These words were uttered to me recently. I think they can be quite apt a description. They were made in regards to writing a PhD thesis (something I had been trying to complete for the last 12 months). Many people I have spoken to share similar sentiments. Advisers are patently aware of this and push you to improve your work only to the point just before it breaks you. I literally reached that point a number of times in the last year…
Out of all of this, what I have come to gain was a perspective of something I had noted in friends and others who had embarked on such a journey in years past. Completing (even attempting to complete—as some choose not to subject themselves further) a PhD changes you as a person. This has mixed implications. Most certainly, you gain an enormous amount of knowledge. Most certainly you ‘grow’—in as many ambiguous senses as you can imagine. Most certainly you produce valuable insights in your field (a requirement of the award). Some of the more not-so-positive implications are what have concerned me in the past (seeing them in others), and I have reflected on noting aspects emerge in myself. What are included here are many not-unjumbled thoughts and reflections.
Some of the implications are an outcome of the process itself. You are forced to lock yourself away and effectively do nothing else—often for 70+ hours a week. Opportunities to interact with friends, to have a ‘life’, are subjugated to the goal of completing the monster. With each revision, you find yourself locked away for more extended periods of time. I had wondered where many friends had disappeared to in recent years to now have an appreciation. This brings me to a term that is indicative—colleague. This term is used to refer to fellow researchers and academic staff. Unpack it a little and some of the more insidious aspects become visible. A colleague is someone you work with, and that is what you are doing when completing a PhD thesis. You adopt (to what level is it imposed, to what level if it hegemonic acceptance) what are effectively capitalist relations of work. You begin to adhere to capitalist ideals like efficiency in how you undertake your work. What had started out (for some) as a means to express yourself and undertake socially beneficial research for the right reasons become subsumed in a changed end—the thesis itself.
The imposition of the 70+ hour week and the dictates of many aspects of institutionalised education (degree factories) consumes you. The 70+ hour weeks foster this metaphorical (is it only?) hatred and the need to meet institutional requirements imposes a significantly rigid frame on your work. There are many levels of this, some more insidious than others. For me, one of the worst is the hegemony of the status quo in one’s field. You can undertake innovative research, challenge dominant paradigms and the academy itself, yet you still need to meet the frameworks of the academy. The fostered hatred and a need to finish work hand-in-hand to panoptically bring your academically confronting and innovative ideas/approach back towards the status quo. After all, who will assess your work. I am not suggesting academic freedom does not exist—the question is what degree.
Another insidious implication I have noted—sometimes visible in the most progressive of people—is an offshoot of the separation, locking oneself away, that is necessary to complete. This is coupled with the frustration that emerges from hearing people argue a point you know is false, yet they do it with such vigour (and by arrogant corollary, similar sensations irrespective if you might be wrong). An attitude emerges of not wanting to deal with the masses. This can be witnessed in people not listening to another’s point of view (not just limited to PhD students/graduates), not wanting to deal with the issues of the ‘real’ world (i.e. the day-to-day issues face by the working poor—nor a real understanding of them even if from such a background), and wanting to shelter oneself in the academy—even given the horrors of PhD world. It is, arguably, a level of arrogance. To what degree does it emerge from needing to escape, get away from the stress imposed by the 70+ hour week immersion, the stress of the academic paradigms mentioned above?
On a more easily seen as tangible level, the imposition of directed changes to ones research proposal and approach are often left unquestioned. This is part hegemonic, part panoptic. The outcome can be research that does not meet the initial aims, rather being something that will sit on a shelf in a library gathering dust (or a pdf file left unread). Irrespective of the driving forces—sometimes necessary ones—the process itself requires engagement.
I am not implying judgment here. Early on I found my research being moulded and I sought ways to re-mould it to suit my ends—though without pushing the bounds of the imposed moulding too far. I do not really have a conclusion. I am concerned with the process and the implications—both broad and specific….