The following is a plan and provocation for thinking about ‘routes out’ from the PhD in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media.
‘Routes out’ from the PhD might be interpreted as an instrumental and reductive term. Its utterance could very well make one want to blurt out ‘oh sh**!’ in a moment of existential crisis and panic. It raises the prospect of the culminating point of all effort and study in the PhD: what those who grew up in an age of full employment and Keynesian social democracy called ‘the career’. When I say ‘career’, of course that in many ways touches the nerve of the problem and the reason why ‘routes out’ has the potential to inspire such foreboding. One interpretation of what ‘routes out’ raises is the prospect of joining the precariat – the proletariat forged anew for neoliberal, gig-economy capitalism, the purgatory in which highly qualified postdocs have to compete and wait until they are finally upgraded to a life of permanence and security. By this stage, are the privileges and rewards that accrue have been foregone and sacrificed at the alter of ambition? Many of us become adults in our mid-thirties and forties – a kind of delayed echo and pitiful shadow of those who took similar pathways a generation ago, only with the accumulation of a lot more debt and trauma along the way.
This is, of course, only one narrative of the trajectory of a postdoc, though it is one that is emerging as a dominant trend within those navigating routes out of the PhD. By pretending this narrative is a tragic one runs the risk of appropriating a passive state of victimhood and being at the mercy of a future that can only be seen as dystopian. Ironically, having such experiences means that at least you possess the emotional and financial resources to survive in the first instance – resilience being a key trait for those who survive (and maybe even thrive). What happens however, to those who do not possess these experiences, traits and supportive communities? The answer is that they drop out, pursue other options – sometimes perhaps more happily and productively – and that the academy ends up with a diversity problem.
At least that’s one interpretation.
Whatever the term ‘routes out’ makes us feel, the fact is that a life after the PhD exists and it would serve our interests best by trying to address it. In the process of studying for a PhD, that the student mind is unusually forward-facing and progressive. In the midst of an endeavour so difficult and mentally taxing, it is only natural to think ‘what next?’ or ‘where is this taking me?’ What, then, can we do to dispel the stigma that seems to hang around this term ‘routes out’?
‘There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you sick at heart, that you can’t take part … and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop!’ – Mario Savio
Here’s a plan for action. It does not match the radicalism of Savio, but it does draw on his core message and one that is central to the ethos of the PGR Studio. At a time of uncertainty of what ‘routes out’ means and what those routes are, we want to empower our doctoral students and to support their agency against the challenges they might encounter.
Definitions and Language. We are researchers, artists, composers, makers, practitioners, writers, designers: expression and language should be our ally. Let’s come up with a new language (and new way of thinking about) routes out. Let us reverse the dominant narrative so we are no longer passive subjects but agents who are actively shaping their future.
The role of the PhD in your development is as much a matter of psychology as anything else. How can we connect the work with the destination? Particularly when we do not always know what that destination might be?
First of all, we need to acknowledge the multiplicity of ‘routes out’, particularly for a doctoral body as diverse as our own. We are not all going to become academics, neither is that the aspiration. Many of us are practitioners, and so we need to think about how our aspirations might align with our practice. As researchers, we need to think about how our work is positioned in wider economies and society.
Action: The PGR Studio are undertaking research and building a body of resources including interviews, blogs and podcasts with PhD students and doctoral alumni to explore their aspirations and how routes out of the PhD manifest in the context of the Arts, Design & Media.
The Individual and Wellbeing. The most important aspect to all of this is that you find the PhD experience in fulfilling and rewarding. Whilst that can sometimes hinge on factors beyond our reach what we can do is this: provide a community and community events where you feel supported and on the road to an amazing achievement. ‘Routes out’ are part of this equation. We want you to feel that you have direction.
Action: A series of workshops that act as interventions and spaces to support ‘routes out’ at key ‘oh sh*t’ moments.
Structures and Policies. The boring (yet important) stuff. There are some facts we cannot get around – from the casualised labour market, the new regulations for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2021, the specificity of our own institution as a post-1992 university alongside a whole host of local and personal factors. We need to develop a suite of activities and programmes that cuts across these strata of routes out experience but also helps you to further understand this landscape.
Action: Research into funding bodies and their policies towards practice; research into successful post-1992 funding applications; reflecting on key issues and problems in routes out for Arts, Design & Media researchers; peer review support sessions; careers and cocktails; attendance in key sector events such as the Early Career Academic Summit.