Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In which a PhD scribbler asks: ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

It is a question that we must all ask ourselves at some point (and those trying to write a PhD thesis must ask more often than most): ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

There has perhaps been no worse time to be entering (or thinking of entering) the academic job market, at least since the era when proleish schmucks like me would have been repelled by the red brick and tweed like mace to the face. If you’re going in, right now, it has to be with complete commitment; lever fully down; all in or nothing.

To be honest, it’s not a difficult decision. I have no other interests, skills or opportunities – at least none that stand a chance of giving me a liveable salary, with work I can enjoy (sporadically, as it may be). It is a privileged life, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future.

But that’s not yet an answer. I am not just some book-polished pebble rolling down a hill, following the path of least impassability. Why I am getting myself into this?

I am getting myself into this because I like to do the kinds of things that this allows me to do. I love the creativity of thinking and writing about difficult, profound and often obscure things. I also recognise the value of occupying a social position that permits such indulgences, both materially and normatively.

It is, then, a matter of pursuing a profession that permits the inhabitation of a certain position, not the profession itself. I know this to be true for many, perhaps most (but certainly not all). I give less than a shred of a damn about the prizes and puffery; the clawing and climbing. To think, write, teach, learn – that is the allure.

One can certainly chase such things far beyond the gates of the university (indeed, on some counts it might help). However, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future, there aren’t too many places like it. And, with at least a foot in the door, I am prepared to risk said door slamming as the winds of decline bluster indifferently by.

These ideals, as naive and silly as they are, have consequences.

If I write, I want to write something that people want to read and will find rewarding. Of course, there are many genres in which this can be achieved, the genre of a PhD thesis being perhaps the least of them. And that is a sticking point. The more acquainted I become with the PhD as an institution and genre, the more it appears as an essentially conservative medium. That is, like all institutions, it exists to reproduce its own basic assumptions and is blithely oblivious as to what this precludes.

That is not to say that creativity is not possible from within the genre – it absolutely is (and it is frequently encouraged, I feel no lack of that). However, such creativity is achieved in spite of the genre, not because of it. The genre exists to mediocritise. The mediocritic is mediocratic, not in the sense that mediocrity is actively encouraged but in the sense that the basic contours of the landscape make mediocrity the path of least resistance. It is a gulley where fluids flow via the sharply downwards-carving median point. ‘Like it or not’ (and many don’t), this seems to be ‘just the way it is.’

Whenever I’m writing something that someone else will read – like now – I always have in the back of my mind a calculation of sorts. If it’s a mid-length piece that takes, say, an hour to read and 100 people read it, that’s 100 hours of human existence absorbed by that text. And so, it’d better be worth it.

Far more than peer review or my own sense of intellectual propriety, this is the standard that I feel obligates me to take what I’m doing seriously and to put everything that I have into it, however much of myself is available for that given thing (and of course it varies; right now it’s 01:37 and I feel that I should be sleeping). I don’t want my writing to just make sense, be logical, structured and so on, nor do I just want it to be fluid, readable, creatively phrased (although these are all fine, mediocre qualities).

It’s simple, really.  I want to write something good, something better, something rewarding. Maybe even something beautiful. Perhaps inspiring. Inspiring in that head-buzzing, pulsing sense that I've felt only a handful of times, reading words that have stuck with me, stuck to me, that have made me in their wake.

Not that I think I have achieved this yet (and certainly not right now). But whether or not I have achieved any of that, or even if I am capable of achieving that, is not the point. In fact, it’s beside the point.

If I can’t hold open the possibility of being more than a mid-level technician of academic cog-churning then I can’t get out of bed in the morning. That’s what it comes down to.

And this is the tricky thing with writing a PhD thesis. For a long time I’ve put myself under a lot of pressure to get to the point where I can write something good. Writing a thesis, however, is about writing something that’s good enough.

Ultimately, a thesis has a simple purpose: to be defensible in front of your examiners. However, behind that objective I find another that is in many ways more demanding and is certainly more troubling: to have something that is defensible to yourself.

Once it’s done, it’s done – a wise tautology. However, I cannot disengage the practical exigencies of this task from the very motivation that compels me to undertake it in the first place.

Whether or not I am capable of, some day, writing something genuinely, rewardingly creative, beyond the ponderous, blinkered, bureaucratic mush of, let’s be honest, the vast majority of academic writing, is uncertain – and, as I have said, really beside the point. I have to assume that I am capable of this in order for the initial risk that I am taking to amount to more than the utmost hypocrisy.

Not being content with the procedural attainment of a professional bauble (that’s nice but it’s not enough), I have to want something more. By the same token, I have to presume that anyone else who wants this can also achieve it. Not in the faux-aspirational sense of ‘you can do anything if you try hard enough’ (you can’t). It’s not about that because it’s not about me or anyone in particular. It’s about evading the fundamental hypocrisy of capitulating from the very beginning to the very things that the initial risk requires that I resist.

The above feels a little raw, perhaps inadvisable. However, I’ve come to feel recently that I’ve lost my nerve. Not become complacent exactly but lost the sense of urgency that I felt before returning to education (after a hiatus of six years).

And so, I have no doubts that I am doing the right thing in general (and it wouldn’t help much if I did). However, I still have to find a way through the maze of mediocritisation. My conjecture (at 01:51) is that a little more rawness, a little more nerve might be what’s needed.


  1. Nice piece Phil. Thanks for sharing this journey.

  2. Fascinating writing Phil. I completed my PhD in Geography at Aber in 2016. My friend and Colleague Jon Brettell who also worked in geography battled with alot of the same questions you have, particularly thinking about creativity in the PhD. His thesis had some of his own creative writing, he would liked to have not included certain things in it (i think a intro and conclusion). He was trying to get his thesis to be like his research subject, a river and its relations, where there is difficulty to percieve beginnings or endings (or something like that!) He has a blog here and his PhD thesis is definitely worth a read for inspiration on writing and structuring creatively in a geography phd thesis. It can be downloaded here free

    1. Thanks Robert. I'll take a look!