John Ashbery: Houseboat Days (1977)
Despite all he did and wrote subsequently, I'm still probably most fond of John Ashbery's rather dreamy poetry collection Houseboat Days, published shortly after his Pulitzer-prize winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:
The mindIn this case, as my last PhD student completes her oral examination, it's interesting (for me, at least) to look back over more than thirty years of involvement with the institution - or the qualification - or whatever exactly it is ...
Is so hospitable, taking in everything
Like boarders, and you don’t see until
It’s all over how little there was to learn
Once the stench of knowledge has dissipated
At times it feels more like a lifestyle choice than anything else.
Matt Groening: Life in Hell (1987)
The cartoon above - by Simpsons-creator Matt Groening - may strike you as a little cynical, but it does seem like a good place to start when discussing my own engagement with the degree we call the "Doctorate in Philosophy": both the one I did myself (University of Edinburgh - 4 years: 1986-1990), and my subsequent experiences as supervisor / co-supervisor of dozen-odd more (Massey University - 15 years: 2008-2023).
Not only that, but I also acted as the examiner of another ten or so (Australia & NZ - 13 years: 2008-2021), which entailed reading and annotating each thesis, writing a comprehensive report on it, and - in most cases - attending an oral exam (what used to be called a "viva voce" [with the living voice], but is now usually shortened to a viva).
Rather than Groening's "life in hell", though, I'd prefer to see it as something more akin to Ashbery's poetry collection: a strange, kaleidoscopic drift through the bazaar of world culture, albeit with an at times disproportionate emphasis on gamesmanship and the arbitrariness of academic conventions - rather like the rules of metre and rhyme, I suppose: there to be broken.
Houseboat Days In my dream I was talking to a group of students about the genesis of Poetry NZ back in the day in Palmerston North I asked them to write me a haiku – making sure they knew what that was – then collected all their emails for next time so loud was the din of the next class invading I could hardly hear myself think let alone make out the crabbed scrawl on the notes they gave me I suppose it’s a reaction to hearing of Bronwyn’s workmate who when told we were going to see Emily asked who’s Emily Brontë? have I started teaching again in my dreams? a relief then to be woken by clattering dishes this morning the old life done
- What exactly is a PhD?
Well, Wikipedia, as ever, provides a wealth of information on the subject:
A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD, Ph.D., or DPhil; Latin: philosophiae doctor or doctor philosophiae) is the most common degree at the highest academic level, awarded following a course of study and research. PhDs are awarded for programs across the whole breadth of academic fields.
- How do you get one?
Because it is an earned research degree, those studying for a PhD are required to produce original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge, normally in the form of a dissertation, and defend their work before a panel of other experts in the field.That point about an "original contribution to knowledge" is the crucial factor here. A Masters degree in any subject also - often - requires a thesis, but this can be a summary of other people's work in the field: it doesn't have to (though it certainly can) make an original contribution to the field.
- Why do people do them?
The completion of a PhD is typically required for employment as a university professor, researcher, or scientist in many fields. Individuals who have earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree use the title Doctor (often abbreviated "Dr" or "Dr."), although the etiquette associated with this usage may be subject to the professional ethics of the particular scholarly field, culture, or society.In my experience, insisting on the title "Doctor" in casual conversation generally causes more trouble than it's worth. Most people - quite rightly - associate the term solely with a medical qualification, so explaining that your expertise in (say) literary criticism doesn't really extend to offering them health advice is a bit of a waste of everyone's time.
- How long does it take?
In the New Zealand Academic system, still mostly based on the British model, it will probably - depending on your field and the topic you've chosen - take you at least three or four years. It's extremely rare to finish under three years. It's pretty common to go over four years, in fact, though these days institutions are trying very hard to discourage indefinitely protracted Doctoral research projects.
In the American system, which harks back more to the Germanic paradigm, I gather it can take from five to seven years to achieve much the same end (I myself did mine in the UK, so that's not something I can testify to personally). In the USA a substantial amount of course work needs to be completed, over a period of years, before you can even start on your dissertation. In the UK, NZ and other Commonwealth countries, by contrast, the initial preparation and the composition of the thesis are all one journey.
- Is it expensive?
Doctoral scholarships are increasingly difficult to get. There's a good deal of competition in virtually every field, and very few of them will fund you completely for the entire length of your degree. Even getting admitted to a Doctoral programme can be hard sometimes. Unless you got Honours in your Masters degree, or have a very strong professional background in your area of study which can be regarded as equivalent, you may not be allowed to enrol at some institutions. It simply isn't true that tertiary institutions are only interested in the fees students pay them. They're far more interested in results: which in this case means successful completions.
I've successfully supervised (or co-supervised) six PhDs now. But I've started on at least six other supervisions which were unsuccessful for one reason or another. For the most part people drop out of their Doctoral programmes for personal reasons. It can take a heavy toll on your personal life, as well as your finances. Sometimes, too, there are clashes of personality or expectations, which can entail the student switching to another supervisor or even another institution. But all that really matters is that holy grail of successful completion.
- Should I do one myself?
Not until you've thought through all the pros and cons associated. Do you have a research project in mind which can only really be accomplished with institutional support and advice? If so, then yes indeed, it could be a good fit for you.
Or, if you have a strong desire to work as a university teacher, Academic institutions increasingly require a PhD as a minimum qualification for appointment. So in that case, again, yes - it's your best way forward, and you can probably pick up some tutoring along the way which will increase your professional experience and thus your eventual job prospects.
If, however, there's a subject which really interests you, and which you are already researching already on your own time, with your own resources (online sources, the public library, etc.), it's worth asking yourself whether it might not be better simply to write an article - or even a book - on the subject and eliminate the middleman?
The university will certainly charge you for any professional advice they offer. And if you don't really need that for this particular project, why not just try approaching some publishers yourself? It's where you'll probably end up at the culmination of your degree, so you have to be very sure that that end result is a lot better than it would have been if you'd simply followed your own star.
My God, these cartoonists! It may seem at times as if everyone's trying to talk the qualification down, but I don't think that's really the case. As with any obsession, you have to try to see the dark and light of it when you're trying to convey what it's actually like.
The theses I read as an examiner included topics as various as Jorge Luis Borges' relationship to the Pragmatism of William James, Children’s Fantasy Fiction, Indonesian Postcolonial Politics, Contemporary Scottish Writing, the Semiotics of Modern Poetry, Australian Settler Fiction, the Poetics of Joan Retallack, Pasifikafuturism, New Zealand Local History, and the Poetics of Photographic Ekphrasis.
Do I know much about any of those subjects? Well, some of them, yes. I wrote my own thesis, back in the 1980s, on South American literature, so Borges was pretty familiar to me - as (by extension) was the question of Postcolonial representation in general. Some of the others I learnt about just by reading the dissertations. My job was to judge how effectively they communicated the specialised information each of them contained - and the cogency of the writer's overall argument.
It's a bit different from just reading a book on some subject you'd like to more about - different even from writing a book review. Examining a thesis involves grappling with a topic to which someone has devoted years and years of careful and painstaking labour. You have to treat that with respect, but not to the extent of refusing to identify flaws in the work as it stands.
What about the ones I supervised myself? Again, not all of them were on subjects I knew well going in - though of course they did have to be in the general field of creative writing and literary criticism which were my professional area of teaching and study. I won't go through them all, but suffice it to say that each one of them was an education in some very precise field of research.
Matt Groening: The Grad School Dropout (1987)
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.Perhaps this quote from Newton is a better way to think about it than the mordant sarcasms of Matt Groening et al. I know it's absurd to compare myself to the founder of Modern Physics, but no matter where you're starting from, you can always improve on your own state of ignorance. My own blindness before what he calls "the great ocean of truth" may be far greater than his, but that doesn't mean that I'm not just as keen to learn.
So, no, true though it undoubtedly is in some cases, the above is definitely not the whole picture. It's a useful warning to keep in mind - but, as the saying has it, verbum sapienti sat est [a word to the wise is sufficient].
University of Edinburgh: PhD Graduands (2022)