I followed the steps to PhD failure and came out with a doctorate

Breaking the rules didn’t stop Jessica Sage from completing her degree

September 1, 2015
rules, break, law

Times Higher Education’s recent “10 steps to PhD failure” article has, unsurprisingly, caused plenty of discussion. While it has been taken by some as tongue-in-cheek, anyone who’s worked on class, gender or race knows that “ha ha, just kidding” is another way in which structural marginalisation is inscribed. 

This post isn’t a detailed refutation of the rules raised (for a comprehensive response see Melonie Fullick's Twitter account), and neither is it an attempt to address the classism and privilege that I think characterise some of the points raised. Rather, it’s a reflection on the ways that I’ve broken these supposed rules and the consequences of pretending, no matter how humorously, that a PhD can be gained or failed by a paint-by-numbers formula.

Having developed an approach to literature during my undergraduate degree (1999-2002) that was absolutely founded in the excellent teaching I received at the University of Reading, I was delighted to move back to the area a few years later to take a master’s in children’s literature. I developed professional relationships that made Reading my only choice for my terminal degree (number 1 on the list of ways to fail is “stay at the same university”).

My certainty in my research approach and place of study was such that funding was not the deciding condition for my pursuit of it (number 2 on the list is “do an unfunded PhD”). I studied part time, worked 20 hours a week, and had the privilege of a partner who cheered me on and papered the cracks between precarious academic contracts. It was a fabulous, infuriating, beneficial, difficult and exciting four and a half years and I would heartily recommend it to anyone. 

Funding my own work meant that I could indulge my curiosity, resulting in a shift of topic in year two that opened up a whole new area of study to me (breaking rules 7, “cover everything”, and 4, “expect people to hold your hand”) when my supervisor suggested the change. Working alongside my degree gave me a track record of skills in student recruitment, disability mentoring, university administration, teaching, continuing education, and event management, all of which remain on my CV.

None of this is to say that I have found the magic formula for a PhD – in fact quite the opposite. If anyone makes the mistake of asking me for pre-doctoral advice I have plenty, but at no stage has it ever occurred to me that I could prevent them from not completing their thesis. 

In my experience, humanities doctoral researchers are more than aware of the concern of not completing, of supervisor problems and of the litany of obstacles that will face them post-viva but these are issues that should also be the responsibility of graduate school management. My overriding sense is that what PhD researchers need to succeed in their doctoral work is the space, resources and encouragement to explore their thinking. 

What I don’t need and have never needed is another construction of the “us and them” structure that permits casualised labour, GTA studentships and the post-PhD job market.

Jessica Sage is the founder of We the Humanities and a PhD graduate of the University of Reading, where she has also worked as a sessional lecturer. Her next post is a research associateship at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, and Newcastle University.

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Reader's comments (1)

I found the 10 steps to PhD failure article also a bit bemusing. For me it didn't start off well as No 1 proudly stated 'stay at the same University' as a route to failure. Huge numbers of people stay at their original University and manage to successfully complete a PhD, some even go on to successful academic careers. In Science this is often par for the course and, as someone who did change University to do their PhD (in chemistry), I found that I was a) a little bit unusual in my area for having done it (especially as I wasn't 'trading up' to Oxbridge). Also, I think changing University presents its own issues, in that you need to spend the first few months getting to know the new place and building new social networks (quite hard in an environment that is geared to largely cater for the social needs of undergraduates only), this is especially difficult when you are trying to break into a departmental social group that has built up from undergraduate days. This is not to say that the experience wasn't very rewarding (it was) but it is 'swings and roundabouts' really.