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.