Time to lay out the facts for PhDs

August 13, 1999

I was surprised and disappointed with the conclusions Rebecca Stott drew in her piece about the precarious professional situation of PhD candidates ("No jobs for the boysI or girls", THES, July 16). The proposal that PhD programmes be adapted "to make high-level liberal arts skills more applicable to the non-academic world" is a proposal to give up before the fight has properly begun.

It is dangerous for research students to isolate their problems from those of the higher education sector in general. This seems to me to be the unfortunate thrust of Dr Stott's article. It is not skills that research students lack, but rather the opportunity to put them into practice.

That there are increasing numbers of PhD holders chasing fewer academic posts should not be used as an excuse to cut departmental provision of PhD places or to transform PhD programmes into instruments responsive to the mythical needs of the "world at large".

It is, rather, the needs of the profession we should aim to address. Why, for example, have not the numbers of academic posts kept pace with the numbers of undergraduate and postgraduate students? Why are lecturers' teaching loads so heavy while teaching budgets stagnate or are cut? What are the effects on the coherence and continuity of departmental programmes of casualisation? These are not slightly sordid side-issues for research students but questions of real relevance, influencing the conditions in which we work and the quality of our futures, indeed the very possibility of our futures as academics.

This is not to deny that there are pressing problems with the planning and execution of departments' PhD programmes, but it is to insist that any body that would represent research students take seriously the basic underlying issue of chronic underfunding and relate the insecurities of PhD candidates to the sick anxiety now almost institutionalised in the academic profession itself.

Patricia McManus First-year DPhil student University of Sussex

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