Sunday, 31 August 2014

What's the value of a PhD? Reflections on Cumberland Lodge

Dr Steve Joy

This week, I’ve once again had the delight of participating in Cumberland Lodge’s annual Life Beyond the PhD conference, along with more than sixty research students and speakers from many subjects, universities, and corners of the UK. The venue is magical: half lost in the middle of a thousand-year-old Great Park, the Lodge is a former royal residence with its own charmingly déclassé inventory of furniture supposedly found by the Queen Mother in the cupboards of Windsor Castle.

Yet what struck me most vividly about the conference was not, in fact, the sense of having wandered into a low-budget prequel to The King’s Speech. Nor was it how engaged, thoughtful, and open-minded the participants were (although this was certainly inspiring). What struck me most powerfully was the pretty rare opportunity to ask big questions about the value of a PhD, of research per se, and to juxtapose these with the sort of practical, real-world concerns that doctoral students have to confront. How, for example, might doctoral research shape someone personally & morally as well as intellectually, and is the person so formed really competitive in the twenty-first-century job market?

It’s easy, especially when it comes to career planning, to become overly focused on the utilitarian aspects of education & the metrics that drive recruitment – a kind of Realpolitik mindset which finds expression in much of the careers advice doled out these days. Here’s an example which I heard for the first time via a couple of the conference participants: “Don’t put your PhD down in the education section of your CV; list it as work experience.” It’s probably smart advice: employers outside academia do tend to value work experience more than education, and doctoral researchers do develop a wide range of professional skills. But I have to say that as pieces of advice go, I find this one rather dispiriting, not least because of the basic implication that education is something awkward & best handled through a ‘rebranding’ sleight of hand.

It can seem like a trade-off between value & values, between economic & ethical worth. This dilemma feels germane to what I understand to be the educational mission of Cumberland Lodge, which has been, since 1947, to foster critical discussion amongst students and academics not about the technical minutiae of a specific discipline, but about bigger, broader questions. At the same time, the Foundation challenges us to think beyond our own field and ask ourselves what we have to say to scholars in other fields. Thus it was from the outset an interdisciplinary mission (a fact which I intend to cite the next time somebody tries to tell me that interdisciplinarity is an entirely recent & transitory fad).

What does your particular area of inquiry have to say to others? What should other scholars do differently with the findings of your research? What does your field have to say about the human condition? And how have you changed as a person during your research? Don’t be fooled into thinking that we should leave to the philosophers such navel-gazing fancies. To be sure, they can be viewed as philosophical questions, and they should be. But I think they are also key to good career management.

Nowadays, you simply have to be able to think at the margins of your work & tell others, whether they’re outside your subject or outside the academy full stop, why they should care. Employers beyond higher education will want to know what your research achieved (and why that was a good thing). Research funders will want to know why your work needs to be done. Selection committees will want to know what your work has to say to theirs & how you might collaborate with others. Family, friends, and acquaintances will probably just want to know why you studied something so niche, for so long.

But, to me, the joy of the Life Beyond the PhD conference at Cumberland Lodge was that we were able at once to talk career realities whilst also reminding ourselves not to be afraid of the ontological & pedagogical underpinnings of what we do. And there’s something very powerful about the thought that, in the Venn diagram of our lives, the two spheres can – and should – intersect.

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