What if Santa started a PhD?

#108: What if … Santa started a PhD?

Just before the festive season, we wonder: what if Santa started a PhD position in your department? What kind of experience would he have? Why would he want to do it, and would there be anything we can learn from Santa as a fellow PhD student? 

A few days ago, we sat down with our son and had a chat about his progress at school. The Christmas holiday is coming up soon so we were interested in how he’s doing in class. He reported just enough to keep us satisfied and then questioned us about the progress in our business. We talked about what we do and in particular, how we regularly support young researchers getting a PhD. The conversation unfolded like this: 

Our son: “Can just anyone actually get a PhD?” 

We: “Yes, in principle everybody can do it if they want to.” 

Our son: “Really everyone?”

We: “Yeah, why not?”

Our son (joking): “Could Santa also get a PhD?”

We: “Well, that’s a good question …”

… and then we started thinking about what it would look like if Santa started a PhD. The whole year round we provide advice to thousands of PhD students, but seldom exclusively reflect on what it requires and what it means to be a PhD student. And now, shortly before Christmas, everybody’s talking about Santa anyway, so why not assume he would want to get a PhD? This thought experiment immediately brought up a whole bunch of questions—let’s address them one after the other, and see what we can learn from Santa as a PhD candidate. 

1. Would Santa be allowed to apply for a PhD? 

Yes, we think so. We admit Santa must be a busy person, so he must therefore keep in mind that a PhD is not to be treated as a side hustle. It’s a full-time job. We can imagine that—particularly these days—Santa has a lot of work to do, packing and delivering thousands of parcels. You can easily imagine him looking like the parcel deliverer that drops packages at your doorstep.

But Santa might not be happy with this development, and may want to change his life. Provided he has the qualification, the interest, and the stamina to work on a PhD project (let’s assume ‘yes’ for all), we cannot see any barrier that would stop him from applying for a PhD position—maybe even at your department. Anyone is allowed to apply for a PhD position, Santa too!   

2. Why would Santa want to start a PhD? 

Santa has been around for a while. He has experienced many situations in life and come across many people. Over the years, he observes people, what they do, what they achieve, and what they don’t achieve and struggle with. We imagine Santa is a very curious person, and wants to know why people are like that. He most likely wants to know what drives their behaviours and developments.

Like for many PhD students, curiosity is a vital force that also pushes Santa to change his life and submit a PhD proposal.  He probably feels that finding out more about the things that matter in life would be enriching. It was always Santa’s idea to make this world a better place—a motivation that comes in handy as a PhD student as well. Identifying problems that burden humans and developing possibilities to mitigate or combat these problems can be very fulfilling—maybe even more than delivering gifts to semi-satisfied kids in a pre-Christmas marathon.  

We assume Santa would want to apply for a PhD position to find out more about a topic of his interest, to make a change to the world, and to get a new perspective on his life and career. A PhD degree is more promising than delivering parcels. Curiosity and the will to change the world for the better are strong forces— for Santa as well. 

3. What would Santa like about pursuing a PhD? 

In recent years, Santa’s job has been tough! People have been placing enormous demands on him—expecting him to bring peace, a nice message, a blessing, a bit of romance, cosiness, and sentiment. And don’t forget: to bring gifts, on time, not too few, and better this year than last. Gone are the days when Santa was the one bringing the wise messages that people listened to. Being Santa is a stressful job. There’s hardly a moment to sit down and think about life and enjoy the good things that happen on this planet. It’s also not a 9-to-5 job anymore. Santa is on duty all the time—even on the weekend. 

Let’s imagine Santa’s PhD proposal to your department was accepted. He’ll become your colleague. For him, it is very rejuvenating and refreshing to change his life and conduct a PhD study. It’s something new, something exciting! Suddenly, he is not only expected to deliver, but allowed to learn new things and skills. Problems will most likely arise during his PhD study, of course, but he will grow and master these problems. He will be a better person afterwards, more knowledgeable, and more skilled. 

Being surrounded by the many highly-educated scholars at your department, amongst them the brightest minds in the country, is what Santa would enjoy. They obviously trust Santa to deal with the problems and allow for the time, the money, and the space to elaborate on it—fantastic! 

Having access to this enormous body of knowledge and being part of an ongoing discussion on the most relevant problems that bother people on this planet makes Santa’s position as a PhD fellow so unique. Suddenly, work is not just labour, but  a passion, and it’s OK for Santa to like what he does! He feels so enlightened by becoming a researcher himself. Pursuing a PhD allows him to use his mind for the good of the people and it comes with an enormous degree of freedom to decide how he will think and work. Santa would be excited about the amazing opportunity to get educated and contribute to solving relevant questions and urgent problems.  

4. What would Santa be concerned about? 

As a new member of staff at your department, PhD student Santa would be surprised by the issues that cause tension, dissatisfaction, and stress among his fellow colleagues: Rivalry, envy, spitefulness, harsh competition, ruthlessness, and more. Does this  create better research or is it just increasing troubles and sorrows for some? 

Most of all, Santa would wonder at the tone of the scholarly conversation: stiff, impersonal, impassionate, and in parts sneery. Why are all the people working at your department not content with what they’ve got, and why is there so little gratitude and enthusiasm around? Everyone in the department works on a job they love. They’ve been given this job by the general public who trust them and look towards them for solutions to their problems. Is it not possible to feel a more positive drive inside the department? 

For Santa, having entered the academic world and given the permission to work towards the solution of burning societal questions and problems is an outstanding opportunity. Soon he recognises that problems are larger than a single academic can tackle—team effort is imperative. But why is this team effort so ill-functioning? Within a research team, Santa perceives great tensions and misses mutual respect for the smaller and larger wheels in the machine when all wheels are needed to make the machine roll! 

When listening to the complaints and discontentedness of fellow academics, Santa wonders whether they know how it feels to be out in the rain, tired, and delivering 150 parcels at the doorsteps of huge houses? Santa might not be the brilliant researcher others want to see in him. Nonetheless, he is thankful for the opportunity and trust given him to do the PhD project. It’s not a 9-to-5 job either but for him, it’s very fulfilling and he enjoys what he does! 

5. What would Santa recommend to fellow PhD students? 

If Santa would have his own wish list that he could hand over to any beginning PhD student, the following six aspects would probably be included: 

a) Santa—with all his wisdom and experience—would probably suggest every PhD student sit down, take a deep breath, and think about the good things that their study brings them. Too easily the goodies of the job are forgotten, and lamenting about one’s own situation is tempting. Yes, it can always be better, but there are a lot of good things that PhD students experience that are overlooked. 

b) Santa would probably also appreciate the freedom that the PhD provides, and would therefore suggest fellow colleagues acknowledge that they are among those with the highest education. Access to all that knowledge and access to such a high degree of education means using it responsibly. You’re not given the education to please only yourself but to help other people benefit from it as well. 

c) In Santa’s view, pursuing a PhD is a once-in-a-life-time chance to make the best out of your life. Use it wisely and be aware that you may be considered a role model for the many who—for whatever reason—have no access to this type of education. Be grateful, and use the chance given to you. 

d) Santa experienced that relations between colleagues in a department can sometimes be tense and complicated. They don’t have to be. If you suffer from the unfriendly and inappropriate behaviour of a colleague who makes your life more difficult than it should be, don’t repeat this behaviour. Think about Santa and treat others how you want to be treated. 

e) One thing that’s helped in Santa’s life so far is the mutual respect that people show him and that he shows towards them. When mutual respect is in place, it’s not so difficult to talk about things that didn’t work out so well. Mutual respect can even grow when you tell someone else how well they performed a task. 

f) The last aspect that Santa would want you as an ongoing PhD student to consider is—even if the magic of doing a PhD has worn off, never forget what an outstanding opportunity you’ve been given to shape your life and career. Be grateful for it! The opportunity to pursue a PhD made Santa proud and happy, and even a bit reverential. If you’ve been given the chance to get a PhD, treat it as a gift and a responsibility. Giving back the gift of doing a PhD to the people who supported you is what any good Santa would do. 


We’ve never met Santa and never had a chance to ask him the questions above. We guess it would be a very interesting conversation in which he ultimately would reconfirm what the motivations for being a PhD candidate can be. Too easily we might forget the goodies in the daily hassle. The conversation would probably also illuminate what’s lacking in our PhD education, what could be done differently. But it definitely would also lighten up the great pleasures that can come with a PhD and accentuate the privileges and responsibilities that come along with it. 

So imagine one more time Santa applying for a PhD position. Wouldn’t it be nice if Santa came to your town and became a fellow PhD student? What a nice colleague! 

If you—as many people these days—have specific wishes from Santa, why not formulate wishes for your PhD? If you like, download our Little Card to Santa, PhD, scribble down one wish you have for your PhD, and send the card to Santa (and if you can’t figure out Santa’s address send it to us and we’ll take care of it).  

We wish you a happy festive season and all the best for your PhD!

P.S. And if you meet Santa at any time, ask him how he would feel starting a PhD, and leave your address so he can apply at your department!

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Photograph by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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