Academia as Identity – a UK/US Comparison

Kellee and I have done speaking tours in the UK for two years now, and the time we spent there has been immensely valuable for us, in learning what parts of the academic experience are shared between the UK and the US, and what parts diverge.  There are many things I could mention, such as impact of the REF, or the peculiar (to us Americans) UK academic interview process (see also this), but right now, I want to focus on the question of the academic career as identity.

When I speak about the academic job search in the UK, I’ve often been struck by the fact that although the UK academic job market is virtually as bad as it is in the States, UK Ph.D.s seem by and large to approach the issue with far less panic and agitation than American Ph.D.s.   It’s really quite striking.  “I’m really not sure what I’ll do after graduation,” people I meet tend to say. “I might go on to an academic career, if it works out.  Or I’ll do something else.”  “I’m flexible…” they say, without particular anxiety in their voices.  This is in contrast to the wild-eyed stares and clenched jaws of many US Ph.D.s I encounter on campuses, contemplating their futures.

I’ve pondered reasons.  I think there could be a few.  First, I think that the UK is a bit behind the States in academic professionalization:  campuses there remind me of US campuses 10 or 15 years ago, when the idea that Ph.D. training would be overtly linked to — banish the thought! — an actual hunt for a job and a salary was anathema!  I think many UK Ph.D.s get through their grad school process without a clear understanding of how awful their academic job market actually is (it’s bad!) and with fantasies of an academic career trajectory relatively intact.

But at the same time, that explanation only goes so far. After all, somebody invited Kellee and me to campus to talk about professionalization!  And on every campus I encounter career services staff and academic faculty members who are dedicated to reality-based grad student career training.

So what else could be going on?   Well, I’ll just remark that when you have a somewhat intact social safety net (for now), and guaranteed health insurance, then of course the stakes of employment are lower.  I see Americans of all kinds – not just academics – carrying around a ruinous psychic load of anxiety as a result of our collective lack of public benefits and our vulnerability in the face of unemployment.

But on this trip, I noticed something else.  It had to do with identity.  The UK Ph.D.s I met were very serious and committed to their work, but they didn’t really seem to be, in general, defined by it.  They seemed to have a certain psychic distance from the academic role that I almost never see in the U.S. It’s hard to pinpoint how to define this except to say that the individuals I met seemed to talk about their potential future in the academy with a bit more calm, a bit more humor (and I don’t mean the gallows of humor of so many American grad students), a bit more curiosity about what in the end they might end up doing…

As I pondered this observation and talked it over with people there, I recalled that in the UK, Ph.D. programs are basically three years in length.  That’s it.  Three years.  I understand it is sometimes possible to petition for a 4th year, but that’s the absolute outside limit.

I’ve been aware of the short UK Ph.D. for years, and in general I haven’t been a fan. There is a lot that I could critique about such a short Ph.D. training and how it prevents grad students from gaining the experience in grant-writing, conferencing, teaching, and publishing that I think they need to pursue an academic career most effectively.

However, this time around, I realized that all of these critiques might be counterweighted by one massive truth:  with a three year Ph.D., you can get in and get out without the Ph.D. entirely disrupting your life trajectory or ruining you for any other future besides the academy.  In other words, three year Ph.D. training allows UK Ph.D.s to view their studies as one short stage of life, rather than the be-all-and-end-all of life, which it all too often becomes in the States.

Just think. A US Ph.D. takes on average 5-10 years to complete–the lower end in STEM, the upper end in the Humanities and Education.  (I just got an email today from someone seeking advice, who has been in a graduate program for 22 years… what?) Ten years in an area of study like Medieval French Poetry, to take one example – ten years in which you live entirely in an academic setting, and are surrounded entirely by academics, and set up as your external evaluators only those who operate as professionals in the field of Medieval French Literature, and are judged entirely on your success in passing qualifying exams and producing a 350 page dissertation on a narrow specialized topic within the already narrow confines of the field and subfield – are very likely to socialize a person (especially if she is young) into a highly warped sense of potential life options, and to reduce that person’s ability to both see non-academic job possibilities, and also PREPARE for those opportunities in a meaningful way. In short, the length of the US Ph.D. indoctrinates American grad students into an almost total identification with the academic career and the academic value system.

When I go to campuses and talk to American Ph.D. students on the job market, I see many, many people for whom this option just HAS to work out, because there isn’t (in their minds) any realistic alternative. Thus the wild eyes, and the clenched jaws.

Now, I’ve said since the beginning of TPII that academic is a cult-like system that recruits vulnerable young people into a rigid and insular system of narrowly shared values that over time prevents them from being able to imagine life independent of the approval of cult leaders (advisors, mentors, etc), or to imagine casting aside their judgments to do something else.  So I’m not really saying anything new here.  The insight is, that it’s not ACADEMIA that is a cult; it’s AMERICAN ACADEMIA that is a cult, as a result of very specific economies of training, in which because our universities require years of labor from Ph.D. students in the form of teaching to operate, they thereby absorb students into this cult-like system that warps students’ understanding of reality and their own self-interest.

The UK Ph.D. demonstrates that this warping is not essential to the academic training process.

Now, I am aware that any discussion of grad school has to relate to the undergraduate system, and the fact that US undergraduate study is allowed to remain very broad, by intention, while UK undergraduate study is much more narrow, rigid, and specialized.  Thus a UK undergraduate may come out more poised for graduate study than a US student, who will need to spend a few years doing coursework in the graduate program, and this is not in itself a negative. I am not making facile recommendations here about how to structure undergraduate or graduate training.

I am only remarking that American Ph.D.s might want to seriously examine the ways that year-by-year, you allow themselves to be indoctrinated into a value system, and an economy, that does not necessarily serve your interests in an era when only a tiny minority of Ph.Ds will get academic positions.  This indoctrination does not have to be inevitable. You can maintain independence even while you work your way through our complex system of classes, research, writing, teaching, conferencing, and publishing, and remember that even if it’s years in length, the US Ph.D. is still just a step in a multi-faceted and flexible life.


Academia as Identity – a UK/US Comparison — 16 Comments

  1. I’m an American professor teaching outside of the US, and I have certainly noticed this amongst the graduate students here. I think one explanation is that in this country and in many others, education is much more valued than it is in the US. People with PhDs don’t face disdain and resentment in the non-academic workforce, because teaching/getting an advanced degree is not concerned selfish, or disgustingly left-wing, or a mark of arrogance as it is in much of the US.

  2. Here’s an alternative explanation. You mistook the British norm of not showing much emotion or not wanting to seem to take things seriously for student’s lack of panic. I’ve taught here for five years. Our students are just as stressed and panicked as in the US.

  3. Perhaps there is also an impact from the different levels of financial investment the typical UK PhD graduate has made in their education, compared to in the US. I believe that UK PhDs do not have such high levels of educational debt, as are common in the US. Having sunk a lot of money in something may lead to a greater need to see the expected outcome, and to placing a greater value on what has been “purchased”.

  4. I’m an American doing a Ph.D. at Cambridge, and have done a degree at Oxford too. In part, I agree with you…at least everything you say rings completely true for undergraduates and masters students in that they don’t overly identify with academia. But something intrinsic changes when you get to the Ph.D. level.
    People here tend to commit to an academic career somewhere in the middle of their Ph.D., and then the cult-like atmosphere crawls in. It may be worse at Oxford and Cambridge [my only places of experience] where academia can become pretty cult-like. Most of us tend to bury our heads in the sand with regards to our job opportunities in the future, and so you don’t see the wide eyes and clenched jaws. That’s not because they’re not there — they’re just expressed internally. This is a cultural thing, where it’s much better to appear as if you are undisturbed by your prospects and to appear as if you are smoothly in control of your future even if you do not know where you are going. It’s the “keep calm and carry on” motto which makes it appear as if no one is really indoctrinated into the cult of academia. Most of us, if we are in the PhD level, already self-identify in a deep way as academics. But academia can take many forms, and that’s the key difference.

    The job prospects are subtly better in some ways and horrible in others. Professors have a limit to how long they can teach before they must retire and open the job to someone new. Yet my supervisor has often shared his own horror stories of the “living from year to year” postdoc and tries to help upcoming academics from going through that experience. I’m sure things will get worse with Brexit, but on the whole, at least Russell Group universities like Cambridge and Oxford tend to force at least a small bit of professional development on their students [we are required to attend career development training regularly] and our PhD isn’t spent on wasted time in classes but on research and on publishing and on presenting that research at conferences [and teaching if at all possible, though that’s not often feasible in some fields]. So while the job market is horribly fierce and stressful, if you play your hand right and focus on networking, there is at least enough balance in UK academia that you do have a small chance of success, whereas I’m not seeing that in the US.

    I also think the length of the PhD process actually helps push fledgling academics out of the nest faster here. I can only speak for Oxford and Cambridge, but you have three years of funding, and the fourth year, you pay no tuition but are only responsible for your living costs. If you go past four years, you are de-registered but can still access materials and your supervisor and if you get your act together, you can re-register and write up and defend your thesis. There is also provision in writing up grants if your research is compelling enough.
    The impact of this on a PhD student’s psyche is huge. You don’t “faff around” for years taking classes and trying to find yourself. You start your research right away, you start presenting it right away, and you start acting like a grown up academic right away. You come into the office and work from nine to five [or nine to eight] and then you go home. There is horrible social pressure if you don’t take regular breaks. You network, you polish your CV, and you publish. You have three or four years to actually take advantage of the benefits of the system before it all is cut off, and I think that actually encourages PhD students to become more mature in their careers faster.

    I hope this makes sense. I agree with you that academia on the whole is a bit more balanced here, but I think it’s due to two things: the culture of not expressing one’s internal worries and nightmares and to the intrinsic set up of PhD programs which forces one to “grow up” faster, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong — we still identify deeply as academics…we just realise that being a “academic” can take many forms and have many facets.

    • I really appreciate this long and thoughtful post, but I have to say, it does not at ALL jive with what the vast majority of UK Ph.D.s have told me, over and over, across our visits and many years of working with them as clients: that the short Ph.D. PREVENTS them from conferencing and publishing and networking. In fact, this is the single biggest anxiety that my UK audiences would return to at every talk: “how can we possibly publish competitively when we have only 3 years to get all of our research and writing done???” So, I’m a bit confused about your remarks, and wonder if they apply only to Oxbridge (although note that I also speak at Oxford and Cambridge when I visit the UK, and didn’t notice that particular difference when I spoke to Ph.D. students there either…). My sense was that Ph.D. students in the UK were indeed somewhat “more mature” in their sense of themselves as independent agents, but not at all better prepared in terms of publishing, conferencing or networking…. and they were usually quite bewildered and nonplussed when I explained the level of professionalization achieved by th average US Ph.D.on those fronts.

  5. This is a really great set of observations. I’m British and my brother and I both did our undergraduate and masters degree at the same uk university in fairly similar fields, but then I did my PhD there too and he went to the US. At this point our experiences but also, I increasingly think, our identities have diverged quite widely.

  6. This line really resonated with me: “academic is a cult-like system that recruits vulnerable young people into a rigid and insular system of narrowly shared values that over time prevents them from being able to imagine life independent of the approval of cult leaders (advisors, mentors, etc), or to imagine casting aside their judgments to do something else.”

    I recently finished my comps in a social science discipline, and I was struck by how insular many of my committee members seemed on my topic. I worked 15+ years in several related fields before entering a PhD program, from which I drew for my comps, and during my defense I was challenged on many of my conclusions (which are commonly held by most people working in the field based on their experiences), mostly by faculty who had never held a non-academic position or hadn’t worked outside academia for 20+ years.

    It’s very difficult trying to hold onto my identity as I wind my way through the program, but I intend to work in my field and not academia after I get my PhD, and I think having an identity that is built on my professional experiences will help me in that. But it’s very difficult to avoid the department groupthink as faculty consistently try to convince me to go into academia or conform to their views of the field.

    Thank you for the reminder that “the US Ph.D. is still just a step in a multi-faceted and flexible life.”

  7. This is interesting. As an Australian, our system is much more geared towards a UK type of system then a US system. I am now 6 years clear from graduating with a PhD (which took me nearly 6 years to do full time due to various disasters of the supervisory and family type). I was lucky enough to get a job in academia prior to graduation – but I see the stress that particularly lab based PhDs go through looking for that elusive post-doc. Many of my lab based friends are now O/S with little chance of coming home due to funding.
    I think your comment about US courses being more broad is very telling. I always remember a Canadian who was studying in the US who came to AUS on exchange telling me the only reason he did it was because what we covered in 3rd year in labs and lectures (final year of undergrad), he would not have access to or cover until he started postgraduate (and this was the late 90’s).
    I have heard quite a few people say that jobs that once did not require an U/G now require one, U/G jobs now require Masters etc etc.
    The best piece of advice I ever got, was from my late PhD supervisor, who at my first meeting with him to talk about the potential of me becoming his student, looked me straight in the eye and said “This PhD WONT be your meal ticket, you Masters will”. (I have a course work Masters from LSHTM in Epidemiology).
    People do PhD as they dont know WHAT they want to do with themselves, and they have essentially studied themselves into a corner, I think this is very prevalent with the American model.
    So much of identity is tied up in “who you are, what you studied”, as opposed to you as a person and what you studied as an adjunct. I still have more conversations about my honours thesis on cockroaches, then I do on my PhD thesis on Ethics…..
    I guess what I am trying to say in this ramble, is that in many ways rigid thinking of WHAT you should be based on training, gets in the way of innovative thinking of HOW you should be,based on your expertise.

  8. My two cents …

    First, the main difference between a UK PhD (and European as well) and North American (US & Canada) is that the UK/European PhD is more likely to be a project created by someone other than the student that the student that comes into and makes their own. This is, generally speaking, anathema to N.American students who want to do ‘their’ own project on a topic that they are usually very emotionally invested in. As a result, UK/European PhD students end up being trained as ‘researchers’, while N.Americans end up trained as ‘scholars’ (the former is more non-academic employment ready than the latter). It often shows up in the differences in writing style, argument style, research approach, etc.

    Second, UK/European PhD projects generally then require less time, and the time that students have is dedicated, usually, purely to research. N.Americans, on the other hand, are cheap labour for their universities and have to deal with that in their lives (e.g. 1-2 days per week of teaching, plus marking & preparation is pretty draining). That’s why it takes longer in N.America.

    Third, the shortness of the UK/European PhD doesn’t militate against conferencing, publishing, etc., etc. The focus on research, in fact, encourages that sort of thing, plus the emphasis on research training forces students to learn how to do research and get it published far quicker than N.Americans. I think a lot of N.American students get distracted by other things, like the need to apply for grant funding on a regular basis to support themselves (this seems to be seen as a great achievement on their CVs, when it would be better to actually write an article for a good journal).

    Fourth, generally speaking again, I think that UK/European PhD students are more competitive in more academic labour markets than most N.American PhD students. They have completed faster, it’s easier for them to get published (esp. co-author with their supervisors), there are more options for them when they complete, etc.

    Finally, the two systems are producing different students, and I think that the system that takes longer will gradually lose out more and more to the one that takes less time. There will always be a bonus to attending an elite university (e.g. Harvard), but the ability to finish before your topic gets stale and to publish on it before finishing your thesis is key to getting a job.

    • Oh, I forgot …

      There are also far more research jobs in the UK/European system than N.American, where the be all and end all is a TT assistant professor post. In the UK, for example, it’s very usual for people to spend 3-5 years working as a research fellow/associate (a full time job, and well paid in relative terms) before getting a permanent lecturing position. Getting ones of these jobs can then set you up with the publications etc. you need to get the ‘permanent’ post (technically, all posts are permanent after you’ve worked somewhere for 4 years I think – but some are more permanent than others).

  9. As a South Asian working towards a PhD in the UK, the difficult job market was something which was communicated very early on and it’s made all of the non-UK grad students I know of panic internally or externally. By way of comments- funding in Social Science is not assured – perish the thought and then there are fees of 14,000 GBP+ annually if you are non EU. In addition, I’m not entirely sure ( if I want to know) what the market value of a 3 year PhD is when applying to a non-UK university in comparison to the longer US PhD. I agree though that the shorter PhD ensures that another career is still possible and if you break off in the middle, the university usually awards an Mphil. Perhaps all of this is part of not being a local…. but then again Karen you’d probably need to write a whole different post on the immigrant grad student in the US or the UK.

  10. I’m really not sure it’s true that current UK PhD students are not panicking about their prospects to get a permanent foothold in academia, which are indeed dire. I too suspect “keep calm and carry on.” I’m a Senior Lecturer (=Associate Prof) in humanities at a top Russell Group University who trains and mentors a lot of PhD students and postdocs, and my partner is a full professor in sciences at Oxbridge. We both see a lot of anxiety in our students as they come into the fourth year of the PhD (a fourth (but unfunded) year is standard, by the way, not a rarity you have to beg for), and a lot more anger from early career researchers who are trying their hardest to get onto the job ladder and failing because there is a glut of highly qualified candidates at the moment and not enough jobs (the government in their infinite wisdom took the cap off the compulsory retirement age about 5 years ago, and every professor in the land thought “yeah, I can go on for another 5 years”. Who’d’ve thought?).

    Our last permanent junior lectureship, at a really crappy low salary, had 90 applicants and we could literally have employed half the pool, all of them early career researchers with excellent well-tailored CVs, publications, and teaching experience. We fought over a longlist of 20 who had books and book contracts on top of articles, and had the luxury of choosing a shortlist based on people’s research areas, because they were all so damn good.

    Yes, US applicants have the dubious luxury of working on their PhDs for a lot longer than ours, and perhaps getting out more publications while they are actually doing their PhDs. But I have been appalled recently at the stupid advice still being given to PhD students at certain R1 institutions in the US NOT to publish anything until their dissertations are submitted, immediately disadvantaging them in a dog-eat-dog job market. Conversely, every UK PhD student I have come across in the last ten years, and certainly the ones I supervise and mentor, are fully aware that they have to have at least one article submitted to, if not already published by, a serious journal before they finish writing their PhD. To be competitive for the next stage, these days they really have to have two. And I tell them to cultivate a non-academic Plan B career path that they’d enjoy settling for if, after 5 years, nothing permanent comes of their endless interview rounds.

    Also remember that in the UK we don’t take people onto PhD programmes without at least a one-year (sometimes 2) research-preparation coursework Masters, plus most PhD students I know took most of their fourth “write-up” year to finish their dissertations. That makes 5 years of postgraduate study, minimum — much closer to the length of a US PhD. In addition, almost no freshly minted UK PhD students go straight on to a permanent job; their first jobs are expected to be long (usually 3-year) post-doctoral research fellowships, and nearly all students plan for this.

    Add all that up, and that makes 8-9 years of postgraduate training, 7-8 of it as an independent researcher without substantial teaching commitments, though usually there will be sufficient teaching and teacher-training offered in those years. That’s on top of a much more tightly focussed undergraduate degree nearly always in the specific subject area of the PhD, and 14 years of primary and high school before that.

    I still think the best US PhD programmes absolutely provide superior comprehensive training to ours, especially in languages and “soft skills” like presenting conference papers. I always recommend to our undergraduates that they apply to US grad programmes precisely for this reason. But I tailor my advice to those who are not already sure exactly what they want to do their PhD on, or if they think they need or want the additional coursework years, especially in languages. Because a surprisingly large number of our pre-doctoral students, even our final-year undergrads, already have all the training they need to write a doctoral dissertation, and have a clear idea of their desired topic. Such students tend to be a bit bored in US programmes during the years of compulsory coursework, because so much of it is stuff they have already done, even as undergrads (and especially if they went to Oxford or Cambridge).

    A long way of saying the systems have been built differently, and are not directly comparable, even if I do think US grad programmes on the whole do provide better training.

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