Academic hyperbole & new student inductions

This is the second of three posts, copied from my tumblr, where I have been blogging intermittently about my return to academia. This was written in March 2015.

A picture of bear in water, looking like he's thinking
Always thinking… even in the bath

I’ll never forget my first week at university when my Director of Studies told us that to be successful in our degree, we would need to live and breathe our subject. “You should be conjugating verbs in the bath,” he said.

Well, as the holder of a first class undergraduate degree, I can tell you I never conjugated a verb during any ablution process.

Sitting in my induction lectures today for new PhD students, I noticed a lot of the academic staff treading that familiar path.

“Your PhD will take over your life.”
“You’ll never stop thinking about it.”

Some speakers made vague references to mental health and one even mentioned balancing home life with your research. But – like my undergraduate tutor – they all seemed to buy into this idea that academic work, specifically academic degrees, are all-consuming monsters, to which you need to dedicate yourself heart, body and soul.

At this point, at the very beginning of my PhD, I’m not qualified to say whether that will be the case. But I find it interesting that it is predominantly the academic staff who are propagating this view of study. The students I have spoken to tend to have a more balanced (dare I say realistic) view of it. And I really don’t think it’s healthy to be maintaining this narrative of the PhD (or even BA) as an all-consuming beast that will chew you up and spit you out as soon as look at you.

Realistically, most of us have lives outside our studies. Some of us have children, families, caring responsibilities. Some of us have part-time or full-time jobs. Some of us have health issues or disabilities that will affect the energy and time we have to dedicate to our research. Why not recognise that and talk to us realistically about how we make it work? Instead of setting up unrealistic expectations about spending every waking minute thinking about French verbs or ethnography, talk to us about how we remain happy, healthy human beings who can manage our other responsibilities and still succeed academically. That’s the real challenge.

photo credit: Scratching bear via photopin (license)

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