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.

Introducing An Unexpected Journey

The title of this post, shamelessly stolen from The Hobbit (film), is an apt starting point for this introductory post. While I am yet to reach the age of 50 at which Bilbo set off on the first of his grand adventures, I was a late entrant to this adventure – my adventures in Higher Education. So why am I reflecting on it now, after six years and as yet I have neither concluded by travels nor return to my starting point?

In the last week multiple factors have coalesced which have really got me thinking about how I have ended up here, and reflections which I hope may be of interest (and possibly use) to those seeking to make a similar journey. Over the space of just a few days friends from my undergraduate course have variously been rejected for PhD funding, and set up an exciting new peer and mentoring network for female junior researchers in TRS (Theology and Religious Studies). Another friend, a long-time collaborator and fellow PhD researcher, has reached the conclusion that the academic path is not for them.  Meanwhile I am contemplating the post-PhD world and working out what I need to do in order to stand a good chance of progressing because, as we are regularly told There. Are. No. Jobs! This statement is not one meant to depress or disturb, but rather to acknowledge the problems facing us all – no matter what stage we are in the journey and oriented towards the aspirational job as a professional researcher and/or lecturer in higher education. The funneling effect between one level of study or research and the next is palpable, and one statistic suggests just one in six PhD holders will secure a Post-Doc and, if memory serves, those who continue into permanent faculty jobs is a similarly low rate. So if we’re solely ‘end-oriented’ to borrow from my recent supervision training, and that end is the permanent career, rather than, say, the Masters, the PhD, or research done in a PostDoc, we may risk losing far more than we gain. Instead I’d like to think about this whole experience as either a game or a journey – and work out how to try and enjoy the process.

Before exploring more about the HE game (in the next post), I’d like to offer a small amount of reassurance: I have had – and lost – several career plans and left more potential paths. It took me a long time to learn to value, and eventually to enjoy, the failures, the diversions, and adventures on the way to where I am today. It’s how I ended up making a rather spur of the moment six years ago to try something new and different – and something which absolutely terrified me. You see, until completing my degree in 2014, my highest qualification was NVQ3 in Vehicle Sales which I undertook as part of a modern apprenticeship in Devon. All these years on neither college who trained me, nor either of the car dealerships which hosted me, are in business. I’m not even sure the NVQ programme exists any more either, and I never did meet anyone with the qualification outside those who had been through the same scheme as me. It was my highest qualification for thirteen years – but not for lack of trying, at least initially. I started a degree in Textile Science and Technology at UMIST – now subsumed into the University of Manchester – and later tried a distance learning course in biblical studies at the University of Exeter, but stuck neither just has I had previously dropped out of my A Levels. There was nothing the academic path could offer me: I couldn’t do it, and couldn’t work out how to do it. The seven year old me who wished to collect degrees when they grew up would have been disappointed – but the twenty-something me had other plans. There were definitely plans, and when there weren’t concrete plans, there were plans to make plans.

I have vivid memories of sitting in my chaplain’s office as I was getting to the stage of dropping out of UMIST, deeply concerned as to what would come next. There was no factor in my plans to not go and do textile science in the motor industry – my Cunning Plan after car sales – because I’d also learned that I am terrible, really terrible, at selling cars. But I needed a degree for that, and to get the degree I really needed to understand organic chemistry, and that just wasn’t happening. I was far more distraught at the loss of the Cunning Plan than dropping out of the degree, so we came up with a new plan – one to give me the time and space to come up with a new one. But Gareth also told me that I’d have to let go of my attachment to (inflexible) Cunning Plans as life may not work out like that. I was Not Impressed with that suggestion, but 15 years later (ish), I know he’s right; so very right. So I moved into a convent and spent six months in discernment: I discerned that I wanted a career in community support in the local government. I’d work my way up from the bottom, and gain the work experience necessary to progress. That cunning plan lasted four months longer than my stay in the convent – something better and unexpected came along.

I had volunteered during my time in the convent, and increasingly taken on more tasks for the charity in question. When a job came up, for a second time, with the charity I realised I’d been doing a good chunk of the work voluntarily – and loved it – so thought I’d give the application a go. A good friend – and still a friend – when I suggested that I’d apply spent 45 minutes on the phone telling me what a disaster this plan was. If you ever need a counterpoint to imposter syndrome, a conversation like this is invaluable! I left the phone call saying something like, it’s a good thing you’re not on the recruitment panel, but at the end of the day all I can do is fill the form in – they can decide whether I can and should do the job. It really did spur me on – not to prove him wrong, partly because some of his criticisms were valid, but because I didn’t believe they defined whether I could or could not do the job. Turns out the panel disagreed with my friend, who later admitted I’d done a good job in the role. It really was a once in a lifetime job, and one I have no regrets jacking in the other career path for. Moreover, it taught me so much which has been invaluable for my subsequent career(s), especially this one. My boss was an experienced editor who pulled apart my writing and taught me how to improve it; he taught me how to manage and run projects, how to work to deadlines, the balance between independent and collaborative work in self-directed projects, and so, so much more. I worked with staff and students from countless universities and learned about their delights and worries. I learned how to adapt the public speaking and sales skills from my NVQ to other contexts so that wasn’t wasted. I discovered some things I’m good at and confident in and some things I’m not so good at and enjoy less (or even not at all) – and also that there is no helpful overlap between these categories. Of all my jobs, this remains my favourite and my most formative – I learned not only to be an adult but to work as one too. It is equally the one in which I have most felt imposter syndrome – I idolised my predecessor and always felt inadequate to follow in her footsteps no matter how much I achieved in the role. However, it is a job from which there is no automatic progression, no obvious career path. But there was still a plan, there was always a plan, although I was less wedded to its success. This was partly because I was now aware that flexibility in The Plan was possible, and the diversionary experiences could be enjoyable and still of value just as car sales had been prior to this role.

My following jobs were strategic moves, albeit with one important caveat. The role just described was marketed as a graduate job, and I wanted more jobs like that but I needed the potential employers to agree that my experiences were sufficient as I still had no degree. The most rude and abrupt rejection letter I ever received condemned me for my audacity in applying for a job which required experience I had several times over, but no degree. It was a spectre over all my applications: would they consider me or not? I found further jobs, which incrementally moved me towards my (then) goal – and they were rewarding and engaging. They continued to build on my earlier work experience and act as bridges between what I had done and where I wanted to be. But those bridges were only of limited value. Each time I tried to move role, the No Degree factor came into play again. One colleague directly said to me that I must be really thick (their words, not mine) if I didn’t have a degree by my (then) ripe old age. It was one of (many) factors which eventually put me off that career path, but I had also reached the stage where I either needed a doctorate or professional qualifications to progress further. Therefore, when the government announced they would be putting up tuition fees from the 2012/13 academic year there was but one option for me. The fact that it was May 2011, and most of the places had been allocated did not deter me: I was going to face my fear of study and go back to university, if only I could find the combination of one I wanted to go to and who would still take me. I genuinely cannot express how terrifying this was, even to explore. My colleague’s words rung in my ears. I recalled dropping out of the biblical studies course, of leaving uni, of the lack of fulfillment in my NVQ, dropping out of my A Levels, and hating my GCSEs. But I also remembered my friend’s phone call before applying for the Beloved Job, and his advice to me as I sought to find the courage to apply to uni – two very different conversations. So I took a deep breath, and wrote and sent an email. Then I wrote an essay, and waited for an answer to my application. You can guess the outcome – it would be quite hard to write a ‘six years on’ post, if I had been rejected. Instead, in September 2011, I said goodbye to my previous career plans and jumped wholeheartedly into the university experience as a mature student. A student from a non-traditional background. A student with an interrupted educational history. There are many euphemisms and phrases to describe those of us who enter after the age of 25, but what I will also say is that I’ve rarely found somewhere which feels more like home. So I’ve stayed. And I’ve been learning how to negotiate a new game – one which has much in common with my earlier work experiences, yet equally one unique to itself and one in which there remains much to learn. But it is also a game I have come to enjoy playing. If it all comes to an end tomorrow and I need to find another Plan, it’s absolutely been worth it, but I still say optimistically, long may it continue!