By Fraser Raeburn |

A depressing thing about PhD projects is how ephemeral they often prove. You can put together some great initiatives, but without an established institution buying in, they tend to fade away as your time and effort gets pulled elsewhere. Pubs and Publications, however, has managed to buck the trend.

Five years for any postgraduate-run project is a long time, let alone one so dependent on the goodwill and effort of volunteer writers and editors. It helps, I think, that the University of Edinburgh continues to pick up the hosting bill – it’s not inconceivable that they simply forgot to cancel the subscription[1] – but the fact remains that its longevity can be attributed almost entirely to the hard work of the editorial team, past and present.

When the current crop of editors asked me to come back and reprise my greatest[citation needed] hits for the anniversary, they forced me into a tough decision. My writing for Pubs and Pubs could be divided into three basic genres: introspective, emotional responses to the PhD and the world around us, pushing metaphors way too far, and pointless listicles. Can these genres be usefully combined? No. Will that stop me trying? Also no.


  1. Your PhD is a Wolf

Have you ever frantically raced across the tundra, the sun hovering above the horizon, the winds rising and your sled dogs tiring? A deep existential panic grips you: you are an experienced enough Arctic explorer to know the danger you’re in, the slender thread on which your life is suspended. Suddenly: a howl. It is far, yet far too near. ‘Relax’, you say to yourself – out loud, because it has been that long since another human was present to speak with – ‘the number of recorded fatalities caused by wolf attacks each year is statistically negligible.’ Yet deep inside, you know: these wolves will not be tamed by a p value of < 0.05.

Anyway, your PhD is the wolf in this metaphor.

A wolf in snow

And it’s hungry…

  1. The most common punctuation mark you’ll use in your PhD

When setting out on a PhD, few aspiring researchers think about how they plan on punctuating it. This is a mistake, as without punctuation, your thesis is unlikely to make sense. At best, you’ll earn some brownie points from the E. E. Cummings fans, but even they’ll be forced to acknowledge that there’s a reason Cummings never landed an academic job.

To aid in planning your own punctuation budget, I added up all the punctuation I used in my PhD:

List of punctuation uses: , 9666 (this was genuinely a surprise); . 5775 (that’s almost as many times as I used the word “the”!); ‘ 3524 (used as both quotation mark and apostrophe for the sake of efficiency); – 1229 (never trust someone who uses a hyphen instead of a dash); : 716 (not the only kind of colon I made reference to in my thesis tbh); ? 91 (PhD theses should give the illusion of certainty – do not allow for questions, only comments); ! 18 (if you wanted excitement, why do a PhD?)

  1. Does the PhD prepare you for what comes next?

Many – though perhaps fewer than previously – undertake a PhD with the expectation or hope that it will lead to a career in academia. Whether this is a good idea in the first place is one thing, but what I have been reflecting on is how far the PhD experience is still preparing candidates for academic life. This, after all, is the apparent primary purpose – without wanting to discount the ways in which PhD projects have been reimagined and recalibrated towards different goals in recent years, these efforts are predicated on the reality that the traditional purpose of the PhD is to lead to an academic career. Quite aside from whether they are fit for any other purpose, it’s worth considering whether PhDs are still fit for that purpose.

I’ve been luckier than most since finishing – two temporary, but full time contracts at Edinburgh. In terms of required adjustments in terms of subjects taught, procedures, workplace culture and even friends, it’s hard to imagine a less traumatic transition from PhD to academic employment. Yet it was still a shock – the type of work required in a modern academic workplace is vastly different from the PhD experience. The cascade of short, urgent, fixed deadlines – a timetabled lecture cannot be renegotiated with a sympathetic supervisor – is already a substantial shift. I’m well aware, of course, that deadlines are hardly unknown to your average PhD student, especially those in the final stages. As well as theses, PhD candidates are often juggling any number of side projects and commitments, which present their own ongoing demands. Yet, ultimately, they are all optional apart from the thesis, undertaken (and abandoned) according to our desires and needs. For early career academics, the same pressure to undertake extra commitments is still there, but they need to be managed alongside many new, pressing responsibilities.

Instructions for a trouser press

Potentially including literal pressing, depending on your sartorial standards.

More to the point, the work required – administration, pastoral, unfamiliar forms of teaching – are things that few PhD candidates have a chance to gain significant experience in. In particular, the sort of teaching experience available to current PhD candidates is often heavily circumscribed. For many of us, our first experience giving an undergraduate lecture or leading an advanced seminar happens on the job, with little or no training – in fact, getting the job in the first place requires convincing a selection committee that you don’t need training in the first place.

No one should expect a major career transition to be easy. But it’s worth remembering how far the landscape has shifted. Getting a research-based postdoctoral role right away – especially one based on your own project – is increasingly rare, as major schemes opt for candidates with multiple years of post-PhD experience. These kind of roles, which once would have exposed us to the realities of academic work, are now far from the norm. More common is the route I have taken: short-term, teaching-orientated work, at universities where rapidly expanded student numbers have reduced the slack available in the system to next to nothing. Managing this transition – while maintaining (often unpaid and unsupported) research activity and output – is something that PhD programmes are currently not preparing people for.

Fraser is a former Pubs and Pubs editor from a long-forgotten era. Despite his best efforts to leave and move on with life, he is somehow still based at the University of Edinburgh. You can find a similar cocktail of attempted jokes, ramblings about Higher Education and, occasionally, history on Twitter.

[1] Editor’s note: of course we know this isn’t the case 😉


Featured image wikipedia

Image 2 flickr

image 3 pxhere