I read the announcement for the symposium on “Be/com/ing academic” on a cold day in early February 2017. It clicked with me.
I started my master’s-doctoral programme at the University of Sussex in 2012, and am pressured to complete on time this September. Since 2015, I have seen my colleagues and friends graduating from their doctoral programmes in the social sciences and humanities. Half started their careers outside of academia. Those who obtained temporary academic positions in the UK are on short-term contracts for teaching or postgraduate research, and unsure about their future in academia. In conversations with those who chose to leave, one question seems to appear often: how come our curiosity to understand the world and human conditions has been transformed into completing a task to answer a manageable question to primarily convince the examiners that “you got it to be a Ph.D.” Then no one is there to answer our next question: after getting a doctorate, can one bring back one’s out-of-the-box or blue-sky thinking and passion to make the world a better place in today’s academia? Those who chose to leave doubt the chance a fresh graduate has today, and academic jobs seem no more special to them than jobs in corporations, the governments or the third sector.
Here I want to bring to light those conversations and hopefully to stir a discussion at the symposium. Because underneath those small talks resides a bigger question about the future of the social sciences and humanities and how we could collectively respond.
Being yet-to-be academics, we are often told that a thesis is not enough, so just get it done, pass and get a degree. More urgently, we must think and act for the next real thing – publication, grant, monograph, professional networking – all to make ourselves competitive in the shrinking academic job market. Then, where is there room in those documents for my wish to respond to the questions rising from the ground and to do something about them? “These are not your problem. Leave them for others or till later. Focus on your Ph.D,” some wise friends from here and back home have told me. Across time and space, a clear message is converged and sent to me: get your Ph.D. But I still wonder: then what? And what is a Ph.D for today?
Some may suggest that it is “academic capitalism” which shapes our experiences today. Indeed, decades ago, Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhodes (2004) systematically studied “academic capitalism” and its varied polices and practices in the UK, the US, Australia and Canada. The decrease in social sciences and humanities funding and fierce competition in academic job hunting would not make the news today. Nor will anyone be surprised about the intensification of audit culture and the normalisation of the corporate management approach in higher education institutions.
In 2009, Liz Coleman questioned the liberal arts education offered in the US and urged her TED audience to (re)ask questions such as “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” Despite the urgency for us to complete our Ph.D.s (on time), Coleman’s questions, in my view, still matter. The Global Risks Report 2017 listed five risks identified at this year’s World Economic Forum: growth and reform (inequality), rebuilding communities, managing technological disruption, strengthening global co-operation, and accelerating action on climate change. Each area has room for social sciences inquiry and, more importantly, for our collective action, including working with those outside our ivory tower.
To work under the pressure of academic capitalism and strive to answer the world’s challenges, we may need to think hard and slow about how we can utilise what we have learned from our research to equip our minds, hands, bodies and collectives to imagine alternative future(s) for academia, societies and humanity. Some initiates have been taken. For instance, the International Panel on Social Progress was convened to answer the question “Can we hope for a better society?”
To conclude, this phenomenon of social sciences and humanities graduates leaving academia deserves proper investigation and the question about “what academia is for today” matters. This is not only for the futures of those living a doctoral researcher’s life but also to safeguard a space for seeing the bigger picture and asking good questions. I hope we all daydream once at this symposium and think collectively: how can we make a better academia for all?
– Yeyang Su.
Slaughter, S., & Rhodes, G. 2004. Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state, and higher education. The Johns Hopkins University Press.