Anxieties of a Post-PhD

I count myself among a social group that is rapidly rising across the world. We are a nervous bunch who suffer different combinations of anxiety, stress and disillusionment, under-employment and poverty. We are Post-PhDs. This blog post will explore some thoughts on the wider social usefulness of PhD education and how it might be further applied.

Hopes & Dreams
When I set out to undertake my PhD it was exciting to consider that I would contribute, albeit in a very small way, to the sum of academic knowledge. I love to read books and papers and chew over ideas so the prospect of being allowed to spend months holed up in libraries was something I relished, especially having chosen to return to university after a decade of experience working in the ‘real’ world. My doctoral research involved taking an archaeological approach to contemporary homelessness in two British cities. Having previously felt increasingly angry about the palpable growth in inequality in my own country (U.K.) but also across the world (2006/7), the prospect of fieldwork with a clear social purpose was rousing. It felt good to be doing something. I had a practical aim: to study the material constitution of homelessness with homeless people; to deconstruct myths that surround the causes and maintenance of homelessness and identify practical ways for improving things for homeless people. I remember cycling to my first PhD related meeting with a huge grin on my face and the sense that I was active, alive and on an upward trajectory.

Experience & skills
All PhD projects are hard work. My PhD was hard for the usual reasons – having to understand and make sense of complex theories, models, laws and policies and having to sort and present a vast quantity of data – but it also involved managing relationships with several dozen homeless people, to whom I owed (and wanted to provide) an ethic of care. People who are homeless are vulnerable by definition and I often found it very difficult to ‘switch off’. At night, my mind whirred and when it was particularly cold or raining very hard, I found it almost impossible to sleep owing to the thought that there are literally thousands of people bedding down in empty buildings, doorways, subways – surviving, but only just – in a country as wealthy as ours. That ideological and political discourse manifest physically and have agency was never in sharper focus for me.
If my motivation for undertaking a PhD had been to earn a lot of money or land myself a particularly lucrative job I wouldn’t have made contemporary homelessness my focus – or even archaeology! But I did think that having a PhD would make me a more desirable employee generally, not just in academia but more broadly. When you undertake a PhD, you commit to a tumultuous journey. At times, it is like being part of a pilgrimage and at other times, it’s like finding yourself at sea, alone in the fog wearing a life-jacket with a tiny light and a whistle and no idea in which direction to swim. The PhD experience involves formulating research question(s) and answering these through reading widely around a particular topic and sustaining a well-structured and original argument, proposing new directions. All manner of skills which could, and I argue should, be applied in society at large, outside academia, are learned, developed and honed throughout this educational training process.

So why the anxiety?
In the U.K. alone, the number of PhD graduates has been steadily rising by a thousand people per year since 2000 . However, a recent report by the European Science Foundation which set out to track the career development of European doctorate holders has found that only a third go on to work full-time in academia. Put simply, there are not enough tenure tracked positions for those who want academic careers. Now, one might argue that this stiff competition sorts the wheat from the chaff and ensures that only the very best scholars obtain academic posts. But I want to argue that this is not necessarily the case. Consider these points:

1. INSTABILITY VS. RESPONSIBILITY: The report finds that although almost all doctorate holders interviewed were employed and 90% of these in research jobs, few were in tenured positions. Most PhD candidates expect to have to ‘wing it’ for a while immediately after their doctorate. Many friends and colleagues have returned to part-time work – child-minding, working in shops and bars etc. – and have been willing to do so while they complete applications for post-doctoral work (which themselves can take weeks to attend to). However, there comes a time when the balance between the instability of insecure, often poorly paid work and responsibilities e.g. to children or other relatives etc. is lost. Where this balance lies exactly is an individual matter but it often leads to talented researchers leaving the world of research for economic reasons that have nothing to do with the ‘hard work to pay off’ ratio. This has a profound effect upon the demographics of the early career researcher.

2. DEMOGRAPHIC OF ACADEMICS: Assuming that only those with the broadest financial shoulders can afford to supplement the often very small stipends offered to early career researcher on short-term postgraduate or junior researcher positions, we will surely end up with academics coming from an increasingly narrow demographic. Few non-tenure tracked positions offer subsistence beyond the absolute minimum and often housing allowances are restricted to living on campus as a single person, further restricting most people with families from being able to consider such positions.

Left feeling rejected
It can be extremely isolating and anxiety inducing to finish a doctorate and try to sustain an academic identity away from the support and buzz of a university department. This sense of rejection is compounded after sending the fifteen application off and receiving nothing – not even a rejection letter – back. This happens more often than not and is totally unacceptable and downright rude, in my view. I am very fortunate to have Research Associate status at the University of York. I remain part of the academic community there, albeit in a fairly virtual way. However, many post PhD’s find themselves flung off into the world attempting to retain their academic identity and scrabbling around for access to important journals, the tools of the trade necessary to compete for a job. This can leave Post-PhDs feeling utterly disillusioned and as though, if the next professional step is not a job in a university department, they have failed. I don’t have a job at a university department but I also do not consider myself a failure and this is what prompted this blog post.

It could be so much better…
As previously identified, the process of undertaking a PhD involves a person developing skills that I would argue are much needed in the real world. PhD education needs to be more widely understood as a practical and useful form of mental training and it should be publicly valued as something more than a glorified prefect’s badge. We are used to the concept of medical doctors training for their doctorate and then working in the real world, making a tangible difference. We must start to recognise social science and the humanities as more than just ‘interesting’, rather as being vital to social sustainability. Universities are starting to look outwards (and those departments or individuals who resist this will not survive) and businesses, industry, social and non-governmental services are peering in through the windows of the Ivory Towers, offering students and researchers opportunities to collaborate.

Perhaps more than ever before, we need to apply the skills, knowledge and experience that PhD education provides. To tackle current threats to our liberties and to maximise equality in all its forms, we need people who are trained in and comfortable with critical thinking; we need people with the ability to read widely, digest complex data and the social and technological proficiency to communicate and disseminate accurate and un-sensationalised information across a broad range of platforms. We need people with a deep understanding of anthropological ethics; we need feminist economists and policy analysts who understand ecological value. We need medics and lawyers who have volunteered and experienced fieldwork; we need conflict-resolution specialists and people who speak several languages fluently. The value of the PhD is endless because it imparts skills whilst embedding a thirsty respect for what we do not know and what requires more careful thinking. I do not see these attributes displayed in most of our so-called world leaders currently and it makes me nervous.

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by Rachael Kiddey