Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Life and Time of Postgraduate Researcher A.

This time of year, students throughout the country will be celebrating with their families and friends the completion of years of hard and intensive studies and research. Traditionally this celebration revolves around the Graduation Ceremony. The Graduation Ceremony is a rather a formal affair. The graduate or post-graduate student hires or purchases formal gowns and head wear. Sat among his peers, the student is summoned to the rostrum where he ascends the steps and is presented with the fruits of many years of hard work - the degree or postgraduate degree award. The presentation of the award is made to the student by the Vice Chancellor or one of the Vice Chancellor's proxies. After receiving his award, the student is more usually photographed in the paraphernalia with family and friends and retires to a hostelry or some other place of beer worship.

It's a hard-knock student life - isn't it?

University life is often portrayed in the press and media as one long extended self-indulgent piss-up and for some well-heeled students it is. Yet for increasing numbers of students, the day-to-day worries of debt and paying next years fees, means long hours working in low-paid part-time (and increasingly full-time) jobs.

What's often conveniently overlooked by the degree-holding hacks who churn out this type of headline-grabbing blather, whilst they characterise most students as alcohol-fuelled sybaritic wastrels on Chlamydia, they largely ignore the role they play - particularly those in the field of postgraduate research - in providing society and capitalism with the next generation of cutting edge research. This is the way, so the theory goes, by which British capitalism remains dynamic and one step ahead of the competition. Yet despite the negative press, an undergraduate degree is the necessary training ground on which the post graduate researcher learns his/her trade.

What's in a Degree?

There is a massive gulf between the three years of study as an undergraduate and that of a postgraduate. Studying for an undergraduate degree is a very social experience. In the main it consists of lectures, drinking, tutorials, drinking and lots of debate in the pub drinking, discussion, drinking and healthy argument over a few drinks. One of the bonuses in studying politics and history is that argument is encoded into the DNA of both disciplines particularly if the student happens to be an argumentative bastard! Studying for a degree imbues the individual with huge levels of confidence as well as knowledge. It's a very socialising and liberating experience. It's an opportunity that every young person should experience regardless of their ability to pay for a round.

The PhD is a different chap

What immediately hits the prospective postgraduate researcher on embarking on the PhD is the disjuncture between what went before and now. There is a very sudden realisation that you are pretty much on your own. Gone are the days of cooperative learning - the sharing of ideas after the lecture, the extensive conversations about what essay to write, how to write it, the collective worries about exams and what will be on the exam paper. In postgraduate world, the camaraderie of 'all being in it together' is about as prevalent as a cholera victim at a United Utilities conference on advanced water purification procedures. Not even the time-honoured institutional cushion of the resit exists in this fustian brave new world, ready to break the fall of the wayward student should she or he humanly err.

The socialising element that postgraduate researcher A. came to associate with work and study as an integral part of university life is almost surgically excised like a magniloquent goitre at a reunion of once-removed Burmese Pa Dong villagers. It's history. For post graduate researcher A. every piece of research involves many long hours of hard work, soul-searching, self-motivation and often large amounts of self-doubt as well as hugely increased levels of rancorous self-abuse. Libraries, become a second home as do archives. A book is constantly welded to your other hand. In fact you find books secreted in around your former place of residence in places that only forensic scientists would be remotely interested in. Yet slowly, piece by piece, as if by some sort of random act of a metaphysical omnipresence, the thesis begins to take shape. The initial research question is refined through endless hours of meetings with your supervisor whose initial enthusiasm dissipates faster than an Avon representative's smile in a weekend commune of post-Marxist identity-theft feminists. A battle ensues as you seek to retain a wider perspective of the research area, whilst the supervisor seeks to encourage the researcher to be more specific, focus more acutely on a discrete (and often obscure) subject in order to make the task in hand manageable.

The salt 'n' vinegar strokes

The final year of the PhD for postgraduate researcher A. is spent in writing up the thesis, pulling together all that has been researched and drawn upon over the past few years. Weeks from submission, a copy is printed off and read. It's full of mistakes and obvious grammatical howlers. Panic sets in. It's immediately revised. In fact you re-write it as it's had the same slumberous effect on you as the tablets prescribed to you several weeks before by your GP in order to help you catch just a few desperatley needed hours of panic-negative sleep.

The by-now frantic visits to your supervisor's office become increasingly frequent as are your trips to the latrines. He greets your knock on his office door much in the same vein as an old couple who've just wished their hideously mangled son back to life over a dead simian's dessicated paw. Having been nominated for an academy award for his heroic attempt to appear remotely interested in your increasingly bestial attempts at written coherency, the seasoned supervisor feigns a manoeuvre that would astonish Irwin Rommel. He brazenly suggests that you ask someone to proof-read your work thereby selflessly denying himself that particular pleasure once more. Rather phlegmatically and all too quickly in your eagerness to appear professional, you agree. Once out of his office and after removing the brown paper bag from your bloated purple physiognomy, the auto-resist mechanism kicks in. You vainly attempt, using all the analytical powers at your disposal, to rationalise your reticence in exposing your lifetime's work to the public on the basis that: (a) you're embarrassed about your research, (b) you're embarrassed about your use of grammar, (c) you're embarrassed about your spelling and punctuation which has been compared to the combined output of a lecture theatre full of less than proficient pre-hominids vaingloriously banging away on a single Remington portable, (d) they won't understand the subject matter, (e) it's your baby and you resent the fact that a virtual stranger will internally criticise and giggle at four or five years of work while explaining earnestly to your rapidly ageing anxious face that it's very good but "it needs pairing down"(f) it's shite!

The reckoning day

Inexorably the day arrives for submission. The thesis is printed, loosely bound and sent off to the external and internal markers. The day of the Viva Voce arrives and you manage like some sort of gaggling twat to waffle your way for over an hour and a half past a series of metaphorical and conceptual tank-traps. But you're on a roll and you're spewing out any old shite in order to impress. You are asked to leave the room and wait in the foyer and as you walk along the grey corridor you're sure you can hear gales of laughter and heightened leg-slapping emanating from the examination room. Twenty long minutes later you're informed by the examiner you have passed. Several text messages and telephone calls later and your family, friends and peers are sending you messages of congratulations, overjoyed that you've a last completed your postgraduate degree successfully and that the topic of conversation might move away from your utter rejection of the theoretical concepts of post-materialism. Even relations with your supervisor seem to have improved as he's had the barbed wire, armed sentries and sentry boxes removed from outside his office door. A few weeks later and you're informed officially that you have passed by letter. Three more copies of your thesis are printed and professionally bound and are handed over to the University who deposit the fruits of several hard years of labour in their archives. Yes it's an expensive game you say to yourself as your plastic demonstrates that it's not only aluminium aircraft wings that exhibit signs of structural weaknesses under prolonged stress.


The icing on the cake

The final act in this long-winded affair and we arrive back at the beginning of our little story - the graduation ceremony. For postgraduate researcher A. - now Dr A. - your partners, family, and friends are excited at the prospect of joining your celebratory day.

The only problem is, you've been banned.

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