Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A tale of three PhDs

On his own site and at the Drink-soaked Trots Francis Sedgemore rightly gets indignant about an awful, self-indulgent 'PhD survival guide' written by Patrick Tomlin in the Guardian. I must admit to a certain amusement at the exposure of the limits of Francis' libertarianism - 'procrastinating research students who should be horsewhipped daily by their supervisors' - otherwise I agree with every expletive.

There is only one thing I would add, and it is best illustrated by three stories, all of mature students. First, there is my friend June, who I used to work with in a Further Education college. She set out on a part-time PhD in her 60's and got there this year; a tribute to her determination in the face of adversity. Then there is Pam, who took a huge pay cut to take a secondment to work on a project with a half-time PhD and has nearly completed in time. Finally, there is mine. Despite numerous attempts I was never able to get funding and so I embarked on the long (very), arduous, and expensive, part-time route, fitting my studies around increasingly demanding jobs. I got it last year, thanks to a period of study leave for which I will always be grateful. The sacrifices of time and money that all three of us made show a barely sane devotion to learning, which is not something particularly evident from Tomlin's piece. Us three have made it, others have not.

If there is one thing this country is good at it is moaning. However, this national characteristic is utterly revolting in the mouths of the privileged. Opportunities for people to undertake post-graduate study are unjustly limited. I know highly able people who would kill for the opportunity Tomlin has, but they cannot afford to do it. Not only that, if his article is anything to go by, I suspect that they are far more able than him. If he wants to work properly and finish his thesis then I have only one piece of advice. Don't rely on threatening cups of tea, get up every morning and realise how utterly, totally privileged you are. Just consider that your position as a research student at Oxford is not down to your wonderful talent but to time and chance, the same factors that have denied your opportunities to others of great ability. Tomlin, you have it easy. Your good fortune confers a duty to use it responsibly, and a little humility would not go amiss.

2 comments:

Dr mikeovswinton said...

You've hit a few nails on a few heads here Peter. I'll never forget the feeling of total fraudulence I had when I went to get my Ph D presented. I had a three year SSRC (showing my age!) funding, and I found myself amongst a group of teachers who had done B.Eds the part time route. Several of them told me how hard I must have worked and what an achievement it was. Actually it was the best three years of my life, and I was damn sure that in sheer grinding effort they had put in far more than I had, especially as they were working full time in a demanding job. I bet they hadn't spent as many wednesday afternoons playing snooker as I had. (And I still hate the bloody Webbs, the subjects of my magnum opus.)

Dr Hiding Pup said...

If there's one thing you *shouldn't* treat as a job it's your PhD. Years to perfect the most substantial idea you've ever had; to plumb the farthest reaches of your intellect and imagination; to change the face of scholarship and then the world... and you clock on at nine and clock off at five? Yeah, right...