This is an unusual post for me. It has no images. It has no jokes. It’s just a cathartic rant I need to get out.
On the 24th of February 2015, I had the successful viva of my PhD thesis. It was not a particularly joyous occasion. I had a good idea what was going to happen. Nothing. And indeed, three years later, here I am, not having held a single academic job, and severely depressed by my prospects.
I in part blame the way I was treated by my university, who gave me no teaching opportunities during the course of my PhD. I signed up to everything I could, volunteered for all sorts of positions (just Google me, I’m everywhere), supported other PhD students, and went to a plethora of lectures and research seminars. I strove to make my government-funded research relevant and accessible to the public: starting this blog, for instance, and experimenting with different kinds of outreach and engagement. But when I came to apply to be a teaching assistant, I was turned down. I was pretty angry as it mean I wouldn’t be able to apply for any academic jobs when I finished my thesis on time. I spent the next two academic years hanging around my university, getting what teaching assistant positions I could alongside admin and website work, including teaching a pre-set BA1 topic course, and organising a conference, that I really should have been able to do during my PhD.
So now, here I am, in the midst of a third academic year since my completion, with the basic experience I should have had in hand three years ago. But fellowships begat fellowships. People move from institution to institution. Once you’ve fallen out of the system, it’s very hard to get back in. You lose access to libraries, your username and password to online journals, you lose your email address, you lose a community. You become a try-hard pariah.
I worked on what I did because I thought it was important. I see the English parish church as this massive untapped body objects of knowledge, that unfortunately is side-lined as a picturesque curiosity for handful of retiree enthusiasts to visit. But universities are becoming nothing more than neo-liberal degree factories. They don’t want hard research first. They don’t primarily need exciting new ideas. First and foremost they want good lecturers who the consumer students will immediately take to. The higher the customer satisfaction, the more they will be able to charge. Simple as that.
The sheer amount of nepotism I’ve seen in academia is quite disheartening. I’ve seen job searches take place when the ideal candidate they want is all set up in advance. I get quite a lot of interviews, but I often feel that the whole position is a done deal, and I’m just a patsy. I don’t even get my travel expenses to get there and back. I carry on with some honorary positions at charitable organisations I care about (that means unpaid), a few sources of unreliable freelance work, but I’m losing the will to actively research my long-planned post-doctoral project on parish church chancels, or keep up with academic literature. There’s only so long you can go on without validation.
The idea of a humanities PhD having at its core a single significant research topic is looking highly flawed. The American PhD takes around five to eight years, and is a lot more rigorous. The British PhD looks like the musings of an amateurish gentleman scholar by comparison. The best plan in this country is to apply for jobs during your PhD – something I was actively discouraged from doing because the university doesn’t want to suffer the black mark of a funded non-finish – and then just work on the thesis at weekends and hand it in at some distant date when it’s eventually ready. As universities become ever more like corporations, fighting profit margins and paying their CEOs (vice-chancellors) hundreds of thousands, what place is there for someone who just wants to rescue English medieval architectural history from literal ruin? Seemingly not much.
If the governmental regulation and reform of the higher education sector continues the way it does, and universities end up in the sorry state of so many of our schools, then after Brexit, our university system is going to be a joke. A joke I don’t think is funny anymore.