Wednesday, 28 March 2018
They called my university a PhD factory – now I understand why
https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/mar/23/they-called-my-university-a-phd-factory-now-i-understand-why Senior academics warned that my university cared more about cheap labour than launching academic careers. It turns out they were right Fri 23 Mar 2018 07.30 GMT Last modified on Fri 23 Mar 2018 10.46 GMT Shares 955 Comments 189 ‘PhDs drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that.’ ‘PhDs drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that.’ Photograph: Alamy As I reluctantly consider quitting academia after a year-long research fellowship, I find myself recalling a drug dealer’s line in the film Withnail and I: “If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?” His words describe my dilemma: do I hold on to my dream of a permanent university lectureship or abandon it as illusory and hazardous to my mental health? I’m not, of course, the first postdoc to feel this way. As I neared the end of my doctorate in 2013, I read an essay by Rebecca Schuman, which argued that “getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”. Her article added to an expanding genre known as quit lit, which reflects the growing disillusionment of many academics with university culture. Lecturing in a UK university is starting to feel like working for a business Read more Perusing job ads, it strikes me that lectureship vacancies are rare, in contrast to the plethora of positions for university bureaucrats. When permanent jobs come up, the ensuing feeding frenzy sees hundreds of applications from superbly qualified candidates. I’ve got peer-reviewed publications and a book contract – and so has everyone else. When I was considering whether to study for a doctorate, I heard my chosen university disparaged as a PhD factory. At the time, I took this to be a sign of efficiency. Now I understand. PhDs are manufactured; they drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that. All universities care about are the fees paid by students and the cheap labour they provide. This is the opposite of efficiency: no factory would mindlessly churn out goods that no one wants. Even so, I began a PhD knowing that I stood a very small chance of securing a permanent academic job at the end of it. Why didn’t I quit? Undoubtedly, self-delusion played a part. Most of the other postdocs I’ve met share a similar faith in the ability of their star to ascend against the odds. A similar cognitive dissonance probably affects anyone trying to establish themselves in a ferociously competitive field. Few actors, athletes or musicians enjoy the luxury of continuous employment. It’s reasonable to assume that people who choose these occupations do so knowing that their decision entails a large element of uncertainty. In these professions – just as in academia – it’s no secret how slim the chances are of making it. We’re aware that the world doesn’t owe us a living in our dream job. You succeed if you land a permanent contract, you have failed if you remain locked into an endless cycle of postdocs But there’s one crucial difference. Permanent positions are not an embedded feature of the entertainment industry, but they are promoted – rightly or wrongly – as the ultimate goal within the academy. You succeed if you land a permanent contract, you have failed if you remain locked into an endless cycle of postdocs. Moreover, film-makers, actors, writers and musicians do not require institutional support to work. Publishing work online has never been easier, but to function effectively as an academic, you need the sanction of a university. You cannot be an academic outside of the academy. Want to get a promoted in a university? Learn the art of self-branding Anonymous academic Read more An often-repeated line is that postgraduate study doesn’t have to be vocational; it’s worth pursuing for its own merits. While this may be true, it’s also disingenuous as it doesn’t reflect the aspirations of doctoral students – the overwhelming majority of PhD students I’ve encountered desperately want a career in academia. They didn’t saddle themselves with debt because they wanted intellectual stimulation. Given university marketing departments’ desperate trumpeting of the value of “employability”, it’s surprising that taught and research postgraduate degrees seem exempt from this consideration. I’ve had a year as an academic, for which I’m grateful. I’ve got a nameplate on my door (which I intend to take with me when I leave). Do I feel like a failure? No, I did everything I reasonably could to make myself employable. But I can see that the PhD production line is broken, and it won’t be fixed any time soon.