The Idea of the PhD: The Doctorate in the Twenty-First-Century Imagination, by Frances Kelly

Tara Brabazon on an argument that the doctorate is undergoing change

May 25, 2017
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The word “imagination” is troubling, particularly when connected to a century in its adolescence. Imagination summons Willy Wonka, chocolate factories and flights of fancy. What is a PhD imagination? How is it distinct from PhD ideologies or the institutions encircling them?

Let’s be honest. PhD candidatures are like the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. Some supervisors vampirically feed off their students’ research and select loyal friends – ensconced in a disciplinary star chamber – to examine their supervisees. Jobs are scarce. Students will do anything short of taming dragons and regicide to secure reliable work in a casualised, precariat age. Winter is – indeed – here.

The argument in The Idea of the PhD is that the doctorate is undergoing change. Frances Kelly segments her arguments into four chapters: “The nature of doctoral research”, “The idea of the PhD researcher”, “The idea of PhD pedagogy” and “The spaces of doctoral research”. These chapters focus on a basic question: “How do we understand how the PhD is currently imagined and conceptualized in the wider domain?”

What is a “wider domain”? This book is like one of those tired honours dissertations where the method deployed – or is it the theory? – is critical discourse analysis, which is helpfully reduced to CDA throughout. This “approach” confirms that racism emerges in the representation of black characters in film and that women’s magazines objectify the female body. Kelly offers an “extended critical analysis of the idea of the PhD in discourse”. There is no discussion of which model or mode of discourse is being deployed. She then falls into the full mock-poststructuralist coma, believing we “need to deconstruct the PhD as it is currently (over)represented”.

Analysis is not deconstruction. Commentary is not deconstruction. There is a point where theory without the theory is like a hamburger without meat. I like lettuce, but something is missing.

The anticipated audience for this book remains a mystery. It is too basic for doctoral students, supervisors, university managers or policymakers. Higher education studies and doctoral studies maintain remarkable and specialist journals. While these publications are driven by qualitative and quantitative studies, with complex theorisation trailing the empirical research, there is distinctiveness emerging in doctoral studies.

There is much potential in unravelling the different stories and pathways in and through the PhD. Kelly remains interested “in the repertory of ordinary folk or society at large”. She describes the PhD as “a Western cultural idea”, yet offers no conceptualisation of “the West” through Edward Said or Homi Bhabha, or any of the hundreds of fine scholars of colonisation and post-colonialism.

She confuses neoliberalism and managerialism with quality assurance and accountability. She questions “a fixed completion time”. Yet what is the alternative path? Unregulated supervisors allowing students to continue working as unpaid research assistants long after their original contribution has been determined and their thesis prepared for examination?

Perhaps this book is arguing for the “disruptive doctorate”, although this phrase is not used. Kelly believes that “the presence of diverse or even contradictory ideas about what constitutes the PhD is, I believe, encouraging”.

It is valuable to probe the purpose of the PhD amid our trumped, tired, ignorant age. Dissent has power. Our colleagues are busy building Extreme Anthropology, Brexit Criminology, Trump Studies and Deviant Leisure. It is not the time for polite conversations about the Enlightenment and the knowledge economy. We need to be harder, tougher and more resilient. Imagination is not at issue. Intellectual property, academic integrity and international standards must remain the lens through which we view the doctorate.

Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies, Flinders University. She is author, most recently, of Play: A Theory of Learning and Change (2016).


The Idea of the PhD: The Doctorate in the Twenty-First-Century Imagination
By Frances Kelly
Routledge, 138pp, £90.00 and £29.99
ISBN 9781138900226, 0233 and 9781315707396 (e-book)
Published 9 January 2017

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