Scaring the hell out of the next generation

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 14 October 2007

I slapped a book out of someone's hands last week. It was for her own good.

I'll explain.

Since the earliest days of academia, from the very first time one of our distant ancestors threw a rock at an auroch and another of our distant ancestors decided it would be a really good idea to write eighty thousand words about the deeper cultural significance of that moment ('"God Gave (Au)rock And Roll To Us": The Slipperiness of the Signifier in/on Contemporary Shamanic Communities of Thag's Mountain'), there have been books written about the process of becoming a scholar. Some of these books are better than others.(1) I promised one of my Masters-student friends my copy of one of the more useful books on writing a PhD in exchange for her putting in a good word for me with her landlord, and she, in her innocence, picked up a different book on the subject and said "Oooh, this one?", and, well, drastic measures were called for.

I'm not going to name the book in question, lest the authors send packs of rogue postgrad students round to send me to sleep with the Special Collections material, or something.(2) I will say in the book's defence, too, that it's not all page after page of unhelpful and terrifying tales of angst and woe suitable only for wallpapering the TA room. There's even some fairly good advice in here. But, well, put it this way: The Thorn Birds probably has some valuable insights on farming in rural Australia in the (early? mid? SEE MY POINT?) twentieth century, but all anybody remembers is the thing with the priest and that bit with the wildfire where somebody got burnt to death and then somebody else went to find him and got gored to death with the wild pig.

I give you Exhibit A: the preface to the revised edition, which addresses previous reviewer's complaints that the book was too depressing. Acknowledging the point, the authors 'reiterate' ('re'? ha) the many positive aspects of being a PhD student:

The joys of doing research are considerable, and anyone in a position to carry out research is indeed privileged. Feelings of exploration, excitement, challenge, involvement and passion are frequent and are commented on in this book. The enormous feeling of achievement on the award of the degree lasts for many throughout their whole lives. Clearly the process is very rewarding otherwise so many would not have carried it through to the end.

Despite the promises of future comments, that's pretty much it for the entire book as far as looking on the bright side goes, but leave that aside for a moment. Dwell, instead, upon the odd passive voice elbowing its way into the sentences. These 'feelings', it seems, are autonomous entities that come and go in a puzzling, unpredictable manner, flapping by like migrating geese. Quick, it's a feeling of involvement! Catch it before it gets away!

I don't think the whole book should be positive, of course. It's only fair to send new PhD students into the system having some rudimentary idea of what the system holds in store for them, like that time Indiana Jones took his dad's manual with him to find the Holy Grail, and knew exactly where to step so the floor wouldn't collapse and knives wouldn't fly at his head. Impostor syndrome loses a lot of its strength when you realise that you're not the only one feeling like a fraud. So sentences like this, I suppose, are fair enough:

[New postgraduates] come into the university or college knowing precisely who they are: successful and intelligent holders of well-earned qualifications. It is not long before they lose their initial confidence and begin to question their own self-image.

Or at least, would be fair enough if they weren't followed by case studies like this one:

Sophia came to Britain on a government scholarship from a country that has little tradition of empirical research in her field. She was allocated to a supervisor who had good practical experience but who had not in fact done any research himself. She worked away by herself, with occasional comments from him that he thought a particular section very interesting. But he had badly underestimated the nature of a PhD. When she submitted her thesis, the external examiner said that, in his opinion, it was so completely inadequate that there was no point in having the oral examination or in allowing a resubmission. She returned to her country sadder, if not wiser.

No description of any way Sophia could have avoided that. No description of the kind of systems universities put in place to make sure it's not just you and your supervisor who know what you're doing. No comforting tales of Sophia leaving Britain with a huge smile saying that at least the scenery was pretty, or of her getting a non-academic job she's perfectly happy with. Nothing but "[s]he returned to her country sadder, if not wiser." Sophia is this book's equivalent of that man in The Thorn Birds who got gored to death by a pig, if The Thorn Birds claimed to be a helpful guide to rural farming.

Tony's story isn't any cheerier, but is (arguably, arguably) a lot more fun:

[Tony and his supervisor] saw each other less and less because Tony felt that they were talking at cross-purposes. After four months they ceased to have any meetings; after six months Tony was observed rushing into a lecture room to avoid his supervisor whom he saw coming towards him along the corridor. He never submitted his thesis.

Maybe he's still in that lecture room.

Not all research students end up as sobbing heaps on outbound flights or Gollum-like creatures scurrying behind the OHP every time a class comes into the room, and the book does attempt to provide some kind of balance. Consider Bradley, presented as a success story after describing himself as 'utterly alone, but I don't feel isolated':

Bradley explained that he needed to feel that he had rounded off a schedule of work in the three years and that it was this inner drive that had kept him going. At first he had 'gravitated into research because I couldn't think what else to do'. By the third year he said that his 'natural inclination' to do anything other than work hard on his research and complete the thesis had become much less pressing.

Wait wait wait now. What, exactly, is Bradley finding 'much less pressing' these days? Talking to other people? Sleeping? Eating? Somebody take Bradley a sandwich, ASAP! (And take a bucket of fish-heads for Tony while you're there - he doesn't like the natural light much, but we think he comes out to prowl at night.)

The book is aimed at science students (although it thinks it's not), resulting in a bunch of not-exactly-universal practical advice regarding working in a laboratory and collecting data. It advises PhD students to learn how to do research by watching their supervisors, too, which isn't much use to Arts people (although fantastic advice for anyone who wants to rehabilitate an orphaned PhD student back into the wild). Advice which truly does affect everyone tends to appear in the form of mystic Zen-like phrases:

It is a wise student who decides to postpone the pleasures of attempting to be totally original until after the PhD has been obtained.

Originality leads to frustration, frustration leads to despair, despair leads to hate. Employment, a Jedi seeks not.(3)

We proceed through instructions for working with your supervisor, including cheerful insights to bear in mind ('Just as you may take an instant dislike to someone so, too, may your supervisor'), reassuring advice about the nature of your meetings ('[M]ake a short summary of what occured during each tutorial. This sheet of paper should be photocopied with both student and supervisor keeping a copy'), and encouraging anecdotes from other students ('I've blotted out most of this period except the pain'), a brief burst of actual useful advice for 'surviving in a predominantly British, white, male, full-time academic environment', and dire warnings about the viva (some universities allow other people to sit in and watch! What do they provide for half-time entertainment, gladiators beating each other to death?).

So to return to what I was saying: my friend picked up this book and was about to open it, so I did what I had to do. She'll understand one day.


(1) I don't have anything useful to say in this endnote, except that the reason I've gone all endnote-crazy here is because I'm writing an article in a new (strange, alien) style format and trying to get used to the idea in my spare time.

(2) Littlle-known fact: the Reavers in Joss Whedon's Firefly were originally PhD students, until somebody took their conference funding away and they just couldn't take it any more.

(3) While we're on the subject of TV SF and academia, it's apparently semi-canonical fact that Mr Morden, the creepy human emissary for the evil Shadows in Babylon 5, has a PhD. No, seriously this time. It's in one of the books that got the JMS stamp of approval. I think this makes him a less interesting bad guy, actually, especially if the job market for PhDs in the future is as miserable as it is today.