Where I call bullshit on the way we do the PhD

There’s a looming economic crisis in higher education. Perhaps you have lost work already and you’re wondering how you will support yourself (I’m really sorry). It’s hard to know if you’ll get more or less teaching next semester and what form it will take. Will it be online? Or face to face? Maybe your courses won’t run at all because there aren’t enough undergraduates still enrolled.

Uncertainty about the future colours everything.

Uncertainty makes it hard to plan and focus on your PhD work. You might be wondering: what is the point of getting a PhD now? You knew it was competitive to get into academia – now it looks impossible. When you think about your own job prospects, post PhD, you’re anxious and scared – maybe even angry and depressed. You’ve no earthly idea what kind of job you can do if you are not an academic. You know you have all kinds of cool skills, they just don’t seem to translate.

The combination of fear and uncertainty can make you feel a bit hopeless. The hopelessness is the worst part: it’s hard to get up in the morning and your dress standards have plummeted to a new low.

If this is you, read on.

I want to try and inject some hope, but first I have to drop a few truth bombs. The way we do the PhD has to change or it won’t be a degree worth having anymore. We don’t have to wait for universities to make the PhD relevant to a post-pandemic world: we can do it for ourselves.

We can be the change we want to see.

We must.

Despite the title of this post, I still believe in the potential of the PhD. Even if the academic work does dry up, our research shows there are lots of jobs outside of academia you can do. In fact, I’m keen for you to stay on and finish – and for people to continue to enrol – because I know the world needs your research skills more than ever. And you are the right people for the job!  We select the smartest, most creative people into our PhD programs. You are all amazing

And what an amazing opportunity the PhD is too; the purest example of student centred learning you can imagine. Time, materials and expert advice to explore the unknown. A chance to work on the huge problems that have no easy solutions. The problems no one else will pay you to try to solve. The chance to make a difference.

Universities are great places to do PhDs too. Most offer a multitude of resources – libraries, labs, studios. There are all kinds of support staff to help you. Every campus is an abundance of knowledge riches and you have almost unlimited access.

While the potential of the PhD is huge, we academics fill your time with expectations based on an academia of the past. Worse – you tend to believe us and do what we say, even when there is little or even no point.

The power of supervisor expectations is strong – there’s a reason academia has been compared unfavourably to religious cults. As a consequence of your faith in our ability to guide you, very few students take full advantage of what is on offer as a PhD student. In this way, the ghosts of academia past continue to haunt us in the present – and cloud our visions of the future.

Experts have argued that we tend to use our memories of the past to imagine the future, which is why so much future gazing is essentially a form of nostalgia. Think about science fiction film sets. My old favourite, the 1920s film ‘Metropolis’, imagined a future city that looked strangely like 1920s Chicago, on steroids. The future city in the picture below says more about how people thought and acted in their own time than the future:

film still from metropolisImagining the future is important for our well being. Our ideas about the future motivate our actions in the present.  Our PhD programs are created to be a crucible of learning for the future, but most of the time people are encouraged to behave in a way that replicates an imagined academia of the past.

We ask PhD students to participate in all kinds of behaviours that border on ritual. We encourage students to publish in journals that only other academics read, reinforcing a norm that no one else’s opinion really matters. We encourage our students to jet around the world and take part in conferences, to which no one but academics are invited. And don’t even get me started on all the invisible barriers and snobbishness about doing industry linked research. We encourage you to form ‘academic capital’ – knowledge that helps you play the publication game for instance – at the expense of technical skills that would translate directly to a secure job outside academia (where no one gives a shit how many papers you published).

PhD students are routinely discouraged from doing things that might help their career, like participating in public speaking competitions, blogging, making podcasts or documentaries, developing commercial ideas – or even teaching. This discouragement happens two ways:

1) explicitly, by telling you a ‘non academic’ activity is ‘a waste of time’ and/or interfering with your ability to spend time on professional development, and
2) implicitly, by modelling only one way to BE an academic: one that writes academic papers, attends academic conferences etc etc.

It’s the second form of behaviour – modelling – that is more insidious and powerful. Many colleagues are well aware of the need for their students to develop a wide range of skills. They know over 50% of PhD students won’t get an academic job – and in some disciplines that percentage is even higher. They try to help you become well rounded professionals. Good supervisors tell me they actively encourage their students to do things like the 3MT or blog. At the same time, those well meaning academics would never do anything like blogging and public outreach.

You can’t blame them really: they know they will get push back for not writing papers that push their university up the league tables. They have to publish to be in the running for grants. We are all victims of this system. But this system makes it hard to get PhD students to spend their time on developing their full professional selves because people like me are always fighting cultural inertia. PhD students are smart! They are far more likely to copy the models of success around them.

One of the most ritualistic parts of the PhD is the dissertation. It’s an enormous time sink and I deeply question the point of the whole exercise. Us academics push you to spend a lot of time on the dissertation because it’s so hard to do. Our university maintains a stable of expert writing instructors because it is so fiendishly difficult to write one. Yet the dissertation is a form of writing that almost everyone says they hate reading! And no – I don’t think a PhD by publication is better: it only multiplies the difficulty by including peer reviewers and clogged journal publishing pipelines in the mix.

The PhD should be difficult – but the difficulty could well take other forms. Peer review is important, but it doesn’t need to happen through reading densely written, tedious long form text. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a dissertation is more of a hazing ritual than a learning experience.

Of course, universities have recognised the inadequacy of the PhD curriculum for ages, which is why jobs like mine exist. My team helps people develop professional skills in skills like communications and project management. We help you explore ways to be more adaptable and resilient so that you can approach other career options with confidence. But only about half of the PhD students at ANU find their way into our workshops.

We are not the only unit offering extra training. Most PhD students do not spend nearly enough time learning cutting edge analysis packages or developing their statistical literacy: skills which are immediately convertable to cash in the private sector. Learning these skills can be easily arranged by ‘auditing’  undergraduate or masters level seminars, but most supervisors do not even suggest this as an option. At my university, like all others, people turn up to courses on how to write journal articles, but almost never for courses on how to speak in public – a much more transferable skill.

Instead of spending  time developing their full professional self, many PhD students continue to copy their mentors, shaping their behaviour to a future academic career, to their own detriment. It can be heartbreaking to watch. It’s even more heartbreaking to counsel PhD graduates who are six or twelve months past graduation, with no real job prospects. That’s when the fog lifts and a lot of people realise how they wasted valuable time investing in markers of academic success that have no utility outside academia.

My insitution is no worse than others, I just have a more global view on the dynamic between supervisor expectations and student behaviour than most people. Watching PhD students willingly put their supervisor’s needs, wants and desires ahead of their own, in the service of an imagined future, has made me annoyed, depressed and crotchety for 15 years. Now watching supervisors encourage people to keep living in the past while the world falls down around our ears is making me really angry.

I get angry when I hear about supervisors putting pressure on people to spend lockdown time writing articles instead of developing technical analysis skills (or taking some time off to deal with anxiety/money issues/caring duties). Having students leave online webinars because their supervisor has called a last minute ‘urgent’ Zoom meeting makes me angry (seriously, what is so urgent at the moment?). While you should listen to what your supervisor says about your work, you should listen to yourself about your career. I don’t want you to be crying 6 months after graduation. I do want to help you make the most of this PhD opportunity.

The first step is to start conciously approaching your PhD like you won’t be an academic and pushing back on these explicit and implicit expectations.

Everything is disrupted now. Really disrupted, not just ‘hey it might be cool to replace taxis with Ubers’ kind of disrupted. How we respond to this disruption, individually and collectively, is important. We need to create a future PhD, imagined quite differently to the past. We need to create the conditions for PhD students to really thrive. But sadly, I suspect the burden of changing will fall largely on you, dear reader, to act differently.

You could spend this time developing old forms of academic capital – like how to navigate the journal peer review process. But here’s my hot take as an expert on post PhD employability: more academic capital won’t translate to job security when there is very little job security available. Universities who shed full-time academic staff will likely hire these positions back, but as casuals. What little secure work is available will cause hyper-competitive behaviour in your peer group. In fact, if the economic crisis turns out to be as bad as some of the predictions, many experienced academics might find themselves out of work and on that job market too. Then you’ll be competing with the big guns, not just your peers.

Some of you might back yourself to win this race through hard work and smarts: that’s great. I’m glad you have belief in yourself. I have faith in you too – but I ask you to consider: what cost will you pay? What will happen to you emotionally, socially, spiritually? What about your health? Is a tenuous job in academia worth all that effort?

This does not mean I think you should drop out of your PhD – far from it. PhD graduates working outside of academia tend to be high income earners. High income earners are at much less risk of losing jobs in a recession. Consider this graph tweeted by which replicates many other country statistics I’ve reviewed in the last two weeks. In this graph, high paid work has only dropped 1.3%, the rest has fallen off a cliff:

Other research shows that as unemployment rises, employers ask for more skills, suggesting they are trying to get the best people they can (probably for a cheaper price):

Modestino, A, Shoag, D & Ballance, J (2016). Downskilling: Changes in Employer Skill Requirements Over the Business Cycle. Harvard Kennedy School working paper series.

Staying in your PhD program is probably a smarter move than quitting, long term. Of course, I can’t say that for sure because some employers don’t understand the degree. If you do stay, it’s more important than ever to make the most of the time and space the degree offers to realise your potential. You need to become the best researcher, problem solver and value creator you can be. And I don’t mean ‘value creator’ in an icky, silicon valley way, I mean someone who does things that people will pay for (only academia will pay you to do journal papers).

So do all the extras! Seek out side projects. Learn to program in R or something similar. Talk to communities and industry about what is important. Take on a paid internship.

At this point I hope some of you are yelling “Yass Queen! Tell me more!” or “I’ve already been acting this way for years!”, to which I can only respond:

But some of you will be unsure, or even outright hostile to the idea that you should not behave like your mentors. That’s ok, it’s hard to be different. Or maybe it’s just all too much to take in right now. Besides, you’re busy. I can hear you saying: “Easy for you to say Inger, but I have a deadline and I can’t get this PhD without that dissertation!”.

Well here’s the thing that no one really says out loud. You can only pass or fail a PhD: you don’t get extra credit for doing a better job than other people. 

I’m not recommending you do a shoddy or bad job, I just ask you think differently about the dissertation in particular. If you see it as a rite of passage rather than a reflection of your identity as an academic, you are free to ask yourself: what’s the minimum I can get away with? Instead of 100,000 word thesis, plan out a juicy enough 65,000 word one – or less. Use the rest of the time to take advantage of the opportunities around you.

If you are not going to be an academic, doing lots of journal papers is a monumental waste of time and effort (keep up the teaching though – lots of great communication and organising skills there). Really ask yourself what else you can do to share your findings and get other expert input; especially if you are in the humanities. Certainly stop only turning up to classes that teach you how to write journal articles. Don’t keep putting that marker of academic success ahead of other kinds of learning. If you want to improve your writing, learn how to write a snappy report or memo instead. Or use the time you would have spent writing journal articles to sharpen your technical skills, increase your statistical literacy and develop wide range of communication skills.

That last bit will probably get me in trouble with some colleagues who directly benefit from your willingness to write journal articles with their name on it too. It’s not a coincidence you feel pressure to write them when it’s their CV you are building and not your own. I’m also calling bullshit on massive, corporate journal publishers: a recklessly profiteering industry that is sucking the life blood out of us, blocking access to knowledge in developing countries and sending our libraries broke.

I digress.

Be change you want to see. It’s hard to go against norms of academic behaviour, but personally I’ve always found it rewarding when I do. Taking away an imagined academic future could be liberating for your creativity. What kinds of things would you write, what objects would you make, if you didn’t have an imaginary future academic career path ahead of you? Instead of a journal article, could you be writing a public report to influence policy? Could you be making a podcast, writing a blog, making a youtube video, crafting a documentary script … or something else? I’d back you to do something amazing.

Think of yourself as a freelance expert gun-for-hire. Ask yourself – what problems can I solve and who will pay me to do that? ANU students, you can use our PostAc tool to find jobs outside academia that excite you (if you are not at ANU, you won’t be able to access PostAc – see my note at the end of the post).

You will get pushback. When you do, remember that most people imagine the future nostalgically. We don’t have time for that anymore. I urge you to draw on the university resources and expertise to create the kind of PhD experience you want. It should be one that turns you into a highly trained professional researcher, communicator, problem solver and value creator. This PhD enables you to tackle problems and use research insights to help and heal, not just recite them in academic journals, behind pay walls. This PhD would prepare you, a highly intelligent person and quick learner, to come out of this pandemic-induced depression and walk into a job if you want one – or start your own thing.

There is nothing to stop us moving towards a new kind of academy now – except perhaps a nostalgia for an academic world that hasn’t existed for a long time, if it ever did.

In solidarity,

Inger

PS: I’m leaving the comments off still. Feel free to talk about this post on social media and tag me in @thesiswhisperer. 

My friend, Dr Tamson Pietch (@cap_and_gown), is trying to imagine a different kind of academy in her podcast: The New Social Contract. It’s thought provoking and well worth a listen.

In November 2020 I’m getting together with The Research Whisperer and Chat with Rellypops to host a a free online Whispercon event. You can see the schedule and sign up for sessions here.

Want more Whisperer? Subscribe to my new podcast ‘On the reg’: with my friend Dr Jason downs. Available via Apple, Spotify or Google. Find out more on our Buzzsprout page.

Related posts

What is this anti-PhD attitude about?

The academic writers’ strike

Other articles and resources

The PostAc app – using machine learning to imagine life after academia. (We’re only selling subscriptions to universities at the moment: we want this tool to be provided free to PhD students. If your university is interested in a demo, they can contact me by email inger.mewburn@anu.edu.au)

My recent Campus Morning Mail article imagining a new academy: Austerity is boring and it’s not going to save us

Downskilling: changes in employer skill requirements over the business cycle

Imagining the future is just another form of memory

Academia is a cult

Coping during COVID tip sheet by Shari Walsh

How to touch your face less (printable tip sheet from The Oatmeal).

Australian Post Graduate Internship program (paid)

Our published work on Post PhD employability:

Pitt, R. & Mewburn, I. (2016) Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(1), 88 – 101.

Mewburn, I., Grant, W., Suominen, H. & Kizimchuk, S. (2018) A machine learning analysis of the non- academic employment opportunities for Ph.D Graduates in Australia, Higher Education Policy.

Mewburn, I, Grant, W and Souminen, H (2016) Tracking Trends in industry demand for Australia’s advanced research workforce, Department of Industry, Canberra, Australia.

Mewburn, I, Souminen, H and Grant, W (2020) Matching PhD graduates with industry jobs, Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, ANU, Canberra.