is to look for themselves in the bibliography, and they are not too interested in the research if there is no reference to their early sorties with Louis Althusser in Economy and Society from the 1970s.
I understand the angst, worry and stress of supervisors, but I have experienced the other side of the doctoral divide. Examining PhDs is both a pleasure and a curse. It is a joy to nurture, support and help the academy’s next generation, but it is a dreadful moment when an examiner realises that a script is so below international standards of scholarship that there are three options: straight fail, award an MPhil or hope that the student shows enough spark in the viva voce so that it may be possible to skid through to major corrections and a full re-examination in 18 months.
When confronted by these choices, I am filled with sadness for students and supervisors, but this is matched by anger and even embarrassment. What were the supervisors thinking? Who or what convinced the student that this script was acceptable?
Therefore, to offer insights to postgraduates who may be in the final stages of submission, cursing their supervisors who want another draft and further references, here are my ten tips for failing a PhD. If you want failure, this is your road map to getting there.
1. Submit an incomplete, poorly formatted bibliography
Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.
The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located.
If examiners find ten errors, then students are required to perform minor corrections. If there are 20 anomalies, the doctorate will need major corrections. Any referencing issues over that number and examiners question the students’ academic abilities.
If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.
2. Use phrases such as “some academics” or “all the literature” without mitigating statements or references
Generalisations infuriate me in first-year papers, but they are understandable. A 19-year-old student who states that “all women think that Katie Price is a great role model” is making a ridiculous point, but when the primary reading fodder is Heat magazine, the link between Jordan’s plastic surgery and empowered women seems causal. In a PhD, generalisations send me off for a long walk to Beachy Head.
The best doctorates are small. They are tightly constituted and justify students’ choice of one community of scholars over others while demonstrating that they have read enough to make the decision on academic rather than time-management grounds.
Invariably there is a link between a thin bibliography and a high number of generalisations. If a student has not read widely, then the scholars they have referenced become far more important and representative than they actually are.
I make my postgraduates pay for such statements. If they offer a generalisation such as “scholars of the online environment argue that democracy follows participation”, I demand that they find at least 30 separate references to verify their claim. They soon stop making generalisations.
Among my doctoral students, these demands have been nicknamed “Kent footnotes” after one of my great (post-) postgraduates, Mike Kent (now Dr Kent). He relished compiling these enormous footnotes, confirming the evidential base for his arguments. As he would be the first to admit, it was slightly obsessive behaviour, but it certainly confirmed the scale of his reading. In my current supervisory processes, students are punished for generalisations by being forced to assemble a “Kent footnote”.
3. Write an abstract without a sentence starting “my original contribution to knowledge is…”
The way to relax an examiner is to feature a sentence in the first paragraph of a PhD abstract that begins: “My original contribution to knowledge is…” If students cannot compress their argument and research findings into a single statement, then it can signify flabbiness in their method, theory or structure. It is an awful moment for examiners when they – desperately – try to find an original contribution to knowledge through a shapeless methods chapter or loose literature review. If examiners cannot pinpoint the original contribution, they have no choice but to award the script an MPhil.
The key is to make it easy for examiners. In the second sentence of the abstract, ensure that an original contribution is nailed to the page. Then we can relax and look for the scaffolding and verification of this statement.
I once supervised a student investigating a very small area of “queer” theory. It is a specialist field, well worked over by outstanding researchers. I remained concerned throughout the candidature that there was too much restatement of other academics’ work. The scholarship is of high quality and does not leave much space for new interpretations.
Finally, we located a clear section in one chapter that was original. He signalled it in the abstract. He highlighted it in the introduction. He stressed the importance of this insight in the chapter itself and restated it in the conclusion. Needless to say, every examiner noted the original contribution to knowledge that had been highlighted for them, based on a careful and methodical understanding of the field. He passed without corrections.
4. Fill the bibliography with references to blogs, online journalism and textbooks
This is a new problem I have seen in doctorates over the past six months. Throughout the noughties, online sources were used in PhDs. However, the first cycle of PhD candidates who have studied in the web 2.0 environment are submitting their doctorates this year. The impact on the theses I have examined recently is clear to see. Students do not differentiate between refereed and non-refereed or primary and secondary sources. The Google Effect – the creation of a culture of equivalence between blogs and academic articles – is in full force. When questioned in an oral examination, the candidates do not display that they have the capacity to differentiate between the calibre and quality of references.
This bibliographical flattening and reduction in quality sources unexpectedly affects candidates’ writing styles. I am not drawing a causal link here: major research would need to be undertaken to probe this relationship. But because the students are not reading difficult scholarship, they are unaware of the specificities of academic writing. The doctorates are pitched too low, filled with informalities, conversational language, generalisations, opinion and unreflexive leaps between their personal “journeys” (yes, it is like an episode of The X Factor) and research protocols.
I asked one of these postgraduates in their oral examination to offer a defence of their informal writing style, hoping that the student would pull out a passable justification through the “Aca-Fan”, disintermediation, participatory culture or organic intellectual arguments. Instead, the student replied: “I am proud of how the thesis is written. It is important to write how we speak.”
Actually, no. A PhD must be written to ensure that it can be examined within the regulations of a specific university and in keeping with international standards of doctoral education. A doctorate may be described in many ways, but it has no connection with everyday modes of communication.
5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida
How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.
The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.
I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.
6. Assume something you are doing is new because you have not read enough to know that an academic wrote a book on it 20 years ago
Again, this is another new problem I have seen in the past couple of years. Lazy students, who may be more kindly described as “inexperienced researchers”, state that they have invented the wheel because they have not looked under their car to see the rolling objects under it. After minimal reading, it is easy to find original contributions to knowledge in every idea that emerges from the jarring effect of a bitter espresso.
More frequently, my problem as a supervisor has been the incredibly hardworking students who read so much that they cannot control all the scholarly balls they have thrown into the air. I supervise an inspirational scholar who is trying to map Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid” research over neoconservative theory. This is difficult research, particularly since she is also trying to punctuate this study with Stan Aronowitz’s investigations of post-work and Henry Giroux’s research into working-class education. For such students, supervisors have to prune the students’ arguments to ensure that all the branches are necessary and rooted in their original contributions to knowledge.
The over-readers present their own challenges. For our under-readers, the world is filled with their own brilliance because they do not realise that every single sentence they write has been explored, extended, tested and applied by other scholars in the past. Intriguingly, these are always the confident students, arriving at the viva voce brimming with pride in their achievements. They are the hardest ones to assess (and help) through an oral exam because they do not know enough to know how little they know.
Helpful handball questions about the most significant theorists in their research area are pointless, because they have invented all the material in this field. The only way to create an often-debilitating moment of self-awareness is by directly questioning the script: “On p57, you state that the academic literature has not addressed this argument. Yet in 1974, Philippa Philistine published a book and a series of articles on that topic. Why did you decide not to cite that material?”
Invariably, the answer to this question – often after much stuttering and stammering – is that the candidate had not read the analysis. I leave the question hanging at that point. We could get into why they have not read it, or the consequences of leaving out key theorists. But one moment of glimpsing into the abyss of failure is enough to summon doubt that their “originality” is original.
7. Leave spelling mistakes in the script
Spelling errors among my own PhD students leave me seething. I correct spelling errors. They appear in the next draft. I correct spelling errors. They appear in the next draft. The night before they bind their theses, I stare at the ceiling, summoning the doctoral gods and praying that they have removed the spelling errors.
Most examiners will accept a few spelling or typographical mistakes, but in a word-processing age, this tolerance is receding. I know plenty of examiners who gain great pleasure in constructing a table and listing all the typographical and spelling errors in a script. Occasionally I do it and then I know I need to get out more.
Spelling mistakes horrify students. They render supervisors in need of oxygen. Postgraduates may not fail doctorates because of them, but such errors end any chance of passing quickly and without corrections. These simple mistakes also create doubt in the examiner’s mind. If superficial errors exist, it may be necessary to drill more deeply into the interpretation, methods or structure chosen to present the findings.
8. Make the topic of the thesis too large
The best PhDs are small. They investigate a circumscribed area, rather than over-egging the originality or expertise. The most satisfying theses – and they are rare – emerge when students find small gaps in saturated research areas and offer innovative interpretations or new applications of old ideas.
The nightmare PhD for examiners is the candidate who tries to compress a life’s work into 100,000 words. They take on the history of Marxism, or more commonly these days, feminism. They attempt to distil 100 years of history, theory, dissent and debate into a literature review and end up applying these complex ideas to Beyoncé’s video for Single Ladies.
The best theses not only state their original contribution to knowledge but also confirm in the introduction what they do not address. I know that many supervisors disagree with me on this point. Nevertheless, the best way to protect candidates and ensure that examiners understand the boundaries and limits of the research is to state what is not being discussed. Students may be asked why they made those determinations, and there must be scholarly and strategic answers to such questions.
The easiest way to trim and hem the ragged edges of a doctorate is historically or geographically. The student can base the work on Belgium, Brazil or the Bahamas, or a particular decade, governmental term or after a significant event such as 11 September 2001. Another way to contain a project is theoretically, to state there is a focus on Henry Giroux’s model of popular culture and education rather than Henry Jenkins’ configurations of new media and literacy. Such a decision can be justified through the availability of sources, or the desire to monitor one scholar’s pathway through analogue and digital media. Examiners will feel more comfortable if they know that students have made considered choices about their area of research and understand the limits of their findings.
9. Write a short, rushed, basic exegesis
An unfair – but occasionally accurate – cliché of practice-led doctorates is that students take three and a half years to make a film, installation or soundscape and spend three and a half weeks writing the exegesis. Doctoral candidates seem unaware that examiners often read exegeses first and engage with the artefacts after assessing if candidates have read enough in the field.
Indeed, one of my students recommended an order of reading and watching for her examiners, moving between four chapters and films. The examiner responded in her report – bristling – that she would not be told how to evaluate a thesis: she always read the full exegesis and then decided whether or not to bother seeing the films. My student – thankfully – passed with ease, but this examiner told a truth that few acknowledge.
Most postgraduates I talk with assume that the examiners rush with enthusiasm to the packaged DVD or CD, or that they will not read a word of the doctorate until they have seen the exhibition. This is the same assumption that inhibits these students in viva voces. They think that they will be able to talk about “art” and “process” for two hours. I have never seen that happen. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the exegesis and how it articulates the artefact.
Postgraduates entering a doctoral programme to make a film or create a sonic installation subject themselves to a time-consuming and difficult process. If the student neglects the exegesis until the end of the candidature and constructs a rushed document about “how” rather than “why” it was made, there will be problems.
The best students find a way to create “bonsai” exegeses. They prepare perfectly formed engagements with theory, method and scholarship, but in miniature. They note word limits, demonstrate the precise dialogue between the exegesis and artefact, and show through a carefully edited script that they hold knowledge equivalent to the “traditional” doctoral level.
10. Submit a PhD with a short introduction or conclusion
A quick way to move from a good doctoral thesis to one requiring major corrections is to write a short introduction and/or conclusion. It is frustrating for examiners. We are poised to tick the minor corrections box, and then we turn to a one- or two-page conclusion.
After reading thousands of words, students must be able to present effective, convincing conclusions, restating the original contribution to knowledge, the significance of the research, the problems and flaws and further areas of scholarship. Short conclusions are created by tired doctoral students. They run out of words.
Short introductions signify the start of deeper problems: candidates are unaware of the research area or the theoretical framework. In the case of introductions and conclusions in doctoral theses, size does matter.
Hope washes over the start of a PhD candidature, but desperation and fear often mark its conclusion. There are (at least) ten simple indicators that prompt examiners to recommend re-examination, major corrections or – with some dismay – failure. If postgraduates utilise these guidelines, they will be able to make choices and realise the consequences of their decisions.
The lessons of scholarship begin with intellectual generosity to the scholars who precede us. Ironically – although perhaps not – candidatures also conclude there.