Uncivilizing the PhD: for a politics of doctoral experience

by Bran Thoreau on December 10, 2013

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The road to a PhD is a common source of frustration. It is time to acknowledge and contest this experience as the outcome of a disciplinarian process.

As a faceless PhD student in a social science-y department, I repeatedly catch myself with the strangest metaphors to describe my research experience. The latest one is of academic work as a love relationship with a RealDoll: a lifestyle requiring sustained commitment and a rich (puppetry) skill set, to spin a tapestry of memories around an elegantly irrelevant act of masturbation.

The more I delve into this malaise, the more I become dissatisfied with the folk psychology of peer support inside a PhD community, with older students relating how their ideas got scrapped — sometimes beyond recognition — under the weight of what goes under the name of ‘constructive criticism’ (that, not unlike construction, requires a previous hollowing out of an organic soil to lay concrete foundations). These tales remind me a bit of stories of bullying in the army: we might all have been affected by it but, after the fact, end up looking back at it with some nostalgia, perhaps even a hint of gratitude, and rationalize it as a ‘formative’ experience. Lurking beneath the informal practices of peer support, however, lies buried a much deeper question of knowledge politics, and one that PhD students stupendously fail at engaging politically.

The PhD student is, essentially, a candidate for co-optation in academia. The mechanism is such that the PhD candidate is successfully co-opted upon favorable judgment by at least two other peers, an internal and an external examiner. In this sense, the process of becoming an academic is remarkably similar to that of joining a Rotary Club, or a circle of Freemasons (which, let’s face it, are not the most inclusive organizations in the world!). This somewhat paternalistic mechanism imbues a number of different aspects of the doctoral experience, down to the student-supervisor relationship, which in turn raises a number of political issues. Unfortunately, the failure to apprehend the structural constraints that are embedded in the very set-up for a PhD makes it so that any political points are simply driven underground, buried in the passing rants that PhD students share with one another in fleeting moments of bonding, with the secrecy and truth that accompanies anything shared in vino veritas.

In my tenure as a PhD student, I have possibly learnt one thing about what makes for a ‘good’ PhD. A good PhD is one that turns a captivating idea into a piece of writing that is so dry and mind-numbingly boring as to be utterly unpalatable to its author – who often feels estranged from the final product of his or her multi-year toil – and that is only read (if at all) by others who have an obligation to read it in a professional capacity. No one cares about PhD theses; in fact, even publishers routinely dismiss raw PhD dissertations. Instead, they request a ‘revision’ that amounts to the purging of one’s original idea from the ‘noise’ it has been drowned in, in order to get the academic title.

Such is the connection between doctoral work and boredom, that creativity has been formally fenced in a dedicated scheme: the PhD in Creative Writing. This is the academic equivalent of the nature reserve: somewhere where we are allowed to catch a sanitized glimpse of a normality that is so estranged and tamed as to have been put away in a display case. All writing should be creative, engaging with whatever it wants, in however form it deems appropriate. Anything else is like having a committee on ‘Good Music’, which — beyond the informality of a circle of friends — would probably amount to a fearsome dictatorial institution. And yet, the fact that there is a ‘special’ PhD to allow for an experimentation that should otherwise be everywhere is telling. It discloses a silent assumption that an ‘ordinary’ PhD should not experiment, and any attempt to innovate should be dutifully drowned out by pages and pages of literature reviews. To quote my ‘favorite’ bit from a book that lectures PhD students about what their research experience is meant to be:

The words used to describe the outcome of a PhD project — ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ — may sound rather grand, but we must remember that […] the work for the degree is essentially a research training process and the term ‘original contribution’ has perforce to be interpreted quite narrowly. It does not mean an enormous breakthrough that has the subject rocking on its foundations, and research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating. [1]

Why can’t a statement of this sort be called by its name? The crowding out of political conflict, in typical neoliberal fashion. Conflict requires as a pre-condition the possibility of dissonant experience. This possibility is stifled when a process, whereby such dissonance can be articulated — like a PhD degree — is transformed into a realm of technical know-how. In the end, the creative process remains ‘creative’ and ‘original’ only in the same ironic sense as ‘love’ remains the concern of the Orwellian Ministry of Love.

One way to enforce the numbness that graduates one to the rank of doctor-in-boredom is through the imposition of a form that commands a literature review. The curious thing about literature reviews is that they are one of the central initiatory tools into this strange cult. It is at that stage, in fact, that a number of intellectual characters start entering one’s original literary plans. First it’s one or two. Then it’s fifteen. Then it’s so many that whatever came from you as a starting point has to go, in order for you to cover all the new ground. If a student has something they want to articulate through an extended piece of writing — I have always wondered — why can they not be trusted to choose the literature to draw into the narrative mix?

This is often an organic process, as authors are encountered while one wanders around with loose ends and half-formed ideas. Instead, the literature review typically authorizes a top-down input from one’s supervisor(s), with the injunction to engage with this or that ‘sacred cow’ of a field that is somewhat loosely related (and at times positively irrelevant) to the point one is trying to make. And yet, this is justified as providing a grounding for one’s analysis in the ‘discipline’ of choice. Forget the fact that those artificial partitions of human experience we call ‘disciplines’ become all the more thing-like, more institutionalized, the more people are forced to recognize their existence, through practices like undertaking a literature review.

The point I mean to convey is that — if one is serious about one’s doctoral research — then one is usually trying to articulate a particular personal or social experience and give it literary shape. What often happens, however, is that what comes from a student is inevitably a candidate for being shot down by academic ‘peers’ who end up taking the hierarchical, oppressive role of denying another person’s original articulation of a particular experience, to make it fit certain pre-existing schemas and habits of discourse. This can happen with even the most well-meaning of supervisors, often as a consequence of the unspoken and unacknowledged elements of hierarchy in a supervisory relationship, that gives the supervisor and the student roles which can be hard to escape when not confronted politically.

This is why it is time to address the doctoral experience as a source of political questions. The act of denying someone else’s experience is at the root of political dissent. Workers (including PhD students) feel alienated by the insensitivity to their own needs shown by employers that regard them as ‘costs’. Women feel alienated by the denial of their experience as whole persons, beyond the reproductive role they have been confined to in patriarchal societies. Migrants feel alienated when they are downgraded from human beings to slave-like things, whose worth depends on what they can contribute to what is assumed to be a mono-cultural society. Some might say that nature is equally alienated when it is only engaged as a sink for human activities, rather than as the living thing that it is, and that is why we are killing the planet and ourselves in the process.

The examples, of course, could go on. The point I am trying to drive home, however, is that there is something profoundly sacred and life-giving about having one’s personal, social and political experience recognized and validated by others. This, in fact, is possibly one of the reasons most PhD students embark on a doctoral journey at all. However, as one becomes embedded in an institutional setting that reduces you to someone that is there to be ‘lectured’ and initiated, rather than as a whole person, feelings of frustration and self-defeat can arise. My suggestion in this piece, to borrow a quote from Russell Brand, is “to engage that feeling,” in a way that our impressions can move beyond the lacrimonious ranting that thrives in every PhD community, and open up a political debate about the ‘civilizing’ drive and the patronizing elitism that weighs down on those waiting at the gates of academia, often in the form of this or that ‘technical’ requirement or panel. Perhaps, it is time we picked the lock and just got in.


[1] E. Phillips and D.M. Pugh, How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 5th ed. 2010), pp. 40-41.


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

I - Anth December 10, 2013 at 17:38

Nice read – this expresses my exact sentiments : “The sad reality is that a good PhD is one that turns a captivating idea into a piece of writing that is so dry and mind-numbingly boring as to be utterly unpalatable to its author” is exactly how I feel – been doing some RA work (i.e. literature reviews) – and my motivation for starting a PhD has flown out of the window. I would like to teach but going through 3-4 years of writing a piece of research, which in the end I will not even like, seems hellish, self-defeating and very unattractive. It depends I guess on the department’s research focus and the supervisor…Not to mention the stress of finding funding, especially in the UK/Europe.


Mirjana December 10, 2013 at 18:03

Fantastic piece! Captures all the frustrations and issues around PhD work.


Derek Sayer December 10, 2013 at 20:08

When I was a PhD student, I asked Philip Abrams, then Professor of Sociology at the University of Durham, whether my thesis had to have a literature review since I preferred to engage with its subject-matter. He sniffed: “Literature review? MA stuff.” Clearly times have moved on. This piece is well worth reading. I’d only add that its criticisms don’t just apply to the PhD but most academic so-called writing (the kind that is encouraged by the mandarins of the UK REF). In that sense, sadly, the PhD remains a good apprenticeship for much of what is to come …


Jeni December 10, 2013 at 21:19

I did an internship at a Social Science department prior to applying for a PhD studentship last summer. I was lucky enough to see the danger signs of what the author is describing here. I witnessed a professor-doctoral student relationship that was very far removed from the notions of academic freedom, independent thinking and debate I had prior to my internship. I was particularly appalled at the way PhD students didn’t dare express an opinion or engage in meaningful discussion, let alone contradict professors, even in an informal setting. Needless to say, I’m very glad I didn’t get in. If I had, I would have declined the position. Right now I’m working for a non-profit organization and my job has no academic pretense whatsoever.


Eric December 10, 2013 at 23:28

I don’t recognize myself in this at all. I am having a great time working on my dissertation. What I find problematic about your article is when you say “having one’s personal, social and political experience recognized and validated by others”. What do you mean by that? Certainly, your supervisor and the reading committee will only recognize the academic merit of your dissertation, regardless who you are or what your political or social background is.

In connection with this you say “if one is serious about one’s doctoral research — then one is usually trying to articulate a particular personal or social experience and give it literary shape.” Again, what do you mean? I love what I do and perhaps you could say this is my personal experience. Still I would not say that writing my dissertation is ‘giving literary shape’ to that love.

Please do clarify, I would love to hear more about these points. All the best!


Inger Mewburn December 10, 2013 at 23:42

Interesting article – thanks for linking to my Thesis Whisperer blog so I found it. I hope I don’t indulge in the uncritical culture of support, if you read more of my posts, for example this one: http://thesiswhisperer.com/2012/08/16/academic-arrogance/ you’ll see I share many of your concerns.

For what it’s worth, as a professional research educator I have had many of the doubts you express about ‘the system’. And I’m not the only academic to wonder: I recommend you read this paper which foreshadows your argument about academia and the military (which is one I’ve thought about for a long time too) http://manainkblog.typepad.com/faultlines/files/ForgedInFire.pdf

I don’t know how we can go about change – there are a lot of good things about disciplinary cultures, but some problems and issues too. I congratulate you on adding so thoughtfully to the debate.



Jennifer Frances Armstrong December 11, 2013 at 06:13

Yes, it is disappointing when examiners and others don’t seem to recognize the sacred aspect in putting forward a piece of writing in an attempt to communicate something new. It really wouldn’t cost them anything to acknowledge the spirit of the adventure and the quality of the risks taken. They can still criticise and express their range of knowledge. But, they are small spirited — probably as a result of something academia has done to them. They don’t want to offer a human hand or express warmth in mutual recognition, because they imagine that their real power comes from giving a scolding.


December 11, 2013 at 09:40

I’m experiencing more or less the same, I’m having my PhD in Italy. Maybe here is even worst, because as PhD students we are perceived as outside University since we are no more students and not yet researcher. Noboby cares to us, professors just shout down your work and never suggest something. You don’t need to imporve but just to survive! Really sad and disappointing.


Scott December 11, 2013 at 10:59

I wanted to like this — there’s lots in the PhD worthy of critique — but the idea that “there is something profoundly sacred and life-giving about having one’s personal, social and political experience recognized and validated by others” takes this way off-track. These are excellent reasons to start a family or become politically active; they are terrible reasons to do a PhD. But my real beef is how this article downplays (or dismisses as pure bullying oppression) the value of critique and contestation – of having your views challenged, enlarged and maybe transformed, rather than simply affirmed.

Incidentally, in my field it would be a howler to include literature reviews in the thesis itself. Like doing scales in the middle of performing a piano concerto in front of an audience. That sort of ‘disciplinary grounding’ stuff should really be about establishing a platform on which the student can do their own thing, as far as reasonable on their own terms. The idea that creativity is utterly incompatible with this is just silly, at least in the humanities.


s December 11, 2013 at 17:06

I can’t help but think that much of the disillusionment expressed here comes from an idealized view of academia. “Western” universities have started up as elitist, feudal institutions, were transformed and expanded in order to provide the illusion of social mobility and now try to survice in a neoliberal setting. A general absence of creative, radical thinking should not come as a surprise.


Kate December 11, 2013 at 17:39

I found lit reviews really helpful in figuring out what I was saying and with whom I was speaking/writing. You really experience that learning and reading process as cultish initiation? Wow. I also did not go to graduate school to have my experiences or politics affirmed. I’m a little concerned by the growth in “grad-school-is-social-death” narrative that seems to be spinning around the interwebs these days and which this piece seems a part of. I’m no longer a grad student and I miss those days of time to read and think with like-minded peers. Yes, I taught during graduate school, but nowhere near as much as I have taught since; grad school was mostly time under my own control, and the training may have pulled in my creativity for a time, but I added so many tools to my critical toolbox in those years of reading in the field. Has something radically shifted in the 7 years or so since I finished my Ph.D.?


Bran Thoreau December 12, 2013 at 03:06

The discussion that has followed the article seems, to me, to have reproduced in significant ways some of the ways of suppressing dissonant experience that I describe in my piece. This is particularly evident of comments of the sort: ‘This cannot possibly be, because I have never seen this happen to me or to my friends’. This mode of arguing closely reproduces the disciplinarian approach of hierarchical practices of ‘critique’, starting from (a) a denial of the validity of the claim I am trying to put forth and (b) a more or less veiled suggestion to approach the PhD in a ‘normal’ way (this is particularly evident in one comment suggesting that the PhD is not the appropriate place to articulate one’s social or political experience, these being better confined to the ‘personal’, as opposed to the ‘professional’ sphere. Sigh).
If you enjoy the PhD and have never had any problems with it, then that’s great for you. I do not mean to diss your experience, because it is well possible that it fits some people. Where the discussion mirrors a disciplinarian process is in the assumption that, because one enjoyed this or that aspect of it, then it cannot possibly be that other people can have a different experience. And it cannot possibly be that the institution of the PhD can be adjusted to make room for that experience. If even marriage laws have been changed to accommodate different experiences of love, then perhaps academia could become a place that embraces a wider array of experiences of ‘inquiry’ than it does at present. We would do each other a great service as PhD students if we stopped assuming that one’s difficulties as a PhD need to be related to that particular person’s ‘unfitness’ for academia. Perhaps, it’s time to consider the possibility that it is also the academic family – not the prodigal son – that might be dysfunctional …


Greg December 12, 2013 at 13:18

Thanks for your post and summary. I can relate to much of what you’re saying: personally I had a great supervisor for my phd, but as you so rightly point out in the comments, that’s a minority experience. I agree that a phd is a form of self-expression: if you’re not personally invested, you don’t finish. That makes having your work taken away from you that much harder to bear.

The only thing I’d add is that this dehumanization – or alienation, as Marx put it – applies to all wage labour. Our essences are taken from us for a profit. This was my experience pre- and post-grad school, and I haven’t even been ‘lucky’ enough to find academic work. If more grad students understood this, I think we could break down some of those barriers you describe, not just between phd students but between them and other workers. In a phrase, class consciousness. The feudal relations between profs and students encourages a guild mentality that works against this. But some campus activism, such as solidarity and service worker support campaigns, offers a possible way out. In other words, grad students can’t create the answer just by changing their own conditions and mindsets, but by working to change the world.


Ed FIRMAGE December 12, 2013 at 22:41

We could pick the lock or just kick the damn door down. Why not the latter?


Olav Muurlink December 16, 2013 at 00:33

A lot of the frustrations you express are common to all disciplines, but not all…and not even all within the social sciences. You claim a thesis involves “trying to articulate a particular personal or social experience and give it literary shape”, but that is only within a very narrow disciplinary front. In sociology, psychology, or even history, articulating a personal experience would be insufficient for a PhD thesis. However, you are right that doing a thesis is really a process of taking a nice, fresh, juicy idea, squeezing it and pummelling it (or allowing it to be squeezed and pummelled) into a very dry biscuit that barely resembles the fruit.


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Fleurdamour May 1, 2014 at 01:02

This sounds similar to the experience I had with editors when I was freelance writing magazine articles. I had to fight them tooth and nail to try to keep them from hopelessly dumbing down my work or ironing every bit of life and energy out of it. It was soul-crushing.


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