Monday, November 16, 2009

A perspective on PhDs and prostitution

It was one of those illicit pleasures, but I rather enjoyed reading the Belle de Jour blog from time to time over the years. That I did so was despite a sense that its point was lost after she stopped being a call girl. I put it down partly to the fact that she started blogging around the same time as me and for relatively similar reasons (prostitution for her, electoral politics for me!) but mainly because she wrote so well.

What I liked wasn’t just her strong opinions, but both her eye for detail combined with a capacity to stand back and look at the bigger picture. So I wasn’t too surprised to learn yesterday that she’s a PhD-educated research scientist. Her perspective is what I think sets PhDs apart from others. Having completed one myself, it’s a way of looking the world which I’ve found hard to describe to non-PhDs; I know it when I see it, but to explain it other than in general terms or in a specific case is rather difficult.

To give an example: I’m reminded of a conversation with a successful non-PhD friend over the summer when he told me that their approach to policy delivery was to identify what worked and then develop it into a model of best practice that can be applied across different sectors. My immediate response was questioning rather than positive: how could he be sure that the model would work across different sectors? Was there something in that on policy area which meant that it worked well but not elsewhere? In other words, what about context, contingency? Had he conducted before and after assessments before imposing the model? To all of this my friend’s reaction was a bit defensive; he had found the Holy Grail and it was to be applied across the board.

I didn’t think that I was being particularly negative or personal in my response. But I’d claim that our respective attitudes said much about the way we look at the world. And that was something that Belle was rather good at.

Having read Belle’s interview in the Sunday Times, I also understand the difficulty of combining a PhD while working. During my own it wasn’t easy, balancing assistant teaching and research duties for others alongside my own. And I sympathise entirely with Belle’s predicament of trying to balance completing her dissertation with the need to earn – doing something that netted a considerable amount for a few hours seemed like a good idea.

In fact, it doesn’t end only with the PhD. As I’ve been learning on my endless and fruitless job search this year, having the PhD is only one of several necessary conditions to even get one’s feet under the interview table. Aspiring candidates have to juggle writing interminable applications (letter, CV, writing samples, research statements, teaching philosophies, three letters of reference...) for academic posts while also keeping an eye on expanding their research agenda and publications list in order to become more credible. Little wonder then that another friend of mine suggested a few weeks ago that I should consider going on the game!

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