Reflections on taking the intellectual carving knife to your PhD thesis

I remember very distinctly the moment when I first took a figurative carving knife to my PhD thesis. I was in a careers workshop at a conference and a senior academic had just explained how the oh-so-rational metric of the REF placed the same value on monographs and journal articles. From the start of my PhD I’d always been drawn to the prospect of publishing it as a monograph, drawing together years of work and sending it out into the world in a pretty package with a shiny cover. I liked the idea of turning my thesis into something which would be read by people other than my parents, supervisors and examiners. Perhaps even something that people responded to? Yet I also wanted a job and, at the same time as I was growing attached to the idea of the monograph, I was also rapidly internalizing that horrible motif which plagues the psyches of aspiring academics everywhere: publish or perish. As much as I liked the idea of a monograph, I liked the idea of getting a job more. So upon learning the value of a monograph relative to a paper, I picked up the intellectual knife and started to ponder how many choice cuts I could get from my thesis.

After an afternoon of hacking away at my planned thesis, it turned out I could spin off a lot of papers. Sure there would be repetition and overlap but that’s inevitable, right? In the months since then, this sense of inevitability has troubled me. I realized how quickly and deeply I’d come to accept the ‘rules of the game’, making plans that were entirely contrary to what I believed and cared about because I couldn’t see any choice other than submitting to the logic that defines the contemporary academy if I wanted a career within it. Which left me with the obvious question: did I want a career within it? The perverse eagerness with which I instrumentally carved up my long treasured post-PhD monograph became symptomatic of everything I disliked about the modern university. The fact that just three years of a PhD, framed in terms of ‘playing the game’ in order to win autonomy within it, had left me able to be so thoughtlessly instrumental truly worried me. If this was what academia would do to me then I didn’t want to be an academic.

Since then I’ve relented somewhat, partly due to realizing that there was no need to see it as a matter of being entirely in or entirely out of the university. But mostly through talking to  friends, some in similar situations and others with no connection to higher education, about these questions and why they troubled me. If we want academic careers after we finish our PhDs then, inevitably, we have to make some sacrifices. If we want to be employable then we, at least to some extent, have to make choices that fit the imperatives of institutions within which we seek employment. But if we’re doing this because we care about it then we need to constantly ask ‘why?’ at every stage. We need to be clear that we’re doing what we do because we CHOOSE to rather than because we’ve internalized a set of perverse imperatives which actively erode the values that motivate us. We have to continue to look for alternatives to passively reproducing the demands of neoliberal academia. Otherwise I fear we’re going to look in the mirror twenty years from now and wonder what the point of it all was.

 This was originally published on PhD 2 Published

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