They called my university a PhD factory – now I understand why

Mar 23, 2018 by

Senior academics warned that my university cared more about cheap labour than launching academic careers. It turns out they were right

As I reluctantly consider quitting academia after a year-long research fellowship, I find myself recalling a drug dealer’s line in the film Withnail and I: “If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope?” His words describe my dilemma: do I hold on to my dream of a permanent university lectureship or abandon it as illusory and hazardous to my mental health?

I’m not, of course, the first postdoc to feel this way. As I neared the end of my doctorate in 2013, I read an essay by Rebecca Schuman, which argued that “getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”. Her article added to an expanding genre known as quit lit, which reflects the growing disillusionment of many academics with university culture.

Perusing job ads, it strikes me that lectureship vacancies are rare, in contrast to the plethora of positions for university bureaucrats. When permanent jobs come up, the ensuing feeding frenzy sees hundreds of applications from superbly qualified candidates. I’ve got peer-reviewed publications and a book contract – and so has everyone else.

When I was considering whether to study for a doctorate, I heard my chosen university disparaged as a PhD factory. At the time, I took this to be a sign of efficiency. Now I understand. PhDs are manufactured; they drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that. All universities care about are the fees paid by students and the cheap labour they provide. This is the opposite of efficiency: no factory would mindlessly churn out goods that no one wants.

Even so, I began a PhD knowing that I stood a very small chance of securing a permanent academic job at the end of it. Why didn’t I quit? Undoubtedly, self-delusion played a part. Most of the other postdocs I’ve met share a similar faith in the ability of their star to ascend against the odds. A similar cognitive dissonance probably affects anyone trying to establish themselves in a ferociously competitive field.

Source: They called my university a PhD factory – now I understand why | Academics Anonymous | Higher Education Network | The Guardian

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