A doctorate in McMarking?

May 17, 1996

Being a postgraduate student has always been hard but it is getting so much more difficult. As universities are squeezed, a great deal of pressure is applied to staff and through them to research students. Most of us feel like a commodity whose purpose is to give "value for money". We have to be worth having in terms of the points we give to the universities' rating and the fees that we pay, balanced against our "cost".

"Better value for money can be achieved by literally cramming more PhD students in, allocating no additional resources, and leaning on overworked students to work harder.

"Because of stiff competition to do well we feel obliged to publish; give research talks; submit within three years; demonstrate to the expanded number of undergraduates and mark without payment. This is in addition to the already full-time job of researching and writing a thesis. If this was not bad enough we do it for an average of Pounds 5,000 a year!

"Although we get paid reasonably well for the laboratory demonstrating, the huge piles of marking that it generates reduces the pay per hour to somewhat akin to McDonalds (but I suppose we might as well get used to that now).

"Government cuts and the new points system for assessing universities have a lot to answer for. The department gets brownie points for the publications and naughty points if we submit our theses late. Our supervisors are heavily penalised for late submission, even if there is a good reason.

"Supervision is extremely variable. For some there is a high-quality mentoring system; others find they are a source of cheap labour to do the research that lecturers can no longer cope with. That might not sound a bad thing, but the emphasis is not on our education as individuals, and on learning skills that will give us a fair shot at a future post, but on what we can produce.

"I doubt many of them understand what it is like to work this hard without there being any light at the end of the tunnel. It is all such a gamble, we work incredibly hard and have such a small chance of success. The pressure has a direct effect. Depression, exhaustion, and stress-related physical illnesses are common. Several people I know of have been close to breakdown because of the sheer intensity of the work.

"The reason most of us stay is because it is our first opportunity to work on something of our own. But I constantly worry that I am not going to have a half decent chance of a job in research, because opportunities are so rare and competition so fierce. If I am going to end up like most graduates, as a manager or accountant, then why am I working so hard and learning so much irrelevant stuff? A second degree adds relatively little to our starting salaries.

"I would never recommend a PhD to prospective students. It is not worth it unless you absolutely have to have one, and I worry about the increasing numbers of first-degree students who walk into a PhD with their eyes closed."

The author has requested anonymity.

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