The PhD Factory: manufacturing academics

DSCF1718Hi PhD pals! How are we all doing? It seems like there have been a rash of articles and blog posts recently comparing academia who a whole load of different things. We’ve had discussions around the whether the rules of fight club apply to the culture of silence in criticizing academia and whether the recruitment of PhD students and post-docs mirrors the hierarchies seen in drug cartels. I was also really interested (and slightly alarmed!) to read this piece about the risks that writing a blog about academic life may pose to pursuing an academic career.  It spoke to a number of things that I have been thinking about recently around anonymity and how discussions about opening up the process of science to public view may be changing the academic culture. It’s easy to say “oh if you have such a problem with academia, why are you trying to get a job in it?” Addressing some elements of a culture in a critical manner does not mean that the entire environment is irredeemably horrendous or that anyone thinks it is. I’m the first to admit that sometimes in academia, we get a pretty sweet deal. The opportunity to study something I’m interested in for 3 years and get paid more than I’ve ever been paid in my life for it? Yes please. (I’m a pretty cheap date.) That doesn’t mean that I can’t have some concerns about certain aspects of the sector in which I work. It’s not that these problems are specific to academia or that this career path is worse than any other, it’s just that this is the one I happen to be in now.

Good. Now that’s sorted, I want to propose another model for looking at the current situation in academia;  the PhD factory. It has always fascinated me that the product of academia is words. It’s a mind boggling concept that all of the months and months of work by teams of people can be boiled down to a few thousand words of journal article. All of the lab meetings, PCRs, disposable pipette tips and eppendorphs, hailstone cannons, those sciencey tanks with the built-in gloves, all of the stuff that goes into the materiality of science essentially comes out as (Macdonald, 2013). Of course, these is another important product that comes out of academia and that is people. One of the massively important roles of universities is to provide an environment for learning and training and, like it or not, produce graduates for the job market. PhD students fall into this category in that they are a product of academia, but they are also involved in producing words. So words and people; the two products of academia. Agreed?

Increase production. Is faster always better? Using the PhD factory metaphor, it’s easy to see how we can apply the rules which govern the running of a factory to the current academic climate. The ultimate aim of any successful factory is to produce a greater quantity of their product in less time for less money. Anyone seeing the parallels yet? As academics, we are under increasing pressure find our own money, carry out our research, present at conferences and to produce REF-able papers with demonstrable impact. As PhD students, the time available to us in which to do our PhDs seems to be dwindling. While I’m not particularly keen on spending the greater part of my 20s dawdling through my PhD, the looming 3 year deadline for research that used to take 4 or 5 years seems indicative of the application of market principles to academia. Produce the same calibre of graduate in a shorter time for less money. Unfortunately, we cannot think on demand. Sometimes in research, we need time to let ideas percolate. This time is in shorter and shorter supply. I have been continuing to think about my PhD project during my interruption of studies and if I decide to go back to my research (and that’s a big if at the moment) my project will be vastly different and, dare I say, better as a result of taking this 6 month break. Maybe we should build in a couple of reflexivity breaks into all PhD projects? Even Peter Higgs of boson fame (who I just found out shares my birthday! Cool!) said this week that he would not be able to maintain the productivity of today’s academic climate.

What sort of academics are we manufacturing? You’ve all heard me bang on about how academia is not an environment which is conducive to positive mental health. I stand by that. The constant feeling that we are behind in your work and the stress of running to catch up with ourselves isn’t good for us. Being told, by supervisors or your own brain, “you’re behind, you’re behind, you’re behind” isn’t helpful. It just sends us into a tailspin of panic. As a result, we’re afraid to make mistakes, to take risks, to spend some extra time thinking about how best to make our project work. What sort of academics are we churning out of the PhD factory? Ones who are afraid to fail. We are manufacturing academics who lack the ability to learn from their own mistakes because there is simply not enough time for them to make those mistakes.


What will we do with all of the Doctors? I’m pretty sure that by now every PhD student in the world has seen this frankly alarming graph from Nature and had a tiny panic.  This graph illustrates one of the major issues facing the PhD factory; supply and demand. For any factory to be successful, there must be a market for its products. Unfortunately for us PhD students, the supply of graduates is far outstripping the demand for these graduates in the job market. As students, we are all taught that the logical and desirable next step for our careers is to hope for and pursue a position in academia. However, given the current lack of demand for PhD-ers, this is looking less and less like a viable and sustainable option. I applied to do my PhD because I really wanted to do research around the engagement and communication practices of scientists. In a way, I still do and if I return to my PhD that will still be my eventual aim. However, I am realistic about my chances of landing an academic job. I realise that I might have to go and work somewhere else for a bit, or do something more practical and practitioner based, or I might end up in another field entirely, and that’s ok. 

What is a PhD actually for? I have asked this question a couple of times on twitter and received a range of answers from the “so I can call myself Doctor” and “to work really hard for years and then have people tell you that you’re not a proper Doctor” to “to train you as an academic so you can carry out your own research”, “to become more credible” and “to develop skills for critical, rational thought”. Some people suggested that, if your aim was not to secure an academic job, a PhD was a waste of time. Sorry to rain on your parade but we can’t all get the disproportionately tiny number of academic jobs. I think that we need to consider a PhD in another way. It is an opportunity for us to pursue our own research skills, develop our research interests, publish, write and make contacts which will help us in whatever we go in to do, whether that is inside academia or not. The centre where my husband does his PhD takes this sort of approach where all of the projects undertaken are of commercial interest and the aim of the program is to place highly qualified PhD graduates into positions within the renewable energy industry. 

Do all of the things? So how do we make ourselves more employable in the non-academic job market? When a PhD becomes “just another qualification”, it’s easy to see that we may not have comparable skills or experience to compete. With this is mind, it is important that we pursue activities outside our PhDs. Outreach, blogging, committees, networks, internships; there are many ways in which we can improve our employablility. We need to stop thinking that failure to get a job in academia is a fault with ourselves. No matter how hard we all work and how many publications we get, the reality is that there are simply not enough jobs for all the PhD students that are being churned out by the PhD factory. So take some time out, try some other stuff, gain some perspective on your PhD and try not to be afraid to make mistakes. 

2013-11-18Well gang, that’s all for now. I’m going to stop ranting and go back to watching Star Trek and eating those little Christmas oranges. Hope you all have a good day!


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