It’s about the thesis-PhD and PWFP (People With Formal Power)

Thesiswhisperer Inger Mewburn is undoubtedly one of the finest writers on PhD- and academia-related issues.
So me not really agreeing with one of her latest posts It's not just about the thesis is based on the respectful and collegial spirit with which PhD education issues should be discussed. 
In fact, this is the second time I feel inspired to respond to a post and add my two cents to an important debate (

The thesiswhisperer is quite clear about getting involved in as many extra-PhD-thesis activities as possible to build up your CV and profile-the more committee memberships, teaching opportunities and marketable skills, the better. So don’t lose out on a mixer and do take that NVivo course just in case!

In my response I want to focus on three points: First, when contemplating non-thesis activities and engagements be aware of the People With Formal Power (PWFP) and the structures you and they occupy in the academic universe.
Second, I want to make a stronger case that your thesis and closely-related writing is still your main asset when applying for university-based positions after the PhD.
And third also mentioned in the original post and the comments, the (non-)use of PhD training activities.

The PhD version of ‘if it isn’t paid, it’s called a hobby’
I know this concept is more debatable than ever in a Silicon Valley-style 21st century of innovation, disruption and personal brand management, but universities are more often than not hierarchical, probably a bit patriarchal and full of PWFP-exactly those kind of people who will be on a committee to assess your post-doc, assistant professorship etc. application. As much as we can think about ‘building up a new PhD’ the curerent situation is still driven by traditional assumptions around the degree and the research behind it. This may vary between disciplines and academic systems, but the overall audit culture and focus on research (income) cuts across the majority of the global academic industry.

If you do not have formal power, attending trainings, tedious meetings and marking 75 first year assignments provides very little learning and long-term capacity building. Remember that many/most of you have a Masters degree and some form of work experience and think about the ‘real world’ where peers have jobs, performance reviews and project deadlines. Even if they sit in boring meetings taking notes they get at least paid and very often have some kind of career path where sharing minutes will not be the job for the rest of their lives.
What do you really learn from a series of meetings where your voice most likely does not carry much weight? Ideally you prepare by reading emails and background documents and you also provide ‘input’ during the meeting. This makes nice dinner conversation as you can show off a little bit to your housemates on how much you know about the
backstage of your university, but you have no formal power and PWFP will make the decisions.
In a similar way, marking assignments is not ‘curriculum development’ and looking after a €10,000 travel budget as a conference assistant is not the same as having ‘budget responsibility’-someone else will ultimately be responsible and accountable.
The ‘TORs’ you signed with your university basically state that you are supposed to submit a thesis-so unless your job/task comes with a job description and some form of formal power, control and accountability you need to be careful about time and commitment and how you are linked to the PWFP.

Academia is built around self-taught (research) managers – and only the poor HR person in your interview thinks otherwise
Your PhD project, supervisor, relationships to a research team and articles (published or in the pipeline) will be the main focus of your job interview.
As always, it is a bit difficult to generalize, but many of the ‘skills’ you may have learned during your PhD research are less applicable if you fill a proper departmental post within a probably new and different academic environment. As I noted in my most popular blog post
, your interdisciplinary mingling skills or basic programming skills are nice, but hardly relevant. For better or worse, most professors and many academic managers are self-taught and know deep down that the moment a research grant comes along their teaching, supervising and committee commitments will be reduced. Plus, the moment you join an academic environment where you are part of the PWFP, new opportunities will naturally come your way, an assistant journal editorship and co-project lead at the time-mostly because you are the PWFP and less so, because you are a nice person with an impressive CV and your ‘commitment to the professional community’.

Most trainings are for students, are too broad and are offered out of guilt
I think the UK 1+3 PhD model is not the worst idea: Ask the student to complete a one-year course-based research MA and then let them focus for three years on their PhD thesis.
But outside the formal first year? I often found that the (in)famous NVivo course is offered because a well-meaning administrator thought it a good idea in a committee meeting where PhD students could only audit…it fits in nicely with the ‘employability strategy’, brings together a nice group of PhD students and is relatively cheap to offer in a university setting with full-time teachers and modern computer labs. And that is why many students do not attend them. In many places these courses seem to be offered out of guilt for luring in too many (paying) students and not offering them a good core product, i.e. good supervision, inclusion in research teams and eye-level relationships with PWFP.

And you have already started to specialize in a (sub-)discipline, have specific data analysis needs and are tired of meeting more ‘interesting’ colleagues. Being formally included in a research project etc. is a paid alternative to make sure that students learn what ‘ethnography’ or ‘textual analysis’ means when senior colleagues employ them in a real-world context of a short-ish research project that will at best see two peer-reviewed journal articles as main output. Working as and with PWFP almost always means proper reality checks about the academic industry.

Finish your thesis fast...and start that blog (?)
My summary is that a realistic eye on PWFP is essential and often means that CV-building activities end up on the ‘hobby’ side of professional profile-building activities. Finishing your PhD fast is the best value for money-regardless of who is paying for it or how you pay (personal funding, scholarship, time, mental well-being,…).

The only advice no one ever gave to me was to start blogging in the very final stage of my PhD revisions-and use the blogging experience for more traditional research.
But whether you should offer or attend a ‘how to blog’ training as a PhD student is a more complicated question, although my cautionary answer would probably be ‘yes’:


Popular posts from this blog

Links & Contents I Liked 497

Links & Contents I Liked 498

Links & Contents I Liked 499

Links & Contents I Liked 496

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa