Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Cyclone Tara

Yesterday I went to a seminar presented by Associate Professor Tara Brabazon, held at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies (CCCS). The talk was pitched to new postgraduate students, in particular those students who hope to have an academic career. The key point of the paper was that if postgraduates in the social sciences and humanities are going to secure ongoing employment in their chosen field, they should plan their careers and be prepared to work.

The advice to plan and work hard would seem to hold true for the attainment of success in any career, but in the context of diminishing opportunities for academic employment for PhD graduates in the social sciences and humanities, even exemplary planning and hard work are not any guarantee of a tenured position. One of the most interesting questions raised by Tara during the session was about the lack of employment prospects for recipients of higher degrees: what are the ethics of supervising bright and capable students through advanced degrees when it’s increasingly apparent that not all of them will find work? Of course that was a question for the already successful academics in the room to ponder. For the neophyte scholar the question was intended to prompt an honest self-appraisal: why do a PhD?

I was interested in some comments made by Professor Tom O’Regan, who was in the audience, which were about publishing but can, I think, be applied to the question of the purpose of the PhD. Tom spoke about the sense of having something to say and wanting to communicate it to an audience or, perhaps more accurately, a public, where your writing might have some positive effect, however you might judge that. While anyone’s PhD is unlikely to be read by more than 5 people, it is one of the necessary and preliminary steps that serves to create a platform from which to communicate more widely; not least because it is from that document graduates are most likely to draw their first scholarly articles.

On the question of adapting the PhD for publication, I was somewhat surprised to hear Tara’s advice that it isn’t necessarily advisable to pitch your PhD as a book, citing most publishers’ aversion to the PhD form. She was firm on the suggestion that the work of the PhD should be rehearsed and adapted into peer-reviewed articles, but she advised that instead of approaching your PhD with the question ‘What’s the title of your book?’ in mind, it would be better to approach your first post-PhD book with the question ‘What’s the title of your second book?’ in mind. The upshot is, if you practically have to start your PhD again in order to adapt it for a (slightly) broader audience, then you might as well get another topic. I was probably startled by Tara’s position on the PhD – first book relationship, because I know of at least three people who have turned their PhDs into books. The prospect of a book deal functions as a kind of post-PhD holy grail to the currently enrolled. I suppose if someone influential believes in your work enough and offers to introduce you to a publisher, you’re not likely to say no. Conversely, Tara’s suggestion to publish articles seems like an excellent way of communicating your completed research and finally moving on from your (never-ending) student days.

The overwhelming impression I got of Tara was one of inexhaustible energy. She is indefatigable. The sheer strength of her personality fuels her through days that, we learned, begin at 3am and last until 10pm. These incredible hours undoubtedly explain her phenomenal success; in a short twelve years she has an extensive list of publications. In the same period she has been showered with teaching awards and mentored 24 PhD students to completion as well. Such a record is unquestionably impressive, but I certainly wouldn’t prescribe it for myself. I cannot work at this pace or intensity. Did I mention that in addition to her PhD, she has since completed a Bachelor of Education, a Master’s of Education and a Graduate Diploma of some description? Phew! There is no doubt that Tara thrives in the environment she has chosen, but I would surely break down if I tried to match her.

What I can take away from the afternoon is the advice to begin planning my career now. I have already decided that I will do a Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education next year, partly because the School encourages its postgraduates to do this qualification as part of their commitment to our professional development and partly because I think I have a duty to future students to be a professional and qualified teacher (Any former students reading this, please accept my belated apologies). On teaching, I liked Tara’s assertion of its importance in the face of its devaluation through the casualisation of teaching labour and numerous other managerial initiatives. I found the advice about having at least 5 refereed articles/book chapters by the time I finish my PhD to be a tangible goal I could work towards. I think the afternoon also reconfirmed my sense that if I want this academic gig, then I just have to dig in. Even if the tenured job isn’t there as soon as I graduate, I have to keep going. In many ways I feel prepared for this life of work without any immediate reward; if nothing else, being a student for so long prepares you to survive a low income and an uncertain existence, so what’s another couple of years?

There was some suggestion in the room, in the discussion afterwards, that many academics from the baby-boomer generation are approaching retirement in as soon as three years, so there will be a number of positions available to graduating PhD students; in fact, there might even be a dearth of humanities scholars to fill the positions that the boomers leave. Of course, the assumption in that argument is that current levels of funding to Arts Faculties are maintained or increased. One hopes that when the old Professors retire, their positions are advertised. It could, after all, be the perfect opportunity to finally do away with the humanities. A perfectly bloodless coup in which the Utilitarian Economic Rationalists will triumph!

Too dramatic?

Okay. Well did I mention that Tara was one of the markers of my Master’s thesis? She’s one of those people who said nice things to me about my work. It was good to meet her in person after her encouragement via email and through being a referee on my PhD and scholarship applications. She seems to think I have a future in this caper.


Lucy Tartan said...

3am to 10pm.


In my institution PhD candidates are a very necessary source of funding.

Galaxy said...

Yes, that is the only response possible to such crazy hours. I just had a chat to my former supervisor who was concerned that the students fresh out of honours might consider that an attainable model. I think I will begin my mentoring of really new postgrads with the advice: 'That's just crazy talk!'

As for PhD students as a source of funding, I guess Brendan Nelson et al overlooked the resulting sausages when they told universities they'd have to set up a factory to ensure their ongoing existence. On the bright side, the former supervisor said that those of us in our thirties, with heaps of teaching experience will be much sought after when the boomers retire. She has faith the government won't do away with universities all together ; )

It'll be the land of milk and honey for us Ms Tartan! Or is that the land of lattes and brulee?

dogpossum said...

I always feel a little tremor of discomfort when I read about these sorts of power-women academics. I wonder, for start, if Tara had much of a life outside her work (or does she count her social life in that 3am-10pm day?)? Does she regret not spending time dawdling at the book shop, shooting shit at the pub, lieing (sp?) about in the park? Does she have children? Did she raise them alone? Does she have a partner? Close friends? Hobbies outside her academic work? How is her health?

While I'll be pissed if I don't 'make it' as an acka, I think I'd dearly regret not doing all the 'frivolous' things I've done that may have delayed my academic progress. And I'd regret not working outside the university system as well!

... and I envy you these sorts of sessions, Galaxy. I remember them fondly... maybe I'm out of the loop, but I don't think we have the same sort of collegial action at my uni... is that true, mz tartan, or am I completely out of the loop (or are Brunswick and my university on different planets)?

Lucy Tartan said...

Dogpossum, are you on the Faculty announcements list? They do seem to advertise stuff kind of like this from time to time. Not so much tailored to phd candidates as, well, discipline specific research seminars. Quite good for getting some collegial spirit when you feel like a boost in that department.

I find these kinds of narratives discomfiting too, for the reasons you've said, and also because I'm sure such people don't mean any implied criticism of those of us who can't keep up with their energy - but I always do defensively project that criticism onto conspicuously successful productive academics.

I hope there are some jobs around in the future for some of us, Galaxy. There's got to be, right? I honestly do believe, though, that I won't find it too personally devastating to walk away if I don't find anything within say twelve months of graduating.

dogpossum said...

I'm on a range of lists, mz tartan, but I don't get out to campus so much...so it's all my own fault I guess. I do miss the discipline-specific stuff. One of the draw-backs of a small program is the paucity of this type of action... having said that, I've been going to our program's seminars and noticed that there's a seriously high attendance rate (though when your program has only 10 staff... but a 60-70% attendance rate is pretty rocking)...

I expect to be looking for work for a year or so after I submit the thesis - if not longer. That's the word on the street - not so much on the job action. But I figure it's a chance to publish like a fool in the interum... while I'm starving on the streets.

Galaxy said...

I tend to think that Tara is like a supermodel of the academic world--a certified freak (in the nicest possible way). I think the key to her and others like her is that they don't make the work/leisure distinctions that the rest of us do. They get off on the intensity. The only analogy that I have is my conviction that the world is divided into two types of people those for whom playing Scrabble is a stressful test of their word knowledge and those for whom it it a thoroughly relaxing past time. I am in the latter category, I could play it in a coma. But I am certainly not in the supermodel academic category. Tara doesn't have children but she is married, and she is disgustingly healthy and vital--she knows how her body works and uses it. I think a lot of her vitality/lack of need for sleep has to do with the fact that she seems to have been practicing yoga for a considerable time. As I mentioned, the former supervisor was concerned that Tara presented herself as a role model, and I know that one of the new new postgrads suddenly thought that working 10hrs a day wouldn't be enough. I think there is a lot to admire about Tara, her absolute conviction about the importance of teaching,her mentoring of her students, her work is good and political--I went to another fantastic seminar she presented on 'The iPodification of Education'--but I certainly wouldn't try to replicate her pace. I think anybody could be proud of a publication record half the size over the same period of time.

Before I started my PhD with my current supervisors, I did toy with the idea of working with a supervisor who is very much in Tara's mould--without the love of teaching though. I remember thinking consciously about what kind of academic I wanted to be and decided that I really admired the approach of my former supervisor--she is considered and respectful, a fantastic teacher, although she has a vastly different style to Tara. So, I chose her to be my role model. Perhaps that's what it comes down to, as young female academics we have to choose our role models wisely. It's important as well to recognise our personal limits. Not as a way of limiting our achievements, but rather as a way of maximising our methods in a way that we can be happy, rounded individuals and create the conditions in which we can produce good, effective work--which of course all three of us having this discussion have done, are doing and will do.

This is a very long comment, I will conclude with this: unless you're a supermodel academic (a freak, remember), I like to keep one of the lessons of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in mind. Look what happened to Victor when he pursued his studies/experiments to the exclusion of all else. He lost it. Lost all contact with his family and girlfriend. Didn't get a chance to see his brother before he died at the monster's hand. That's not good for anyone.

Galaxy said...

I am lucky to be in a School that has a very strong committment to postgrads. Principally because we have a very proactive postgrad society in the school, but also because there is a lot of interaction between staff and postgrads. The tea room is shared by staff and postgrads, so there's the opportunity for casual conversation. Very senior staff come along to the postgrad events. And there is a commitment by the School's affiliated centres like CCCS to nurture the next generation of scholars. I am enjoying participating in these kind of events again, they really are inspiring.

Tseen said...

so many things to say! I just attended a session here (Monash) about PhDs submitted via publications (i.e. not a dissertation but series of published articles or monograph). it was very, very disturbing. I was frothing, irritated, depressed...and that was in the first 5 minutes...

It'll probably end up as a ranty rant on my blog so I'll spare you here.

Tara sounds amazing. I felt tired just reading about her intensity. I love my job but I do think of it as a job. My life tends to happen elsewhere. ;)

Galaxy said...

Well, I will look forward to reading a 'ranty rant' on your blog Tseen ; )

The PhD by publications. Hmmm. Is it another instance where the science model is becoming the dominant one? It may be great for scientists, but it's inappropriate when applied to the humanities--perhaps less so when applied to the social sciences.

Your comments prompted the recollection about someone I shared an office with in the finishing stages of the Master's. She was enrolled across disciplines, psychology as well as the media studies/discourse analysis. I remember that her PhD was by way of publication. She still had to compile it in book form for submission, but it meant she was less concerned about the narrative across the whole 'dissertation'. I remember thinking it was very strange.

dogpossum said...

I've been talking to friends about the thesis-by-published-papers model (friends who are in the sciences), mostly in reference to my current editing-challenge (ie trying to make 6 seperate blobs of work function as a single body of work: come on guys, let's make like a team here). Frankly, I'd have finished the damn thing if it was just a series of articles. It seems much easier to me to produce a series of semi-related bits of work. Which is the point: researching and formulating a PhD is hard work. A comphrensive, unified work pursuing one major argument is even harder.

I'm worried enough about the reduction in words for PhDs (do you know we're only expected to write 60 000 in my program?!), but to further 'reduce' it to a series of 'functional' articles for publication?! That's some scary shit!

It's kind of different for science doods anyway - they often (if not usually) don't get to choose their own thesis topics and scholarships are attached to (senior academics') projects, for which students are invited to apply. Then they have to work and work and work in the labs, hopefully producing results.

I know we have to work out tits off as well, but at least we get to pick our topics!

I also feel (somewhat tentatively) that we're also expected to produce a higher standard of writing... there certainly seems a greater emphasis on how we say things in the humanities...

Galaxy said...

That 60,000 word thing is across the board now. That's what happens when you pay a pittance to already overworked academics, someone suggests it would be more time/cost efficient to read fewer words. I'm also suspicious that 60,000 is also vaguely book-length. 100,000 words is definitely a convention of a doctoral thesis.

I know that both my honours and my master's were at the upper end of the word limits, 22,000 and 33,000 respectively. But I seem to remember having a conversation with Tseen once... I think when she did her master's the expectation was 40,000. That sheds a somewhat seedy light on the 60,000 word PhD, doesn't it?

Tseen said...

in response to what Dogpossum said above about researching and formulating a PhD being hard work: this is exactly my beef with the by-publications thing in the humanities. the sitch in the sciences is very different, as we all know, and muddying the by-publications factor is that element of co-authoring or group publishing. again, vastly different context in the humanities than in the sciences. I would be v. v. wary of someone submitting a whole folio of work that they'd co-authored with their supervisor (an allowed scenario). how many problematic conflicts of interest would there be in that?!

having to sustain an argument across a big-ass document like a doctoral thesis is a major point of the whole aca training thing, surely? if everyone was schooled only to produce an argument that needed to be about 10-15K max (a v. long article, and most journals are 6-8K these days)...what does that MEAN?

I'm trying really hard not to do the 'when I went through...' and deterioration of standards kind of thing because that can be just annoying.

er, sorry, Kirsty. mini-rant here I guess! :P


Tseen said...

Oh, and another thing (there just HAD to be another thing):

There is definitely the perception out there that a by-publications PhD is 'easier' to get than a traditional one. In the end, however, they're not marked as by-publication - they're just the same as the traditional ones. This bothers me and, in this case, it is very much me feeling that my PhD work involved more work, thinking, and gathering of knowledge. Very old-fashioned. Very passe.

Galaxy said...

Tseen, you are more than welcome to rant on my blog. Are they truly encouraging Humanities PhDs to submit by publication at Monash? Who comes up with these things?! Are new PhD students loving the idea because it's 'easier'? Shame on them. You're not worthy of a PhD, surely, unless you've sweated blood? I think a clear distinction should be made on peoples' cvs along the lines of the difference between a course work and a research master's.

M-H said...

Hi Galaxy

Just discovered your blog through PhD Weblogs. I haven't met Tara but I have read her book Digital Hemlock and, to be honest, I didn't think it was very well thought through - it was quite patchy and some bits were very poor. I work in online learning, so I know a bit about this stuff, and I thought she'd missed some of the worst aspects!

I'm doing a PhD about the process of doing a PhD, getting a group of candidates together to blog their experience. Just beginning, and enjoying it so far.

Galaxy said...

My blog's on PhD Weblogs? Really? Is this another freaky experience ala Hannah in Melbourne? I didn't put it up there. I guess it's okay.

Good luck with the PhD. These first days are heady, aren't they?