What you should know before starting a doctorate…


A few days ago an interesting article on Graduate schools circulated around the web. The article suggested that Graduate school has many of the features of a cult and that some people staying on to undertake postgraduate studies almost needed to be deprogrammed until they understood that there was value in life outside the Academy. Here (just in case you don’t have the stamina to read a short pithy well-written article) are the first two paragraphs:

Several years ago, the professional career counselor Margaret Newhouse wrote an essay for The Chronicle called “Deprogramming From the Academic Cult.” Newhouse argued that graduate school in the humanities indoctrinates its students into believing that they are failures if they do not remain inside the ivory tower, even if there are no suitable academic jobs for them. Career counselors, she argued, have to find ways to persuade unemployed Ph.D.’s to believe that the outside world is not evil and that they are not apostates if they do something besides teaching and research.

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

A little under seven years ago I left a doctorate in Classics that I’d been undertaking at Bristol University. I’d been working on my PhD for three years – time initially very well spent and which produed enormous amounts of reasonably good-quality work. Over the first two and a half years or so I produced around sixty thousand words on models of the mind, mythology, story-telling and identification; I’d taught various undergraduate classes on drama, mythology and Ancient Greek language and I’d produced two papers (on on anachronistic interpretation and one on The Bacchae) which I delivered at national conferences in Nottingham and New York. However, from the end of my second year I started experiencing a slow deterioration in my work, had a number of crises of motivation and started to feel that I was being overwhelmed by the material and sheer amount of commentary and opinion that I needed to get to grips with. I started to feel that I was never going to be able to produce work that I was going to be happy with – that I was never going to find the answers that I was looking for. Then followed a few months of highly self-destructive behaviour when I felt that I was starting to fail, followed by a few months of anti-depressants and then the final realisation that if I was going to complete my work it would take me years of penury and misery and that I was likely to have problems finding any kind of employment afterwards. And then the realisation that I no longer had faith that the work I was producing would have any kind of impact or be taken in any way seriously. And that’s when I decided to quit.

If you believe the narrative that I’ve just told you (and there’s no reason why you should simply swallow it whole – I’ve taken considerable license with it for speed and clarity) then you might well be asking yourself why I went from doing good work to leaving academia completely, and whether I regret it. I ask whether you believe it because I’m not sure that I believe it myself – I find the whole period difficult to interpret and difficult to feel confident about because of the sheer weight of the different interpretations, personal relationships, arguments, tensions and various senses of betrayals that I came – by the end – to associate fully with my time in doctoral work. And here’s where the article about the cultishness of Graduate School comes in again. Because whlie I don’t necessarily believe that it does have cultish tendencies, I do feel programmed by circumstance to forfeit my right to a public opinion about it. Any statement I make about academia – or my experience of academia – that isn’t entirely complimentary must necessarily be seen in the context of my own failure to complete the process. Because I’m not now Doctor Coates, any statement I make that puts any blame on anyone other than my own inadequacies can be dismissed as sour grapes or an inability to accept failure or inadequacy in one field or another.

I’m not going to fight this assumption – I feel comfortable in admitting that whatever else may have led to my ungracious departure from academia, I clearly did not have the necessarily discipline to carry through the work I’d started to its conclusion. I failed. But I’ve seen a lot of other people fall hard off the back of the academic lorry as well, and a good number of them I believe have done so not because they’ve failed the system but because the system has failed them. And they feel similarly confused and conflicted – unable to determine where the failure was their own. Even many of the people I know who have completed their doctorates have experienced the burn of tarmac on their departure from the academy. These people were intellectually able, self-disciplined and strong and fought through the academy with all the discipline and strength they could muster and were still brought low by it. And worse still, these people feel the same anxiety that I do about talking about it – any rejection is in itself an admission of failure. Here’s where the academy’s cultishness emerges most strongly – because it’s an institution where you can only fail yourself and your leaders. They can never fail you.

I want to talk a little about the reality of post-graduate work for people who are considering it because I think you should know what you’re letting yourself in for. Courses which are mostly taught are almost always achievable. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’d recommend a Masters course to almost anyone. On the other hand, Universities often encourage their pupils to stay with them at their University because they get money for students. I would advise you to never do this. It can be very difficult for undergraduate students to adjust to the new roles and status that undertaking a Masters should afford you. It’s particularly difficult if you’re doing those role-changes with people you have been used to being highly deferential towards. And why would you want to work more with them anyway? Unless they really are the world-leading experts in their fields, you should be looking elsewhere for different perspectives, different expertises and different lessons to learn. You’ll learn much more from a new teacher than from the one who has already articulated much of their approach and beliefs and ways of seeing the world through your undergraduate work with them.

Masters aside then, what of the research degree? Here I’m going to be blunt. First things first, please believe that academic departments get money for postgraduate students and that more money means more and (and more stable) jobs for the staff. You must never forget that while all academics have altruistic motives, they also have a vested interest in encouraging you to stay with them. Again consider why they’re suggesting you continue your work, and think particularly hard if they’re advocating you staying with them.

Next think about your skills and expertises and whether or not you actually want to be an academic after you’ve tried to complete your course. Now think about whether or not you’re going to be the person who actually gets the really hard to come by academic job afterwards (this is particularly true in the Humanities). If you don’t want to be a History lecturer and do academic research for the rest of your life, then don’t do a doctorate. If you’re not sure, then get sure before you sign on the dotted line. Academic jobs are not easy to get and they’ll all be looking for certain skills and expertises that are relevant to the teaching of your discipline. If you want to spend years doing research into an incredibly obscure branch of history, then bear in mind that no one may wish to teach courses in that particular obscure branch of history. If you’re going to be revolutionarily cross-disciplinary, then consider – are there any departments in the world who could hire you when you were done? And if not, then don’t do it!

Doctorates don’t count for much outside academia – and in fact they may count against you. If you can’t find a directly relevant area for subsequent professional work, then many employers are likely to look at a 25-30 year old person with three-six years of post-graduate work as being a strange and slightly worrying employment prospect – they’re going to be too smart for their own good, too ivory-towerish, too specialist, out of touch with the way that the “real world” works. If you’re working in an area where there’s a lot of commercial interest (say the way in which people use technology) then you may very well find enormous career opportunities open up before you. This is not likely to happen if you’ve spent six years writing on gender roles in Baudelaire – no matter how ground-breaking the work.

And here’s the other lesson – doctoral work is professional training. You have to think about it like that – you’re being made into a lecturer / professor / teacher / researcher. The aim of doctoral work is not – no matter what anyone tells you – to think up good stuff and write great works and reveal your genius to the world. The aim is to make professional people who can teach undergraduates, deliver papers and – yes – also (subsequently) push the discipline further in one direction or another. You have to approach your post-graduate work in this way. The most successful doctoral students in my experience are the ones that are thorough and careful and take on relatively unambitious projects which don’t stretch the assumptions or structures of the discipline too much. They’re the ones that finish their doctoral work and go on to useful teaching positions (and then may or may not start exploring more widely). It’s definitely not the best and the brightest, the most imaginative thinkers or the people with the great ideas that get through. If they get through it’s because they’re thorough and they’re careful and they’re professional and treat it as it should be treated – as a job of work rather than a calling or an exploration.

Which brings me to drop-out rates. Another thing you won’t be told is how many people don’t complete their doctorates. I’ve heard various figures mentioned, but I believe that around 50% of people who start doctorates don’t get a PhD out of it. This may be humanities only or it may be throughout the academy. An enormous proportion of people simply never finish the things because it’s not quite what they were expecting when they started. And many of these people will feel like failures, will come into the job market late and will find it harder to get ahead in their new chosen career. It’s not clear to me whether it’s harder to get a job with a completed irrelevant doctorate or an incomplete one. It’s not easy with with either.

And then there’s the day-to-day atmosphere of it. When you’re doing research, you work almost exclusively alone – for three to five years. You should spend large periods of that time in a library – ideally (again taking into account that this is a training course and a career) you should use the working hours that you might expect from a job – eight hours a day. You will get paid either nothing or a barely livable wage to do this work (again – more true for humanities students). This is not a glamourous occupation, by any means. And as I’ve said before, there is no glamour in the work itself, a restricted chance that you’ll get a career in academia and a very real possibility that by undertaking this work you’re going to make yourself less employable. The “positive” aspects of the lifestyle (apart from your gradual progress towards getting your doctorate) are limited, but you do get relative freedom to think and explore ideas, you are forced to be self-motivating and self-determined and – when things are going well – you will get self-respect and the respect of some other people (who in my opinion are rather easily impressed). These freedoms, and the self-respect and the respect of others that you get from undertaking a doctorate will stay with you (to an extent) if you go into the badly paid field of academia. If you do not, they will swiftly evaporate.

Which brings me (briefly) to my final point. Do not believe there is no worthwhile life outside academia! It’s difficult sometimes, when you’ve been in the education system for getting on for twenty years to remember that there’s an enormous panoply of jobs outside academia and not all of them are sullied by the feeble crust of crass commercialism. It is more than possible to find enjoyable, ethically-sound, world-improving work outside academia – in fact it’s probably no harder than it is to find similar work inside the Academy. The stereotype (and the assumption of many potential postgraduate students) that study for the sake of study and the stretching and mental gymnastics of intellectual work are somehow naturally superior and elite practices would hold more water with me if such warming-up regularly translated into actual attempts to build or refigure the world in positive ways. If such goals are your intent – consider carefully what effect you are actually likely to have. Is the respect of a narrow and dishevelled set of peers (and a steady stream of undergraduate neophytes) enough to get you through the night? If not, consider that there is good work to be done outside University and that some of it pays rather better and is equally interesting.

If you’re considering a longer research-based degree, please consider carefully what you’re letting yourself in for. Remember the key facts: only fifty percent of people come out of the other end of this process with a doctorate and even then they have to look towards finding (mostly pretty badly-paid) work. Many of them won’t that work despite having proved their discipline, committment and intelligence. Do yourself a favour and make sure that you go in with your eyes open – that you know how unpleasant the work can be, that you know what a risk you’re taking with your time and with your life, that you’re strong enough to deal with the self-doubt and the humiliation and the shame and the anxiety that the work can cause and that you’re totally sure of the career path that you are choosing for yourself, before you agree to continue with your studies. If you don’t do this, then you may very well find yourself in a cult that genuinely believes that everyone else is basically wasting their lives and from which there is no easy or elegant way to escape.

Note added 25th September 2004: Thanks to Phil Young for sending in this link which I hope might be useful to people who enjoyed this article: Beyond the Ivory Tower.