Older grains of sand add to sum of knowledge

March 7, 1997

After 30 years as a journalist Ann Corbett transforms herself into a research student

I spent a lot of time last year wondering if after 30 years as a journalist I could change overnight into a research student. Some of this musing took a pretty trivial form, though at the time it seemed important. Like could I, as is frequently necessary, run up four flights of stairs with 20-year-olds? Could I lug around a heavy briefcase? (there are no lockers available where I work.) And would I adjust to the change of pace?

Now as a fiftysomething woman embarked on a PhD at the London School of Economics, I have begun to bask in the idea that I am passably postmodern. I have plunged back into formal education for self-renewal and self-extension. But if I have headed for the deepest levels, it is on the grounds that I would not be on my own.

I bring to a research project the experience which comes out of my professional life and a desire to reconceptualise it. The university is committed to helping me by kneading this into shape, teaching me the skills to research it and ultimately to legitimise my effort. Legitimation is my concept of the moment. After that we will see, I hope the result will be books I can zap on to a waiting world.

In any event, here I am, part of a highly distinctive community, with a full-time student card. There is a spring in my step, even though I am paying my fees and expenses.

The context is basically favourable. Institutionally, Tony Giddens has breezed into the LSE director's seat, with words press and students understand. The knowledge society has succeeded the industrial society. Education has become the metaphor of social change. Expertise is the way we cope with uncertainty. Vive l'education. "We're giddy for Giddens" proclaims the student newspaper.

The policy-makers are clearly reflecting on the rise in postgraduates (pgs) as opposed to undergraduates (ugs) - surely not "pigs" and "ughs"? There is last year's report from Martin Harris, now chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, proclaiming unequivocally the benefit of postgraduate education to the nation. That said the "pgrs", those doing research, are only 3.3 per cent of the student population and mostly heading for academe.

My observations suggest that ambitions are far more diverse: prime minister, European commissioner, consultant of every kind, the next director but two of LSE, all of whom will be better for the research experience.

Paradoxically - I must have a paradox somewhere - age is both less important and more important than it is given credit for in the literature. I may be one of under 3,000 "pgrs" nationally in my age range. But the group is one which, for me, defines itself in terms of level, mode and subject, and beyond that a community of shared values.

The library and the canteen are filled with people instantly available for serious debate. Any academic opens the door provided you respect office hours. It is a kind of citizenry, a Pnyx for the latterday Athenians, a permanent French Revolution. That said, it was a bit of a culture shock to realise that notices for student demonstrators plastered around the school are to help training in information technology.

Supervision. Is it or is it not on average an hour a week in the first year? Are we all getting structured advice on literature, good advice on research design, advice on data collection? Are we fixated on words like crucial relationship/essential/anxiety inducing/quality assurance and audit? Can we all seize on the authors' reassurance that it is surprising how few catastrophes there are?

My research, in political science, has as its building blocks France and Britain, plus education and Europe. These are issues which have dominated my life over 20 years as a Paris-based journalist. This has given me a fly-on-the-wall existence in terms of French politics and policies, especially as related to education, at national and EU level.

I know many of the actors, have seen the issues develop and explode. Culturally I long ago lost the urge to see comparative questions in terms of "the Frogs" and "les Rosbifs".

So it is hugely elating to be in an academic atmosphere; to learn the language of policy-making and implementation, to discuss the thesis with academics outside the department as well as inside, and find that it seems to make sense as science. To get into the theory, to find scholars working on issues which have long bugged me as a journalist, like how to explain the different perceptions to which EU policy initiatives are subject in the different member states.

But the clouds are never far away. The one which is not of my making comes labelled research assessment exercise, unit costs, top-up fees. Senior academics I have known much of my life are now running a business, drumming up contract money, and thinking how to get more overseas students to counter their institutions' debts.

The other cloud is labelled time. Between time in a sense of a life span, time in a sense of day-by-day, I am more at ease with the long term. That is to say that under the pressures of the PhD as rigorously applied, I can be sabotaged by the instantaneous.

Part of this is the fruit of a professional life which has not entirely gone away. I say to myself that life is made up of continuities and ruptures. Continuities are important, and surely the institution will be understanding, seeing the high-risk students like me as bringing something to them, the grain of sand added to the sum of human knowledge.

Ann Corbett is a PhD student in the government department at LSE.

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