‘Too Many PhDs?’

In a recent Slate essay, Rebecca Schumann, a visiting assistant professor of German at Ohio State University, demonstrates tidily the alleged lure of academic life: ‘Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired?’

One needn’t wonder how this idyll, so comically removed from the reality, plants itself in the would-be academic’s head. It’s the image most people outside the ivory tower have of life within its walls, minus a few further clichés: the long sleep-ins, the bottomless lattés, the intense exchanges with adoring grad students … One also, then, needn’t spend too long on how we got the idea in our collective head that a university research career, the so-called life of the mind, is a kind of rort, a swindle. Why should these effeminate few, we ask, who produce nothing of any real use, go punting straw-hatted on a river of our sweat?

Given the image on which it’s premised, this question may seem fair enough. But might one not want first, before getting so hot under the collar, to ask what makes that image so pervasive, so persuasive, in the first place? Or to reflect on the unsettling fact that, whatever the sign under which it occurs, the marginalisation, vilification and, to put it for most cases inexactly, eventual dismantling of an independent intellectual class is a hallmark of every totalitarian society ever?

Many will think this takes it too far. After all, looking around the world at the moment, including at countries where the resurrection of fascism and – worse still! – socialism is occurring in plain view, Australia is in fine shape. Finer shape even, apparently, than we know. As a widely circulated article by journalist Paola Totaro, commenting on the botched attempt on Julia Gillard’s leadership in March, recently argued in the Guardian and the Age:

Viewed from Europe, where national governments are planning to bail out their banks by raiding the savings accounts not just of Russian oligarchs but pensioners too, news of yet another political attack against Australia’s leader smacks of a particular strain of antipodean madness. For decades, it is the British who have worn the ‘whingeing Poms’ label. Now, it’s time for Australians to accept the malcontents’ mantle, because it is they who appear incapable of seeing just how lucky they are.

I will lay aside the implication of Totara’s article – which would be a funny one, really, if it weren’t as frustrating as it is ridiculous – that the global financial crisis was a matter of bad luck rather than, at best, a millennial brand of myopia and greed and, at worst, the very lowest kind of cynicism and criminality amongst the world’s wealthy and their lackeys in politics.

Instead, I want to speak for a moment to this idea that Australians live in a lucky country.

To start with, as journalist John Pilger pointed out in a trenchant 2007 essay, the phrase ‘the lucky country’ was coined by Donald Horne, contrary to its usage by sloganeers of the status quo, ironically. ‘Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck,’ Pilger quotes Horne, a writer who, on the former’s account, thought of ‘much of the Australian elite as unfailingly unoriginal, race-obsessed and in thrall to imperial power and its wars’.

If this was the truth in 1964, our luck has prevailed. That any ‘modern’ country in which so execrable a misogynist as Tony Abbott seems a viable candidate for national leadership – indeed, as such a prominent political figure, apparently already represents a significant part of the population – should consider itself lucky is an indication of nothing if not how dire the global situation really is. That what passes for a Left in such a country has been so hopelessly unable to manage its own house, let alone mount a compelling case for itself amidst what is now being referred to as the Great Recession, confirms the case.

In other words, I concede to Totaro that luck is nearly always relative. But in that case we should also remember, in looking around the world to register accurately the dubious superiority of our own situation, that just as amongst the denizens of George Orwell’s Animal Farm some animals were more equal than others, some Australians are a good deal luckier than the rest. While the vast majority of people in our country have had their hopes raised and razed in recent years by promises and failures of one ‘revolution’ after another, the nation’s increasing wealth – 21 years of growth in a row! guffaws Totaro – has become more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. A report issued by the Australian government earlier this year notes that the last fifteen years have brought us a ‘significant increase’ in income inequality. Social inequality currently exceeds the OECD average.

For those of us in, if you like, the 99 per cent, the recent announcement of a $2.3b cut to university budgets from 2013 to 2017 – itself a supposed prong of the education revolution by which we are presently being forked – is just the latest instalment in what has become a very predictable pattern.

It is nonetheless made more difficult to swallow by having emerged within weeks of a New Yorker profile on Australia’s wealthiest woman, Gina Rinehart, whose net worth is somewhere in the vicinity of $30b – a fortune that could revolutionise our education system, for real, including per Gonski, many times over, while leaving her a billionaire. Rinehart, however, is only one of the more grotesque features in an ugly landscape.

Despite what they would have us believe, it is not, in the majority of cases, for skill or innovation or leadership that the rising class of mega-millionaires and billionaires is rewarded. They have, in the main, been beneficiaries of a resource boom: the harvesting of several future generations’ worth of wealth from the ground. With China a willing buyer, it is hardly work demanding of genius. Even less does it represent the contribution to our society that they, in keeping with the rhetoric of ‘job creators’, claim. On the contrary, a great many of them resent what little they must give back, take great pains and expense to minimise the sum, and see what they cannot avoid handing over as charity – a set of sentiments in naked view, for example, when Rinehart poetises against the ‘envious unthinking people’ who would stifle the ‘enterprise and capital which give each project worth’ by ‘unleashing rampant tax’, and made resoundingly clear by recent revelations of just how vast the fortunes being siphoned out of developed economies, including Australia’s, and hidden in offshore tax havens. As a result, when the coal and the ore run out – and they will run out, or the environment will simply collapse – the wealthiest will be well insulated. And the rest of us?

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t be rewarded for their work. Or that the rewards shouldn’t be competitive. What I’m pointing to is that the decision to allow wealth to be accumulated by individuals in a way that is, when not manifestly destructive of, then a conspicuous disadvantage to, the fabric of our community, just that: a decision. And that we could therefore make a different one. Yes we should improve our schools. But instead of doing it at the cost of universities, or any other vital social system, we could make a broader, more sensible, democratic decision about the allocation of an economic surplus that is, as journalist Paul Cleary has described it, a ‘once-in-a-century opportunity’. Put otherwise – and I’m not convinced you need to be a devout Leftist or much of a devout anything at all to see this – to the extent that there is some cake to be shared, the Rineharts of the world may not need quite so large a slice.

The author of the Slate piece, arguing through a mouthful of sour grapes, has this advice for the aspiring graduate student: ‘Don’t do it. Just don’t.’ And why not? ‘[B]ecause the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job – and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.’

As a doctoral student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney – as a student of literature, no less – one might expect that, in the face of the latest budgetary news, I’d be at the very least a good candidate for heeding such advice. Add to this that the Slate essay, though it happened to occasion the words you’re reading, far from being some lone cry, is an example of a growing genre of writings (an industry, just about) warning us not to bother with higher education. And these writings are themselves only the most explicit bearers of this message in a culture antipathetic in countless more subtle ways to any cognitive activity that is not immediately, in a strictly fiscal sense, productive.

This last point was brought home by a panel discussion, broadcast on ABC’s Radio National this month, on the topic ‘Too Many PhDs?’. The report which guided the conversation, Career Support for Researchers, conducted by the Australian Council of Learned Academies, had found that, while the number of people undertaking doctoral degrees in Australia has risen from around 4,000 to nearly 7,000 since 2001, not only is the proportion of those who move into research careers dismal, but that those who ‘successfully’ do are dogged by unliveable job insecurity.

The presenter Paul Barclay seemed unable to grasp the possibility that, rather than meaning we are producing too many graduates, this research could suggest we aren’t creating enough decent positions for them to fill. Toss Gascoigne, one of the report’s authors, described the system as ‘wasteful’ of our ‘best and brightest’ resources – professionals who, in their responses to the Council’s survey, commonly wanted research careers in order to work ‘on challenging problems, finding solutions, and making a difference and helping people’. Notwithstanding Gascoigne’s insistence that ‘a PhD is not just the vocational training for academics, but of much greater utility for the whole community’, most dispiriting of all was the repeated and uncontested recommendation, from several of the panellists, that savvy doctoral students always bear in mind ‘the applicability’ of their research to ‘industry imperatives’ and be sure and nurture ‘links with industry’.

This colonisation of universities’ research programs by the logic of the market is the same as that variously at work, here and abroad, in the ongoing casualisation of its workforce; in the subordination of employment prospects to student ‘feedback’; in the imposition of untenable publishing expectations; and in the rise of so-called massive open online courses – all kinds of seeming quantitative democratisation by actual qualitative evisceration. I could go on.

Given all of which, yes, I should, in a very rational way, be convinced to give it away. I, like every reasonable person, care about my future. I, like everyone else, have a threshold at which uncertainty becomes uncomfortable. And I, not abnormally I think, spend probably far too much time scheming away about how to improve my own little lot. You can’t be a part of our culture and not want certain things; a sense of lack is the sine qua non of citizenship. The odds are stacked massively against my receiving a job that would satisfy such desires in a university. Let alone one that would begin to meet Schumann’s expectations.

One of the reasons I am not convinced – one of the reasons why I don’t simply ‘get a real job’ or at least transfer to an MBA or a Juris Doctor, why I urge my present colleagues to stay the course and my aspiring ones to enrol – is that the image of the academic good life with which I began, even if that life existed, would not be the reason to study at postgraduate level. In fact, to bow to that image, including when one rues its passing, is to play into the very instrumentalisation of education that allows it, once it is identified as unproductive, as without sufficient use, to be rationalised away.

Of course I believe more money, not less, should flow into the university system. And yet to live with the expectation that one should always and predictably ‘get something’ out of academic research is, in an important way, contrary to the enterprise. Part of the sickness. It is to accede to a method of valuation that leaves little room for things most of us, in our mindful pauses, know matter to enlargement, if not always growth. The goal, it seems to me, is to change the world, if only by thinking about it in a new and interesting way – not to find yourself a comfy nook to curl up in. To question accepted ideas of what counts as ‘getting’, what counts as ‘something’. In the final reckoning, then, what I’m vying for is not more and better opportunities instead of fewer and worse. What I want is to live in a culture capable of valuing in denominations beside the dollar. The problem with Australians isn’t, as Totaro implies, that we’re not grateful enough. Nor is it that we spend too much time complaining. Our problem – and we’re far from alone in this – is that we continue to operate at far too narrow a critical horizon. In that sense, these latest signals that we should abandon any thinking not sanctioned, indeed all but prohibited, by the dominant way of seeing things should be heard as that work’s clarion call.


Jason Childs

Jason Childs is a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The UTS Writers’ Anthology and the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. A current doctoral student at the University of Technology, Sydney, his research is focused on philosophy and the contemporary novel.

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  1. Great article, thank you! The final paragraph is a more articulate version of what I was shouting at Radio National during that panel discussion.

  2. Want to be part of an “independent intellectual class”? Fine, go ahead – but BE “independent”, and don’t expect taxpayers to foot the bill for your self-indulgence.

    1. The point the author was making is that it is NOT self indulgence. It is investing several years of back-breaking work in finding answers to a question that may, or may not, be industry-related, but which is a real question and advances knowledge. Only those who are prepared to do that, are allowed to call it ‘self-indulgence’. Or indeed anything else.

  3. I would like to commend the author of this article for voicing truths that we all feel, but few have had the courage – and the articulateness amidst madness that has beset the Universities in which we work – to voice so succintly. Thank you.

  4. The article assumes that if one wants to broaden one’s horizons and expand knowledge, it should be done within a university context by getting a PhD.

    There are far more interesting and enlightening ways to accomplish the same goal without participating in a system that brings with it all of the negative attributes of a 3 or 4-year PhD program.

    These days, such a program is designed to train researchers, and the relevant government funding is labeled as such. It seems folly to participate in a system that is designed to create career researchers and then deride those who point out that there are not enough researcher positions available for those who complete the program.

    I’d imagine that nearly all of us who have been through the process wish that PhD programs were geared differently and were truly designed to expand knowledge. But there are better avenues for personal development, and indeed for the advancement of human knowledge, than participation in the soul-draining, isolating exercise that is a modern PhD program.

  5. Recent research into the apparently pointless subject of how cicadas keep themselves clean has shown that the skin of these insects is covered in ‘nano bumps’ which act with the coalescing of dew to drive contaminants off the insects. This is likely to drive a whole industry developing self-cleaning surfaces. Beauty!

    When that industry develops, the source of it will have been human curiosity, not cupidity.

    Pure research is called ‘pure’ for a reason. It needs to be.

    I am a barely literate, high school flunking tax payer. I wouldn’t know a good idea if it popped up in my porridge, but I am happy to fund research into insect wings, bird calls, the structure of moss, Mozart’s use of the diminished fifth, the rate at which M&M’s tumble from a bag… anything prompted by human curiosity. It’s what makes us human, boys and girls.

    1. Yes, I agree with Mr Firkin. We are never going to be the clever country many dumbarses harp on about so we may as well settle for the curious country…”I love a curious country/covered with curly hair/that think’s it’s smart but’s stupid/with misplaced commas everywhere.” …with apologies to no-one. YCAGAGF.

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