The Three Year PhD Thing

There is a fascinating series of discussions that has started, primarily on social media, about the risk to PhDs of cutting the optional and generally unfunded write-up (fourth) year.

The subsequent discussion has highlighted many of the issues associated with the PhD process, especially the inherent privileges that go unacknowledged in considering three years a realistic amount of time for the project. In an excellent write up of the situation Sean Richardson argues that the system is not fit for purpose, and it is a position with which I am in complete agreement.

This quote, my initial response to the opening tweet, is just the start of my thoughts on the problems of the three year process and they are, for me, bound up in what I can only describe as academic exceptionalism. It has been the thing throughout my PhD that I have found hardest to deal with, and continue to do so. It is tied to privilege and to a normalised pattern of unrealistic expectations which are placed not only on PhD researchers but many who continue in academia beyond that point (as post-docs, ECRs and established academics). It was core to so much of the discussion about the UCU strikes earlier in the year: we are perpetually expected to work above and beyond. Beyond the mandated hours, beyond reasonable expectations that lead employers to threaten to withhold pay for doing the job as contracted. And that is once a job has been acquired; after countless hours of unpaid work to publish, to gain experience of teaching, to do impact work, outreach, engagement activities… “Service to the profession,” “service to the university.”

The assertion that the PhD is far more than my description of a three year job concluding with a large report was not well received, and the response it elicited highlights that the PhD is deemed to be so much more than just the thesis.

Golden’s perspective can be acknowledged as noting that there is insufficient time in the current count to achieve those things needed to be a “rounded, self directed academic.” Yet my question is how realistic – and justifiable – is this expectation in the first place. From my point of view there is a significant disconnect between what is possible, desirable, and manageable. In my doctoral cohort training we have regularly been encouraged to use SMART planning: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. So my question is, is the PhD currently SMART? If not, what needs to change?

For Richardson, the conclusion is apparently that the PhD is not SMART! He writes,

The PhD system has become outdated and outmoded. The expectations placed upon young scholars well exceed what the doctorate can offer. If we truly consider what one needs to succeed in the academic job market, the system needs overhauling completely. An extension, rather than a reduction, in time is wholly necessary. Either we must extend funding to four years, or we must add an additional year to the end of the process in which students are able to undertake projects that have become a necessary appendage to an academic portfolio. Whichever option we choose moving forward, we must recognise how unfit for purpose a PhD has become, and how ludicrous the expectation that three years is enough to prepare for the sink or swim atmosphere of being an ECR. This is no longer about the thesis, it is about a broken system that continuously fails new scholars.

I cannot disagree with his observations, but also wish to add another option: the three year plan, and for that to come to be there needs to be a massive change in discourses and expectations. I have described to friends and colleagues that my PhD is a three year fixed term role, and I planned to start job hunting six months ahead of completion. This I have done. I have also said that I intend to submit as close to the end of my funded period as I can manage in full acknowledgment of the risks: I know I run the risks of failure, resubmission, very major corrections… These intentions have not always been well received: I’ve been told that academia doesn’t work like this. This is because the idea that academic roles are just another job seems so alien, but this is at the core of what needs to change. If we want to promote a three-year PhD model we need to stop expecting the exceptional and plan more SMARTly. We need to give up on some of the extras, or decrease the demands of the thesis itself.

This is not as inconceivable as it might initially appear. My wife, as my first tweet noted, is doing a DClinPsy – it is a fixed three year professional doctoral programme. The vocational training will enable her to be a clinical psychologist, and during the degree programme she undertakes weekly classes, completes countless written projects and the course concludes with the submission of a thesis. It must be submitted approximately six months before the funding period ends, so she can be vivaed and have completed corrections for the degree to be awarded within that three year window. Then, at the end of the three years, she will be expected to enter employment. As an observer, even one undertaking my own doctorate, I find the expectations and schedule of her programme unenviable and relentless. Despite its horrors, though, it is clearly timebound. It will all be over within three years, and there is a fixed submission point from the outset. The professional, vocational development is core to the degree, and there is still an expectation that the project is of sufficiently high calibre, that it represents three years work, and that it offers an original contribution to scholarship. Yet in the end, her final project is only about 15% (by word count) of mine – although I am also doing an Arts PhD.

This leads me to suggest the following: If UKRI, for example, want to run three year PhDs, decrease expectations. Decide what matters, and promote that. If, as Goulden implies, a PhD is vocational training, train us vocationally; embed training and development, teaching etc but perhaps reconsider the thesis. Or, if the current expectations are justifiable change the time, as Richardson advocates. Whatever happens the status quo is not good.

So, as I come to the end of my funded time on the PhD I am left with several points of personal reflection to which there are no easy or quick answers.

  • Do I want to work for free, and if so for whom and why? There are countless other organisations, sectors, voluntary groups who would love the gift of time but cannot pay. Why pick academia over those other options?
  • When my funded period is up, who is going to cover my bills? The peacemeal jobs I’m currently collecting I love, but they do not pay my share of living costs. Therefore…
  • Do I submit and be damned? If UKRI, and my funders, think three years funding is sufficient to do the work I will submit what I have at that point. There is no other such accurate representation of what three years can achieve. But then I know that my funders also do not track outcomes from submission. They just care that a thesis is submitted. If it turns out not to be good enough, then the answer of what can be achieved in three years is answered.
  • If I want to stay in academia after this point, do I want to inflict this bizarre and unjust game on others I supervise, mentor or otherwise support? And what does the answer to that question mean for my career planning and aspirations.

As the comments elsewhere have highlighted, this is a complex issue and one that calls into question the current set up of PhDs, especially in relation to funding. The status quo is not good enough; neither that three years is sufficient (funding or time), nor that all of us can and will use the fourth year. There are no simple answers, but there does need to be greater admission of the acknowledged and unacknowledged expectations of the PhD experience.