So you want to do a PhD?

OCTOBER 10 — Accomplishing a PhD is no mean feat. While most will grin and bear it, others will tell you about the loneliness, isolation, counselling sessions, debt, and the existential crisis that is easily triggered when a parent asks, “When are you finishing? When are you getting a real job?” 

And then there is the research to write up and publish. 

Trawl the internet and the articles, self-parodies, and fetishised tales of PhD woes are legion. And yet, people of different ages and abilities are enrolling into a PhD programme in spades. They do it for the love of knowledge one would hope, but also a bid for glory at attaining a new talismanic title, Doctor of Philosophy, for the hard work put in. Maybe it’s on their bucket list. 

People are savvy to current trends. The current intellectual climate is about aiming higher in the education stakes. Being in possession of multiple degrees presumably makes you a more clever and qualified person in something. Presumably. 

The generation of adults who gained tertiary education in the 1970s and 1980s—my parent’s generation—can neither fathom nor fully sympathise with the masochistic drives of the PhD student; “why do it when you must live in poverty, isolate yourself from the trappings of proper adulthood—and do it all by choice?” 

Having emerged from the other end of the long, dark tunnel, I can still say the PhD programme and its punishing lifestyle were worth it and necessary.

You need to be trained as a doctoral researcher to be a real academic who can teach, manage students and the departmental engine, and produce quantifiable outputs year in year out.

It will prepare you for a life in academia no different from running on a hamster wheel motivated by a carrot that threatens to vanish into the horizon. 

What many do not tell you is that the PhD journey and the current industrialisation of higher education are completely at odds with each other. The PhD is an apprenticeship that requires the dogged and near soul-destroying dedication to the craft of research. 

Apprenticeships are not about making money but the development of skill. And that takes time and money that does not always exist. In a world where old school apprenticeship is devalued for making little financial sense, the PhD is especially difficult for people in cubicles with “real jobs” to understand its appeal. 

Although many academics and their apprentices choose to be in a bubble that campus cultivates, they are not immune to the insalubrious reality of markets, performance indexes, funding cuts, and anti-sedition laws. But students suffer disproportionately more. The complementary logic of authoritarianism and markets insist on student passivity and infantalisation. 

And yet, again, the mere idea of pursuing a four- to six year-long study in isolation — mostly physically and always mentally — is seductive.

But very few people understand the idiosyncrasies of research; that walking in the park and writing incoherent prose constitute work. PhDs can easily look like no work at all but Internet bingeing and strolling in malls in Jakarta. Little do people know that the researcher’s mind is perpetually at work, thinking. 

The pressure to be hyper-accredited with multiple qualifications may on the surface be a good thing; a portal to social mobility and creation of a highly analytical community. But its human cost is great and well documented. For female academics, hyper-accreditation is necessary only for the veneer of meritocracy and the chance to be taken seriously as equals and superiors. 

Access and provision of education is the great social and political lightning rod in Malaysia. The debates are still trapped in the past; on national unity and the advancement of Malays.

Or worse, it becomes a political football to manipulate the young electorate.

But by focusing on education as only a “thing”, “product”, or worse, a piece of paper, the process and purpose of the sake of learning are ignored to great human cost.

A PhD is totally unlike a bachelors or master’s degree. It is a fallacy and utterly foolish to think it is just an “upgrade” from a master’s.

So tread with care, wannabes.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist. 

You May Also Like

Related Articles