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May 20, 2004

What’s a PhD?

Posted by dogpossum on May 20, 2004 2:05 PM in the category academia

The short answer? A PhD is a big long essay. More like a book than an essay. An academic book. An academic book that has do fulfil a whole truckload of requirements, the biggest of which are a) contributing new knowledge to the field and b) demonstrating a clear and excellent understanding of the literature (stuff that's already been written) in the field of research.

The long answer?...

How big?
PhD theses are about 80 000 words long, down from 100 000, in the days when universities were adequately funded. Now we’re down 20 000 words (the length of an MA, pretty much), completion rates are WAY down in PhDs in arts. So they keep reducing the word length, instead of increasing the funding and resources to assist PhDs in their research, so they can produce longer, more useful and comprehensive research. Arseholes.
80 000 words is not enough. I think it’s actually 60 000 for people in our school but I don’t want to think about that.

How long?
It takes (on average) four years to complete a PhD thesis. The government will fund PhDs for only three and a half years. That’s three years official enrolment, plus a six month extension. The Department/Uni you’re in receives this funding only after you complete. So they’re taking a punt on accepting you into their programs. Most PhDs are on a scholarship of some type (as I am – a Latrobe Uni Postgraduate research award), or they have a partner/parents supporting them.

Ah, the life of a student...
Doing a PhD is a full time job. Overworking is common in research postgrads – you put in far more than eight hours a day in a five day working week. I would spend about five days in front of the computer a day, and it’s best to aim for about three or four good hours writing. I have no trouble writing – I can write far more. But I need to edit a lot. You spend a lot of time reading as a PhD – that accounts for more hours. You also spend time chasing stuff in the library and online, dealing with dumb administrative things (grant applications, fixing your enrolment, etc) and fussing over your bibliography.

Pgrad work makes you nuts.
Depression and anxiety are rife in pgrad communities – I’ve yet to meet a PhD or MA research pgrad who’s not had troubles with either during their candidacy. A large proportion of the pgrads that I’ve known (in three universities) have gone through periods of serious depression where they’ve been taking medication, been in counselling, taken to their beds or neglected themselves. Needless to say, this isn’t so good for your research. This depression and anxiety is, I think, the natural consequence of working for a very long time on a single project with inadequate professional and personal support networks.

And what makes it so hard?
We work alone, for the most part, and don’t get a whole lot of feedback from our peers on our work. supervisors are very important, but there are many supervisors who simply don’t provide the support necessary for pgrads. And let me make it clear: when you go into a PhD or MA, you don’t actually know how to do this stuff. You have never attempted a project like this before, you have only – comparatively – rudimentary research and writing skills. You need to learn how to read and write and research and network and plan and just plain do the thing as you go. Often on your own. So you make quite a few mistakes. See how important supervisors are?

What exactly do you do?
Being a PhD candidate (as I am) means that you write this huge thesis over the three years, you also give at least one paper a year at conferences, etc, you publish a couple of papers in journals, and you try not to die. Most PhDs also tutor, maybe give a guest lecture, do some research assistant work. This fills out your resume and serves as excellent distraction from the thesis. It also skills you up, professionally, and helps you learn the trade – being an academic in a university. I have taught a couple of courses (at La Trobe and Uni Melb), and am an RA for the supervisor on the lord of the rings project. I’ve given a paper, plan to write one for publishing this year, and might do some more teaching (for the money!).

Where do i stand in the scheme of university things?
I’ve done an MA (at UQ), where I also did my Bachelor of Arts and did received a first class Honours degree. I am collecting letters to put after my name.
I’ve been working on this PhD for about a year and four months, now. I’m right on target, which is unusual, for me or any other PhD. I’m fairly certain I’ll finish on time. So long as I don’t get ill, get pregnant, have a death in the family, get injured, have my computer blow up, break up with my partner, move too many times, get badly depressed, be abducted by aliens or have to work for more money.
Oh, right. So basically, as long as I put my life on hold while i'm doing my PhD I’ll be fine. Right. Ok.

The up-side.
All that negativity aside, it’s still a totally excellent opportunity. PhDs really weed out those who aren’t actually interested in being academics. You have to really want to do this, to really like what you’re doing. I’ve heard PhDs described as the only opportunity you ever have, as an academic, to work on a giant project, uninterrupted, for so long. And that’s how I think of it – I love what I do, I love reading and writing and thinking and talking. Having taken hiatus from the work before, I know I couldn’t not do it. Possibly because I’m an obsessive compulsive (though what pgrad isn’t?).
Now, so long as I can survive the next two years .

Posted by dogpossum on May 20, 2004 2:05 PM in the category academia