The plight of a PhD

A doctorate is not an excuse for a three-year party. Being the eternal student is a lot of hard work as well as a privilege, explains novelist Sophie Coulombeau

I'm 28 years old and still a student.

At parties, the response to this admission is always the same. An indulgent smile or eye roll. “Ah! Eternal student, eh? And what do you ‘study’?”

This is the high point of the conversation, after which it can only go downhill. I admit that I’m a doctoral student of English Literature. Of the eighteenth century. And - in response to blunt questioning about how I can afford to indulge this frippery - I admit that I’m publicly funded. The smiles fade. Sometimes I’m frostily asked just how my ‘study’ is of use to the taxpayer who funds my ‘lifestyle’. The nicer people just query what kind of ‘real job’ I’m hoping to get once I’ve finished and am forced to head out into the big wide world.

The only way I can wrong-foot them here is to point out that I’ve actually been out in the big wide world already - I’ve worked for a political consultancy, for the UK’s Ministry of Justice, and for the European Commission’s Organised Crime unit - and that I chose to return to the academic fold. Hell, I begged to return, prostrating and hoop-jumping my way through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s application processes to secure a scholarship at the University of York two years ago.

Then the party people look a bit baffled. Because their general vision of graduate study is a bizarre blend of envy and snobbery. They’re pretty sure that students - even doctoral students - do nothing all day and it’s just a juvenile jolly. But simultaneously, they can’t comprehend why you’d choose that lifestyle when you could be, you know, a real person. Like them.

Usually I’m just keen to escape my interlocutor and get a beer from the fridge. But if I had the time and energy to explain every time someone asked me this stuff, this is what I’d say.

Hard work

Life as a PhD student in the humanities, in my case researching the relationship between proper names and identity in the late eighteenth century, is a strange and little understood mixture of graft, pressure and privilege. It’s often lonely, frequently manic and runs utterly against the grain of the corporate, acquisitive career path to which one is generally conditioned to aspire. Still, I love it. And I’ve never looked back.

To give you an idea of the graft, an average day for me might involve: reading an obscure eighteenth-century treatise about the origins of language, polishing a paper that I’m trying to get published, emailing archivists in a quest to find some old letters, marking sets of undergraduate essays, applying to a fund for thirty pounds so I can pay travel expenses for a visiting speaker, attending a training course, planning the module I’m teaching undergraduates next term, pestering academic publishers for free books, having a meeting about a project I’m running to examine the relationship between analysis and creativity. There is no alarm clock, no boss to tell you when to stop and go home. There is always a sense of gnawing anxiety that you’re not doing enough. This year, I worked on Christmas Day.

Academic and financial pressures

This graft derives from a particular set of pressures that PhD students face. Key among these pressures is a burgeoning feeling that academic jobs teaching and researching have in recent years become harder to find; there’s a glut of applicants and a paucity of places as departmental budgets are slashed and professors put off retirement for another year. The result of this has been that a doctorate has become much more like a professional training programme than the three or four years of idling around in the pub that the party people imagine.

There are certain things that it’s widely understood you must have on your CV by the time you apply for jobs. An impressive and original thesis, obviously. A range of teaching experience, and appropriate training to back it up. Evidence of attracting individual and collaborative funding. Experience of organising, chairing and presenting at conferences. Publications. Add to this the fact that British universities are increasingly putting pressure on doctoral candidates in the humanities to finish in three years rather than the traditional four or the North American seven or eight, and it’s unsurprising that the majority have very little time to idle. And don’t forget to add financial pressure to this heady mix; the much-coveted AHRC scholarship clocks in at £13,590 per year, but many students don’t have that and support themselves by working in other jobs.

And don’t forget perhaps the most important pressure of all, which brings us right back to the party scenario: the constant pressure to justify - almost to apologise for - what we do. One of the recommendations of the Browne Report was to cut the public subsidy for teaching all undergraduate courses except those “important to the wellbeing of our society and to our economy” - that is, apparently, science, technology and healthcare.

This sent a strong signal that the humanities are less worthy of public support than the sciences. Although it’s seriously demoralizing to be told that your chosen field is a disposable luxury, I and many of my peers choose to extract the positive from this regrettable development. It will motivate us to articulate the impact that our subjects have, on students and on the general public, more clearly. If we can do a good enough job, future governments might realize that squeezing the sector will do more harm than good.

The privileges of graduate study

Which, after all the moaning, brings me on to the privileges of graduate study. The first to spring to mind is the freedom to organize one’s time and workload; it’s undeniable that a doctorate gives greater flexibility than your average office-based nine-to-six job.

For example, I was able to publish a novel while doing my PhD, which was written in a frenetic burst of activity last summer. Second is the dynamic intellectual community that exists at the University of York, where professional training, graduate support and interdisciplinary innovation is second to none. I feel lucky every day to have the opportunity to discuss my chosen field and learn from others, and to collaborate with peers to set up reading groups, conferences and public engagement projects.

Last but not least, there’s the privilege of knowing - despite the government cuts, despite the sneerers at parties - that what one does is important. There is value in trying to understand better one’s own culture, not to mention those of others. I feel this value when I discover something in an archive that means I need to think about a writer, an event or a school of thought in a different way. When I think I’ve found a flaw in an influential argument that means it might be necessary to re-think a particular notion of historical change or literary prestige.

Or - most importantly of all - when I make a difference to the development of a student’s thinking. The most rewarding moment of my PhD so far occurred when I was teaching an undergraduate class on the Romantic Period. I was explaining a hugely influential but slightly outdated critical approach, New Historicism. One student filled the (as I feared disdainful) silence afterwards with three glorious muttered words. “This changes everything.”

Contact with academia changed everything for me. It made me a more engaged citizen, a more sensitive and suspicious reader, a more compassionate and thoughtful person. I’m proud and excited at the thought of joining an institution that can bring that change about for the next generation.

But try explaining that to the party people. Their eyes glazed over long ago.

Sophie Coulombeau was the winner of the Arts Council England Next Great Novelist award 2011. Her first novel Rites is published by Route. You can buy it here.

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