The Ph.D. Fairy Tale

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Ah, Ph.D. fairy tale land.

(Photo credit: Josh Giovo under Creative Commons.)

I’m beginning to come to terms with the post-viva and major corrections trauma. I can finally look at the first few pages of the report and not feel completely weighted down by the examiners’ comments. I know I have to go through the cry-hate/curse-accept-do cycle several times again until I resubmit next year, but at least I’m not running away from it.

I ranted about my disillusion with academia and how sick and tired I was of my thesis to a friend. She kindly listened then said,

“You don’t want to your thesis to stay the way it is. Once it’s printed and bound, it will stay in the library forever and ever.”

“Forever and ever?” I laughed and was amused at how she stressed these words. She forgot to add that now theses are digitalized, so your thesis also stays in “the cloud” forever and ever.

“Yes! You passed! You didn’t fail. I know people who’ve failed, but you passed. Think of the corrections as a gift. It’s a chance to revise your thesis and make it the way you want it to be. Once it’s in the library you can’t change it.”

This conversation made me think about the rosy image I once had of academia, and hence the title of this post. A long, long time ago, I thought that after getting a Ph.D. I’d be able to use the degree to find a job and have an academic career. I would publish important work, live comfortably, and surely live happily ever after.

But midway through the Ph.D. I realized the fairy tale picture I painted for myself was deeply misguided by expectations of what academia was supposed to be. I thought of it as a place where I could escape the mundaneness of the office-cubicle. I really enjoyed going to conferences, presenting my work, and networking with academic whose names are printed on the must-read books in my field. These activities made me feel important, as if I was doing something meaningful in contrast to adding up numbers on an excel-sheet, or making promotional powerpoint slides about a company product I wouldn’t buy.

I forgot that all the conference and networking opportunities became possible because of the tuition I was paying and my affiliation to my university. Without the research student status, I wouldn’t have time or funding to go to these conferences.

Without my research student status, I wouldn’t I have access to journal articles either. Research material is accessible only to a group of people. Once you lose affiliation to a university, you can no longer read the full-text of a journal article unless you pay for the subscription yourself. Restricted access to these research materials means that research is not free (but rather expensive), and this contradicts the concept of public good that academia advertises itself to stand for. Doing a Ph.D. is like buying a very expensive ticket for entry to an elite club.

Now I know academia is bureaucracy itself. Another friend described it accurately, “Every time I speak to an academic I feel I’m speaking around their ego balloon. I try to get it out of the way but it keeps bouncing back.”

Accepting the Ph.D. for what it is, as being part of a capitalist-consumption system is strangely helping me maintain a healthier attitude towards my corrections. Once you see academia as a bureaucratic system as any other, you can read the rules of the game much more clearly. Since there’s no fairy tale land waiting for me after the Ph.D., I’m concentrating on what I have to and can do now, rather than fantasizing about a better life after the Ph.D..

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