One-track mind?

Here’s a question. Some of you might be able to answer it from direct personal experience; for others, it’s a hypothetical. But in all cases, it’s interesting. (Well, I think it is, anyway.) Imagine you love a particular academic subject. Maybe it’s music; maybe it’s physics, or history, or French, or psychology. You love it so much you decide to study it at university. And when you’ve been studying it a while, you find your love for it is greater, and deeper, and since you’re now more informed you get really into specific bits of it and decide to write more advanced research papers about those bits. Eventually, you decide to do a PhD. You find a corner that hasn’t previously been explored, and write your thesis. You pass. Someone offers you a job. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the problem of exactly how many hours they’re paying you for and whether you have a fair contract.)

Are you with me so far? Excellent. Now. Let’s say you did your PhD in history, and your thesis topic was the first month of the French Revolution.  Here’s the big question. Is the rest of your career going to be about history… or about the first month of the French Revolution?

I’m asking because there’s an assumption that’s often made about the choice of research topic someone makes for their PhD. Some people may indeed choose the thing that they wish to spend the rest of their lives pursuing: a particularly specialist branch of physics or mathematics for instance, or a corner of zoological research that focuses on a single species that they find completely compelling and could spend the next few decades merrily learning more and more about. But some people choose their topic because it is just one area in a whole field that they find compelling… and they are in need of a thesis topic that can allow them to specialise and hone their research and writing skills enough to get themselves qualified. They might be very happy to obsess over the first month of the French Revolution for as many years as it takes to get their degree. And then they might want to do something else. So might the physicists. Or the mathematicians. Or the psychologists. And so on.

And here there’s a potential problem. Because to be in academia now, in the UK (and US, and possibly in other countries too whose systems I know rather less about) is to have to produce. Papers, articles, book chapters, monographs, and so on. To begin with, those things are almost certainly going to be associated with your PhD topic – seems fair. Then let’s say you get a job. And it’s very teaching-intensive because you’re new, and cheap, and someone has to do the undergrad synoptic papers. You spend all you spare time cramming to learn enough to stay ahead of your class. You peddle hard and don’t go far – this is all about the long game, right? Eventually you’ll have tenure and security and more time to give to research… and also to bid-writing, so that you can raise money to undertake new projects. Because new projects take time. And that takes cash.

But more and more, this time is not forthcoming. Jobs are admin heavy, and getting heavier; teaching and research are monitored at every turn and you’ve still got to produce, still got to give conference papers and write articles and prove that your A Genuine Researcher. And perhaps the years roll by, and it’s heading for a decade since you graduated… and here you are. Still stuck in the first month of the French Revolution. How do you feel about it now?

I’ll be honest: I’m not good at being that kind of specialist. It’s one of the reasons that the non-academic world (or perhaps more accurately, since I do still research and teach in higher education, its borderlands) suits me better. I mean, I have a specialism, and I adored researching and writing about it, and playing the music. And I’m still not tired of that music. But that’s partly because I’ve been able to do other things than just stay there, with that same body of pieces, over and over.

Of course there are probably spin-off areas and related topics (historically, conceptually, etc.) that you can still explore – that I could still have explored if I’d stayed in HE. And I was extremely lucky that, since part of my HE work was in an archive, I could come up with articles on new topics that were not connected to my PhD subject. But I worry that we’re not providing young academics with something that they – and indeed higher education in general – desperately need: the security to take time and explore their discipline. Not everyone will want it, and some will be happy to remain focussed on their thesis work for the rest of their lives. But some of us (I am most definitely one of them) look at that big wide world out there of exciting stuff we don’t know yet, and want to go exploring. I adore my working life because it’s all about exploring.

Surely that’s something that should be happening inside higher education, as well as to those of us who got out?

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