About that “Dear Brilliant Students” post that’s doing the rounds

I follow a lot of academics on twitter and more than a few have linked to, or retweeted a link to, a post called “Dear brilliant students” by Liv.

This is the bit that grabs you by the throat:

Look, I am in fact a career academic. I know exactly what’s attractive about it, I’ve made considerable financial and personal sacrifices to get myself to a position where I can work in a university environment and spend my time doing groundbreaking research. And yet. The gateway into this life is a PhD, and the PhD system is deeply, deeply fucked up when it isn’t actively abusive. Doing a PhD will break you. It’s pretty much designed to break you. Yes, even you, you who are brilliant (that almost goes without saying; it’s because you’re brilliant that you’re contemplating doing a PhD in the first place).

I know that there are a lot of people who have had terrible PhD experiences. I know at least one of my assessors had an awful time, one that was pretty close to that described in  Liv’s post.

I did not have a horrible time when I did my PhD. I was newly married to someone with a secure and well-paying job. I had a APA scholarship. My supervisors were friendly, readily available and went into bat for me on more than on occaision. I had a desk, a phone, a good computer and, before it blew up, a laptop. I was paid at the proper rate to tutor in subjects I was familiar with and also in those that my supervisors thought I should learn about. I went to national conferences on the University’s dollar and presented peer-reviewed papers that I had written. I was listed as first author on those papers.

Yes, I had every advantage. I’m upper middle class, straight, white and male. My parents, though they are not career academics, both had degrees and both had tutored at university and taught at TAFE.

There were times when it was difficult. The last six months writing up was pretty rough. One chapter kicked my arse. I think I started it from scratch three times.

But, I was never bullied by my supervisors, belittled by other staff or put down by the system generally. I don’t like to think that my experience was exceptional. But I know that it was.

Liv’s post ends with this:

But when you plumb the depths of despair, when the whole system is conspiring to kill everything that makes you brilliant in the first place, I want you to remember this post and know that it’s not just you, this is a very common, almost a universal, experience of what putting yourself through a PhD is like. And then just maybe you will one day be in a position to do something to make the system incrementally less awful.

And it makes me incredibly frustrated to think that there are people out there who have had poor PhD experiences who are now in charge of new PhD students who are perpetuating the terrible system.

I know I was incredibly fortunate to have such great supervisors, a supportive partner, and good mental health. But why we are still putting PhD students through the ringer when it’s possible, even easy, to give them a good, if challenging, experience?

I hope that my PhD students, even when they’re frustrated at my, and my colleagues, opaque or vague instructions, don’t feel about their PhDs the way that Liv feels about hers. And if they did, I’d hope they’d feel they could say so.

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6 thoughts on “About that “Dear Brilliant Students” post that’s doing the rounds

  1. I do wonder about how this culture persists. If so many students are finding the system broken, why can’t it be fixed? Why is there no will to do it? The first publication in which this was discussed in Australia was in 1999 (Lee, A., & Williams, C. (1999). ‘Forged in Fire’: Narratives of trauma in PhD supervision pedagogy. Southern Review, 32(1), 6-26.), then again in another in 2000. (Johnson, L., Lee, A., & Green, W. (2000). The PhD and the autonomous self: Gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 135-147.) There have been many many more theoretical papers written since, which virtually no-one who supervises is aware of. Why not? Managerial interventions in the form of ‘progress reviews’ have done virtually nothing to help the situation. Clearly, it suits a lot of people for it to be left the way it is.

    I’m not meaning to be negative or blaming, but I think that a lot of the problem is the lack of sophistication in the way the degree is conceptualised by everyone concerned: institutions, departments, supervisors – and students, whom I think have to take some responsibility for their own experience. Many of them give away too much power to their supervisors; they don’t believe they are agents in their own destiny. (More mature students are less likely to do this, I think.) It is a supervisory *relationship*, after all.

    I’ll stop ranting, but I’d urge anyone who is concerned about this (whether as a student, a supervisor or an administrator) to read at least one of the articles I’ve listed and ponder their own ways of thinking about PhD candidature.

  2. Great comments Mary-Helen and this response is needed, Ben. The agency of the PhD student is something we all need to recognise. Thank you for pointing to Alison Lee’s work as well 🙂

  3. hear hear! Not uncommon sadly for cycles of abuse persists, but my own experience, and yours, portrays that it need not be that way.
    I look forward to being able to work more positively in academia.

  4. Pingback: On my PhD: emotional and financial | Surface Flame

  5. Pingback: PhD Nazi at your service – Stresser of the Day | The Daily Stresser

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