Academia, 2012 – still here

To begin, this:

http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

 

I came across this article in early 2012, over a Hong Kong breakfast and beneath dark clouds. Having just completed my first class honours, I was taking a year off from studying to work at Hong Kong University, learn new things (like juggling and charm), read Milan Kundera and reflect on that thing I am. The article seemed to grab my innards and squeeze. Being an academic (or, to be more specific, a ‘lecturer’) was the only job I had ever found attractive. I had worked in public services (disability), been raised around those living arty, and most of my friends are tradies. Throughout my life, when people asked what I wanted to be I’d make something up and then convince myself that’s what I wanted. But academia seemed to wrap itself around me like the waters of a warm bath – I didn’t so much make up this ambition, but suddenly lifted a finger to see that I was dripping in it.

 

But this article was a warning. It was an experienced, thoughtful person crying ‘stop!’ as others so much more experienced than myself nodded along in the comments box. This review of the current climate struck me harder than any ludicrous 2012 predictions and sparked an interest in the grim and likely. I had decided to do my PhD during my undergrad and was relieved when my honours year didn’t change my mind (though I gave it every opportunity to). But now, the PhD didn’t seem so much as a step along the path, but more a wilderness that would take 3+ years to cross in the direction of what may well be a gingerbread house. 

 

And then the rationalisations kick in: you’ve got a scholarship, you’re young, you get to keep doing what you’re doing, maybe you’re different, just don’t think about it (ah, the mightiest rationalisation of them all!). Now, I know that ‘rationalisations’ is generally a bad thing, often occurring in the presence of people avoiding blame, justifying clumsiness or quitting smoking. But before I fall into this basket (if I may avoid blame), some words from my favorite sociologist, Max Weber:

“a thing is never irrational in itself, but only from a particular . . . point of view. For the unbeliever every religious way of life is irrational, for the hedonist every ascetic standard”

Yes, it is irrational for me to expect tenure after my PhD. Yes, it is irrational for me to do a PhD in spite of this. And yes, it is irrational for me to rationalise the spending of my life points with the idea of youth (which in fact is more like a down-payment anyway). But it’s also irrational (depending on what sort you are and what day it is) to put down what I have grown to love in order to pursue things that I don’t. At this point in my life, and at every point leading up to it, I have known that the tradie life is not for me. After 5 years in a job I enjoyed some days and dreaded on others I’ve learned that the public services aren’t either. I probably wouldn’t make it in Hollywood anyways. The point is, I guess (apologies in advance for the disappointing ‘tadah!’), that if I align my life with career prospects so completely that I may as well be a trolley on a hill I’ll likely end up an angry old man that can’t help but whine in company. To the same extent, while I take the information offered in the links provided and on the many like them very, very seriously (and I know that I am not ‘different’), this doesn’t take away from the fact that ‘that thing I am’ is a studying thing. It is a thing that will insist that those close to me think that little bit deeper and hope from the core that they will do they same. Of course, all this is subject to change – if I were to meet myself from 10 years ago we’d both think each other equally wanky.

 

By the way, the article provided ends with these words:

Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.’

Guess what my thesis topic is.

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4 Responses to Academia, 2012 – still here

  1. stevench23 says:

    Disillusionment with academia: a manifesto?

  2. Nice try, though I think that one has been written before.

  3. Sian White says:

    This is so depressing. I’m exactly the same as you, I am an academic and I cannot be anything else. Yet I constantly find myself bouncing between encouraging attitudes like this that make me think perhaps I haven’t gone for the right thing, and fellow academics who seem to make it look so easy.

    Have you already begun your PhD?

    I need to get my shit together quickly, because I’m paying my own way, and I hate to think that 6 years down the line I’m going to look back and see £12,000 wasted.

    • Hi, Sian. You’re right, it can be depressing. I think this is why an alarming amount of PhD candidates tend to avoid checking the back story on their decision. It seems to be an issue of aligning the desire to “follow your dreams” with “living in the real world”. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting more information on the current PhD climate as well as some happy stories I’ve stored away.

      I’m currently doing my PhD at Murdoch university, and should be done by 2015-6. While I won’t comment on your situation (each PhD candidate faces different circumstances, with different countries meaning different fees and opportunities), I find that the quote by Weber helps me. I see students doing PhD’s, actors living on couches and musicians working retail. There are many people who will warn that these people are ‘doing it wrong’, and for this I draw attention back to the sociological imagination.

      At any rate, thanks for the comment! Feel free to use this blog as a space to chat with other PhD students in similar and alien situations.

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