The Social Factory

the blog of King's CMCI PostGrad Society

The ‘Work’ of the PhD – Doctoral Students as Interns?

by Toby Bennett

It seems that every week there is another set of articles written on the perils of pursuing a PhD. One would think that the message has been driven home by now: following a doctoral degree (especially one in the arts and humanities) is long, expensive, emotionally exhausting, and intellectually draining; to do well you must be obsessive-compulsive, have little in the way of a life outside your studies, and probably find it difficult to communicate with others; at the same time, you are consciously aware of the need to self-professionalise – to network, gain teaching experience, and publish research; finally, not only are you unlikely to find a job within the academy, if you do find one it will be unsecure and underpaid, and if you look elsewhere, you may find your qualifications actually hold you back. That’s not to mention satirical sites like PhD Comics and lolmythesis, or the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter, where you can lose yourself for hours in the warm glow that comes with knowing others are similarly doomed. And so, we persevere.

This ‘anxiety industry’ that has built up around university life, and particularly PhD life, worries me because the generalised air of bewilderment and discontent that it points to is symptomatic of a lack of agency. That’s to say – we do not fully understand the system in which we find ourselves, we have little faith that the system understands it either, and so we don’t know how to act in a way that might serve us best. So we just do the same thing that’s always been done, hoping for the best and regularly seeking solace in the fact that no one else seems to understand it either. At best we may find solidarity in the sharing of woes – at worst, however, the sheer volume of toxicity may threaten to finally overwhelm us.

Part of the reason we feel bewildered, however – the university’s in-built contradictions – may paradoxically be the same reason we see to persevere. The life of the academic is not a social one, we are told; research is carried out by lone scholars in an ivory tower – yet to succeed we must network and build an ‘impact’ profile. The university too has multiple roles to play in the contemporary society: educating, skilling, and researching for its own sake; producing economic and cultural value in equal measure. The PhD student, I would suggest, must also negotiate a fragmented subjectivity – and bringing this fragmentation into view may help, at least, to orient our paths.

In this post I try to talk about some of the crossovers between cultural and creative industries and the university; consider the ways in which academia is increasingly thought of as an industry; and then argue that this discourse produces two economic subject positions with which PhDs routinely identify – the customer and the entrepreneur – that may contribute to this feeling of anxiety and disorientation. I end by suggesting that there is a third figure that we can deploy – the intern – which might prove disruptive to such a situation.

Cultural and Creative Work

My own PhD investigates creative work – specifically that carried out in the music industry – and I am sensitive to the discourse that builds up around these jobs, often lending them mythic status. For example: in the music industry we have the hedonistic and often exploitative A&R man, with ‘great ears’ and an ‘instinct’ for hits; in academia on the other hand, we have the lone scholar, holed up in the ivory tower, producing work of great insight and feeling. Different mythic figures, but both, in their own way, providing an alluring and individualised ideal of self-realisation and reward – one which shapes our understanding of what we are doing, where it’s possible to go, and how it’s possible to achieve it.

The wealth of writing that has come out of research into the cultural and creative industries has defined the work that goes on in them as varied, gratifying, and driven by passion – but that it takes place in an unequal, irregular, precarious, and psychologically gruelling ‘reputation economy’. In this context, the sharing of news articles and blogposts online is akin to the sharing of ‘war stories’ that Bridget Conor identifies amongst screenwriters, and which I recognise in my own research context. It is through such sharing activities that these myths endure. Historically, however, researchers in this field (the CCIs) have been slow to consider their own work in the terms described above – perhaps due to unwillingness to consider what they do as ‘work’, or education as an ‘industry’. While anthropologists and social scientists write reams about the difficulties of ‘access’ to the cultures they are researching, rarely do they set their sights on the one in which they are already immersed.

The University as Industry

But the university is indeed an industry – and has become increasingly so since New Labour’s democratisation of access to university education and the change in funding that has accompanied it. Contrary to popular belief, however, no longer does it belong in the tertiary sector, providing a public service. If that were so, the Department for Education would surely be responsible for its policy – as its cognate Dept for Education and Skills was in 2007. Its modern governance by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills now demonstrates the precedence of its primary and secondary industrial operations. And so the academia industry has two main purposes: natural resource extraction of knowledge for the contemporary ‘knowledge economy’ – and the production of workers to work in it (here we might take a moment to reflect on Marx’s dry comparison of the ‘teaching factory ‘to the ‘sausage factory’). Yet, as the concrete economic conditions upon which the university is founded continue to shift, the orthodox understanding (and its mythology) is now starting to be unsettled.

This change is embodied in the individual narratives of academics who were once bastions of the lone scholar model and now find themselves amongst its fiercest critics: the likes of Stefan Collini, the Cambridge don, whose book What Are Universities For? finds him waged in frequent battle against David Willetts; and Andrew McGettigan, the graduate from the CRMEP (a veritable ivory palace of obscure continental philosophy), who has moved from polemics about Benjamin, Brecht and Levinas to increasingly being the  go-to voice on higher education policy, last year finding himself in front of a government select committee as a result. (For introduction to the debates, Collini’s LRB review of the latter’s book is essential reading).

The Work of the PhD

Some of Ros Gill’s recent papers on work in the ‘neoliberal’ university, meanwhile, have ‘broken the silence’ on what it means to actually work in this new environment, making apposite comparison to the plight of cultural workers. In her most recent paper there is an all-too-brief but nonetheless very welcome acknowledgement of the role that PhDs have to play in this ‘aristocracy of labour’, often delivering teaching programmes for little money, and with minimal support. But the work of the PhD is not limited to Graduate Teaching Assistant. It is a time of change, an apprenticeship of sorts, in which a student becomes a professional. Simply because the work they carry out as an academic-in-training is unwaged and may not directly contribute to turning profit does not mean that it should not be recognised as just that – work.

As the journalistic products of the anxiety industry suggest, the PhD is constantly engaged in a kind of ‘work on the self’ that Gill elsewhere identified as being constituent of creative labour. But in some ways, the kind of self-work that is called for in the CCIs is, by virtue of being recognised as an industry, more easily attained – and more readily codified in policy (e.g minimum wage or employment-related benefits). Academia is less certain of its industrial status and more reliant on obscurantist myth as a result.

The Fragmented PhD Subject

In what follows, I identify three different subject positions that occupy divergent (and often conflicting) economic relations, but which nonetheless the PhD is obliged to occupy simultaneously. The first two are:

1)      The customer – the student as student, who pays handsomely for their education and expects access to support/resources, and a certain quality of service in reward.

2)      The entrepreneur – the student as prospective academic, foraging at the edge of academic knowledge in pursuit of their own original contribution, who must announce and defend the value they bring, and perhaps even create new disciplines of study.

Put this way, we can recognise the ways in which each instance is simultaneously repressive and empowering. In the first instance, the transactional relationship that establishes the university as retailer of knowledge (a scarce resource in high demand – or how else would we explain its price tag?) makes its affordability a constant concern – but as long as they can pay the fees then, even if we see this relationship as ‘devaluing’ the delivery of education in some way, nevertheless ‘the customer is always right’ and the university must submit to their demands. In the second instance, the sheer intellectual grit that is required to carve out a niche and to communicate the fact that that niche is relevant, exciting, and valuable will wear down even the sharpest (and most financially solvent) mind – but the inspirational mythology of the lone scholar pays dividends here, when we imagine the artist-author-genius we will be recognised as, once our hard work pays off.

Laid out like this, we can see how the benefits and drawbacks of doing a PhD go hand in hand. At the same time, we recognise also the schism between these first two subject positions clearly, as we experience our own split relation to the consumption and production of knowledge. Transitioning from the former to the latter in a kind of apprenticeship, we are simultaneously paying for and earning our training, unsure which position we occupy, because we are both and neither at the same time. The mythologizing discourse of political rhetoric (consumer sanctity) and academic lore (the greatest minds of our generation) work together here to paper over the cracks, emphasising the empowering aspects and playing down the repressive. To be clear: it is difficult to imagine exploitation occurring in each of these two cases.

PhD as Intern?

If we explicitly think of the university as an industry, however – indeed as one of the creative industries – then I would suggest there is a third subject position that is not so easily spun, despite being fundamental to the modern PhD experience:

3)      The intern – who enters the labour market for the first time on a fixed-term contract, with no promise of employment at the end. The intern is poorly remunerated for their time, if paid at all; ultimately, the reward lies in ‘opportunities’, which they must exploit at all costs if they are to find the career they seek – and if you fail, well, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.

The figure of the intern has the benefit of portraying PhDs as (potential) workers. Their position within the hierarchy of the academia industry is more apparent – and they are perhaps more easily thought of as subjects prone to exploitation. Internships are often valuable entry points into difficult -to-reach careers. But in the popular imagination they are not so obviously empowering (as the head of Island Records says ‘they call it work experience and internship now but back then it was a tea boy’). At the very least, internships are now registered in the popular imagination – whereas, much of the unpaid labour that goes on inside the university is (as Ros Gill notes) ‘almost entirely invisibilised’. In reality, of course, unfunded PhDs (who remain the majority case) are worse off than interns: not just unwaged, they are paying – heavily – for the privilege.

When I left my career in a music company for a PhD, the links between creative work and academic work seemed obvious to me and I was surprised at others’ frequent difficulty in recognising this. I had brought some assumptions and expectations from my former workplace with me – assumptions about being a ‘colleague’, albeit a junior one; expectations of contributing to a lively ‘research culture’. This was, perhaps, naïve and arrogant, like the founder of a small Shoreditch internet start-up imagining himself strutting around at Davos. I am lucky to be funded in my research while the university waives my tuition fees, giving me the illusion of a monthly ‘salary’ and negating my identification with the ‘customer’ relation – but in the entrepreneurial common-sense of PhD life, I have not yet earned the right to be considered an equal. Of course, I understand this necessity. My inexperience spurs me on to work harder on my research and my university is well-equipped for providing resources and support to help PhDs negotiate their paths, steering adeptly between satisfying consumer rights and career training.

Very rarely, however, are doctoral students considered to be already working: improving their CVs; presenting at conferences; contributing to teaching; taking on extra tasks and departmental citizenship roles; attending committee meetings; making use of opportunities and otherwise demonstrating the myriad ways in which they will work well in a future university environment. Though they are taken for granted, it is the anxieties caused by these future-oriented activities that most often pop up in the articles and forums referred to at the start of this post, as well as in conversation. Weirdly, the problem is not that these anxieties are unspoken but that they are endlessly repeated, remaining nonetheless invisible. Perhaps if we think of ourselves as interns, and not customers or entrepreneurs, then we might find ways of articulating such a situation better.

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