Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Are you one of the 95%?

A colleague told me only 5% of people currently working on a PhD will get a full-time academic post. That's a frightening statistic! Even allowing for the fact that many will leave academia after graduation it still means that most aspiring art historians who want a permanent academic post won't get one. This begs the question: why do a PhD in the first place? 

I had a miserable time doing my PhD, and struggled through to produce 78,000 words on views of country estates in late seventeenth century Britain and the particular values accorded to visual descriptions of the natural world. Since then I've had to advise a number of students who've expressed a wish to turn their MA theses into PhD topics, and this has helped me think about why I didn't enjoy my own experience very much. I've come up with three questions I think need to be answered by anyone hoping to start doctoral research.
  1. What's it on? The greatest danger in research is not having a clear sense of what you're researching. My own topic was quite narrow, but also vague, and it wasn't until after I'd done my viva that I got a clear sense of what it was about. A good litmus test might be to see if you can describe your topic in a single sentence without punctuation.
  2. Why does it need to be done? I've seen many research proposals which fall at this hurdle. You may have a well-defined topic, but do you have a compelling rationale? Can you persuade someone that the world needs 100,000 words on your topic, and that someone should pay you to spend four years writing it, or that they should spend two days reading it? It may be that no-one has researched your topic before - a good reason to choose it perhaps, but you should also ask yourself why it has remained untouched or under-researched. In my experience the strongest cases are made on the grounds of the discipline, rather than the merits of the proposed research topic itself. A topic is rarely compelling on its own, but in the context of a discipline it can take on a significance (or not), and the discipline in turn will provide a receptive audience for your work. A good litmus test might be whether you get to know other people working on related topics in the course of working on your PhD. I didn't.
  3. Why do you need to do it? If the first question addressed the cognitive dimension, and the second addressed the intellectual dimension, then this addresses the one which is closest to the heart - the emotional. A PhD will bring you to your knees! I think the key to 'staying the course' is to know what you want to do afterwards. For me it was lecturing, and publishing my PhD; for a friend it was getting a job in a country where having a PhD would open lots of doors. I think the main point that PhD research can be very rewarding but the costs are tremendous and many people find that the intrinsic rewards aren't enough. So be clear about what's in it for you - because no-one else will tell you.  

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