Nicholas does a PhD

Avertissement [2] : People have often asked us what research we’re doing. Despite our best efforts to be vague and barely comprehensible, our parents and friends invariably reply ‘yes, yes,’ while more or less sighing, more intrigued than ever. So we have resigned ourselves to describing not our work, but the life of a Ph.D student to the astonished masses. Going by the first reactions, it would appear that we have suceeded.

What’s a PhD? [1]

The Supervisor

To start a PhD, you need to have a boss. A boss is a very very clever man, who sets me a problem and who is going to help me solve it. That’s my boss being photographed by Christian Mercatier-Bresson.
The Research

At first, it’s so complicated that you can’t understand anything.NicoThese02
NicoThese03 You can spend hours and hours looking and not find anything. At times like this, my dad and my mum are really worried and when my mum asks if it was a good idea to make the kid (that’s me) do a PhD, my dad opens his mouth without speaking, he waves his arms and he goes off to read the paper in the living room

The Discovery

Sometimes, it’s great, because I discover things that my boss asked me to. Of course, this can happen at any time, and my parents are not always delighted.
NicoThese05 They wonder if I’m not becoming completely crazy, but my mum knows that my dad doesn’t like her telling him that.
I think it's rather normal to be happy. Besides, when my boss discovers a theorem, he’s really proud and his friends (who are also really really clever people) are really happy with him. But my parents don’t know that. NicoThese06
NicoThese07 As well, sometimes, it goes badly because I make a mistake. And when I make a mistake, my boss does not put up with any messing about, none at all. ‘Look me in the eyes, Nicholas,’ he says to me, not in the least bit pleased. ‘You call that work, perhaps?’ he asks me. Well, that seems to be a question, but you should certainly not answer, because if you do, he gets all red and angry!

The Seminars

From time to time, a very, very important and really clever man (but even so, not as clever as my boss) comes to talk to us about really complicated things. This is called a seminar, and during a seminar, you can’t mess about either.
When the man has finished talking, my boss asks him loads of really complicated questions, and he doesn’t always know how to answer. And then, it’s not fair, because he doesn’t get told off! NicoThese08

The Viva

NicoThese09 When I’ve finished, there will be a big ceremony with loads of really, really clever people (there will even be other bosses, that means) and there will be a very very important old man who will say to my that’s very good, my boy, the paths of Research are gloriously open to me and I’m the honour of my parents and the pride of my country, and all that nonsense. And afterwards, there will be a great party with all my friends. Brilliant!

And when he reads all that in the paper, my dad will be really proud and my mum will be so happy that she’ll give me a second helping of caramel custard, my favourite dessert. A Ph.D is really great after all! NicoThese10

The Glory

NicoThese11 What’s more, girls are really impressed to know that you’ve done a Ph.D in mathamatics and that you’ve found heaps of complicated theorems. Even Marie Edwidge’s mum smiles lots at me now, when before she thought that I was a very unruly little boy.

Drawings: J.J. Sempé, Formulae: Y. Bugeaud - M. Mignotte - F. Normandin, Text: G. Taviot, Layout: G. Taviot, A. Maes

[1] Told in the style of Sempé and Goscinny's popular children's books, from the point of view of a schoolboy called Nicholas.
[2] We would like to thank Arnaud Maes who was kind enough to let us reproduce ‘Le petit Nicolas en thèse’. The official address is

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