Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it


I read this recent Thesis Whisperer post a few times, and it troubled me. Then they posted this follow-up post doubling down on the original argument denouncing academic writing.

Comments aren’t allowed on the Thesis Whisperer blog, so I’m writing here. I really think these posts send negative messaging to prospective (and current) PhDs. Do read the original posts, but here’s a quick summary of how I interpreted the Thesis Whisperer’s argument:

(i) the way we do PhDs needs to change;

(ii) we should galvanise PhD students to go against the norms of academia to get the personal outcome they want.

(iii) academic writing is ritualised and archaic and it “sucks”.

From a distance, this general argument might resonate. Yes, as with most sectors, there are many ways the past is holding academia back.

I agree, PhD students need to make sure they get what they need out of the 3 or more years they spend on the PhD.

But PhDs are definitely still “a degree worth having”. They will always provide the opportunity for graduates to develop a unique set of skills and expertise that are useful for academic and non-academic careers. 

Times have definitely changed since PhDs were invented. And times are changing more rapidly than most of our supervisors experienced. Major global events, like climate change disasters, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter anti-racism movement, compound these rapid changes and increase stressors for everyone, students and supervisors alike. Yes, we need to support graduates and PhD students to roll with unpredictable contemporary times, not the olden times. 

Importantly, some universities, some departments within universities, and some individual supervisors, are already doing this.

We all must push for change. We desperately need to update the way we do PhDs. We need to allow PhD students to publish their thesis in a format that suits their research, their discipline, and their interests. We need to give PhD students more opportunities to develop professional independence, learn non-academic skills, and build networks outside academia.

We also need to give undergraduates the skills to recognise whether a PhD is the right path for them. We need to give them skills to recognise a supervisor that meets their needs, and a clear support network for when relationships don’t work out. Not all supervisors are bad people, despite the stereotypes portrayed in the Thesis Whisperer’s post – most just aren’t trained to be good mentors, something which must be addressed by institutions.

But the post doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.

Myth: PhD students shouldn’t have to publish their research, especially if they don’t want to be an academic.

I’ve heard this from many quarters, not just the TW post, and I strongly disagree. Good research should be published!

I think the ‘boycott academic publishing’ argument is confounded by a lot of things and it overlooks one important fact. Research exists as part of a community, it is not owned by an individual. This is why we publish (in whatever format is appropriate for the discipline), and it is why peer review is so important, even with all its flaws.

Let’s separate the individual from the research for a minute. Completed research is a contribution to scholarship and knowledge; it must be shared for knowledge to grow, and at the very least that should be with the disciplinary community.

One of the criteria for a PhD is that it has to answer research questions that have not been answered before – therefore it has huge value to future researchers in the discipline (including other PhD students) and the broader academic community.

What logical reason is there to encourage an early career researcher not to publish their research?

Most research is not ground-breaking or newsworthy and doesn’t have direct translatable outcomes for industry or practice. Most papers don’t need to be openly accessible to everyone in the world. But this doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Science evolves from new knowledge. We should be encouraging students to publish their research rigorously and ethically, not discouraging them.

The file drawer problem is a hindrance to science. Countless times I’ve been in conversations with senior academics in my research fields, discussing a particular topic, where I mention a new idea/question/hypothesis that I think needs research (because there is very little published evidence)…only to be told I’m wasting my time, because they personally collected lots of data on that exact thing ages ago and found X [even though they haven’t published any of it].

This sort of behaviour holds science back. What hasn’t been published is not accessible to other researchers who don’t have the key to the dusty drawer where those data lie.

Here are a few benefits from choosing the alternative:

  • You will contribute to the future of your discipline
  • You will develop your writing skills
  • You will develop your professional communication skills
  • You will create a permanent publication record that will benefit you in any career path
  • You will reciprocate the funds (public or private) that supported your research
  • Your “academic capital” will provide opportunity to make global connections, which has huge benefits for your professional profile & future opportunities, regardless of the career path you choose

A publication record demonstrates communication skills, which are a major asset for any future career. Instead of denouncing academic writing as a waste of time, we should be teaching students how to write well, in any genre.

*******

From the Thesis Whisperer: “The first step is to start consciously approaching your PhD like you won’t be an academic and pushing back on these explicit and implicit expectations.”

I agree that approaching your PhD like you won’t be an academic is a really good mindset to open your career options. But I think a valuable way to push back is to adapt new skills, new thinking and new tools to address those explicit and implicit assumptions in new ways.  

Every career, every discipline, every sector, has its norms and boundaries. There is nothing wrong with this. Know those norms and establish your own boundaries. Develop your own unique skillset. This approach will have far more benefits and open more doors for you in the long term.

© Manu Saunders 2020

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