The weekly convulsion of my Twitter-feed in response to the Academics Anonymous column in The Guardian is becoming something of a ritual. Last week’s, a former PhD candidate’s complaints about the British viva voice examination system for doctoral dissertations, happened to coincide for me with a dinner discussion of the path I took getting from my PhD to my current permanent position with external funding. Based on that conversation, and the comments below the line of the Academics Anonymous article, I’ve decided it is time for me to come clean about how I got to where I am today. It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I feel confident enought to discuss this in a post on here, but the time has come, so here goes.
Why is it so hard for me to talk completely openly about my academic journey? Well, based on the opinions of some in the academic community (reflected in the below-the-line comments), for the following reasons I am a failure as an academic:
1) My MPhil and PhD were both self-funded. The practical reasons for this was that my decision to apply to do both degrees came quite late in the annual application cycle. My options for funding were further complicated by the fact that I was applying as an overseas (non-EU) candidate. Yes, I could have taken time out, waited a year, reapplied for funding, but in the case of the PhD that would have involved considerable complications with regards to relocating and would probably have thrown me off my academic course. As I was in the fortunate position to be able to self-fund, that is what I did, and ended up with a degree from a highly respected institution as a result. However, in a landscape where many believe that too many weak PhDs are being produced, self-funding is often seen not as a practical choice (even if one that isn’t necessarily politically palatable to those who make it) but as a shorthand for a project too weak to compete for competitive funding.
2) To confirm those critics who would argue my research was too weak for a PhD, my thesis was referred following my viva. There is quite a lot of confusion around the various terms relating to examination outcomes, so to clarify, the options for examiners at my university are a) unconditional approval (pass), b) conditional approval (requiring either minor OR major corrections), c) revision and resubmission of the thesis (referral), d) revision and resubmission OR the offer of a lesser degree (MLitt/MSc.), e) offer of a lesser degree without the option of revising and resubmitting, f) outright failure. Roughly 10% of vivas at my institution result in option c, the option my examiners went for, which means that the candidate has longer to make the suggested revisions (6 months as opposed to 3). While it can be emotionally tough, and certainly tougher than major corrections, it can provide the necessary time and space to absorb the ideas discussed in the viva, read any additional suggested literature, and produce work of the expected quality. In my case, this time was invaluable in addressing the key theoretical weakenesses quite rightly identified by my examiners. Using their suggestions I was able, in this time, to produce a thesis that did not require a second oral examination upon resubmission, although this in turn has left me with a strong sense of anti-climax around my degree, and a more than usually heightened sense of imposter syndrome.
3) I left academia for five years. Nope, I couldn’t hack it. After 2 years of temporary teaching jobs and about 300 failed applications, I decided to cut my losses and try something else. I spent a year working in academic publishing before my personal circumstances changed, after which I did some freelance editing, finished my book and had a baby. It was in this period that I realised that historical research and writing was what I loved, what I wanted to do with my life. But I had left academia, hadn’t I? I was a failed academic, with a weak degree that probably should never have been undertaken in the first place…
Except, that isn’t quite how things panned out. When my son was 6 months old I was invited to lunch by Alison Fell and asked if I wanted to contribute to the Legacies of War project she was just starting to develop with colleagues at the University of Leeds. My answer was yes, of course, but I had no professional links with the university. With the support of Alison and the School of History, I was able to put together a successful Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship application, a job which in turn enabled me to put together my successful applications of the position of University Academic Fellowship in Legacies of War and for European Research Council funding.
So what did Alison, the University of Leeds and the Wellcome Trust see in me to make them take the risk of giving me the opportunity to get back into academia? I’m not entirely sure, but the following probably contributed.
1) I was REF-able. My PhD may not have met the standard of being publishable on submission, but two chapters, almost entirely unrevised, formed the basis of half of my monograph, published four years after I was awarded my degree. I had also published two refereed journal articles (as well as several book chapters) based on the research undertaken for my doctorate, so publishers, journal editors and referees had, independently come to the conclusion that my research and writing were of sufficient standard to be published. I had passed the criteria for examination by publication, if you like.
2) I had strong networks. I never really fully left academia, even in the period I stopped actively pursuing a straightforwardly academic career. I organised conferences, edited essay collections, reviewed books, acted as membership secretary for a scholarly society. People knew may name, were willing to write references for me, launch and review my books, endorse my work. In other words, I had the endorsement of ‘the academic judgement of the scholarly community as a whole’, as called for as an alternative form of examination by the anonymous academic.
3) I had good ideas which I was able to put forward as coherent, fundable projects (although I currently fear that I have overpromised on my current project, a by -now familiar phase of any new undertaking). These ideas, both for Wellcome and for the ERC, arose directly from my PhD. They are questions I was not able to answer within the scope of that project but which now, with greater experience and knowledge of the field, I can tackle.
So what is the point of this confession other than to finally make a clean breast of my academic failures, to show some of the frantic paddling that has gone on under the surface to travel this far? Primarily, I think, to note that the PhD, while a necessary qualification for an academic career, is not the be-all and end-all of making a success of that career. Being a successful academic requires skills that can be reflected in a PhD, but which can also be developed over the course of and after gaining the degree. The examination of our credentials does not end on the far side of the viva door but carries on throughout our careers, undertaken by funders, publishers, colleagues, students and, increasingly, the government and the public (but that is a discussion for another post). The prospect is a daunting one, whatever stage of a career you are at, but it is also one that, at least for those of us who started our careers with a sense of failure, also offers immense opportunity.
Thank you for taking the time to share this. You raise very important points that, as a collective, we should be able to discuss more openly and in what we feel is a supportive, non-judgemental environment. I would add to your reflections, how many of us in academic posts (especially women) who feel the overshadowing burdon of ‘imposter syndrome’, well past PhD viva (regardless of how that went). That constant waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘sorry, HR seems to have made a mistake’…Will we ever feel good enough/qualified enough/legitimate for this job? And hats of to the likes of Alison Fell – seeing your potential and steering you in a direction that allowed you to maximise it – we need more of her ilk.
Thank you so much for your response. Yes, the problems of imposter syndrome continue well past the viva, and for both genders, I think, although clearly women (and other social groups) face very specific cultural challenges around ideas of legitimacy. One thing I am realising is how important this sort of discussion is to my approach to postgraduate supervision. I am increasingly trying to embed a ‘show the workings’ mentality into my supervisory practice – something else I’ve learned from Alison. And yes, more supervisors/mentors like her are very much needed. I continue to aspire to emulate her.
The fact that an “impostor syndrome” exists is because academia is structured in such a way that all students are expected to follow a very rigid path through their educational career. I’ve paid my own tuition throughout undergraduate and graduate school (master’s) and taken both online and face-to-face classes. Online learning is another area that some academics feel is “subpar,” and there is some prejudice about it.
The fact is that all people are different and learning comes from many sources, not just from the hallowed halls of academia. It’s one thing to have standards, but I think we need to be flexible in allowing students to get their education through many sources. There are many paths through life, after all.
I’m not entirely convinced that it is all down to the rigid structure. After all, examination practices vary across national systems and academia is accepting of a variety of methods of examination as validating successful PhDs. The snobbery around self-funding, on the other hand, is peculiarly British, I think. In the US it is far more common to self-fund, partially if not fully.
With regards to on-line learning, again I think there is more complexity than you suggest here. Having helped design and teach an online MOOC, I wouldn’t accept it for academic credit in my field as the assessment is too weak. On the other hand, the distance (including online) learning of the Open University has an established and effective evaluation process which is quite rightly recognised as valid.
I think my point was that the range of evaluations is built in to the process of forging an academic career. The PhD thesis and viva is only one among many.
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