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!
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.