What’s the point of doing a PhD?
Unsurprisingly, if not belatedly, this question is now troubling me.
A fair amount is said about what doctoral research is for, especially about what makes it unique, why it differs from a Master’s degree, for example, and how different thesis formats can afford or constrain the sort of knowledge that PhDers have to ‘produce’ (I so hate using this verb, but I haven’t settled on a suitable alternative, yet).
Here are two examples of what examiners look for in a Social Science PhD:
- Writing for Research: Patrick Dunleavy is looking for an existing idea that has been moved from a familiar context to an unfamiliar one. He uses the metaphor of the Gherkin in London’s cityscape to illustrate how architectural knowledge evolves.
- Patter: a similar idea emerges from Pat Thomson when she advocates “making known things seem strange and unfamiliar”. She looks at the nightmare scenario of finding somebody who has done exactly the same research as you! Luckily, it is just that, a nightmare, so you do wake up from it.
However, the way it is for me right now – in the process stage, not the final stage – is not so much about trying to make the familiar seem strange, but about taking a familiar object and doing things to it and with it in order to find out what else this object could do, to find its potentials.
For example, a classic guitar:
can be deconstructed and granulated
until its contours re-configure, re-combine and re-emerge
to stretch the research focus so that the familiar object can be put to new uses and re-imagined to potentially create new sounds, new voices, new definitions of what counts as a ‘guitar’, as ‘music’. This novelty then assumes ‘a value’ (a warrant?), thus becoming more than simply ‘unfamiliar’:
Is the PhD process a worthwhile activity? Or is it mere indulgence?
I think it is worthwhile because the process of deconstruction increases our chances of discovering new uses and new purposes for what we find ‘familiar’. A tried and tested familiar object can then be put to new uses, ensuring that creativity strengthens and stretches our potential understandings and widens our pools of discovery.
But I worry about the entrepreneurial trends in higher education (as I have lamented here and here) and the effect that they will have on this process of explorative deconstruction and re-configuration: it is a process that is coupled with risk because who knows what the final outcome will be. It could be a process that leads to a cul-de-sac.
These reflections remind me of an article by George Monbiot who argued that Darwin would never have been funded under the current marketisation of Higher Education because he would not be able to measure and predict the ‘impact’ of his explorations.
Although I like the vision that Dunleavy and Thomson have of making the ‘familiar unfamiliar’ (above), I worry about how long their advice will still hold if the ‘unfamiliar’ becomes too unsettling to attract funding.