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Not a student, not quite staff

Being a PhD student sometimes feels like being in limbo (or, purgatory, if you are Catholic). Technically, we are students, in the sense that we pay tuition fees (unless you are lucky enough to receive a studentship) and we come out with a qualification at the end of it. But there the similarity between PhD students and the rest of the student body ends.

Now, I am going by my own experience at University of Westminster and my conversations with my colleagues, so I apologise if I am assuming too much. Unless you are assisting with teaching, it is unlikely that we will interact with undergraduate or other postgraduate students. Indeed, we will interact mostly with other PhD students or academics or researchers, the latter being paid. We are not required to attend classes or lectures as such, except for perhaps a few methodology seminars in the first year which might help us decide on a theoretical framework.

We don’t get “personal tutors”, we get supervisors – but we are not employees. Of course, it is our responsibility to manage that relationship. We perhaps have one formal deadline a year – registration in the 1st year, transfer in ideally the second year and final submission – but these dates are as fluid as the writing of our thesis. That’s not to say that those deadlines aren’t important, not least because it helps to crystallise the research done so far and to shape your ideas.

The Research Office at Westminster has often emphasised how we are more than just students, we are in fact trainee researchers who may or may not work in academia afterwards. PhDs are regarded as academic qualifications, but perhaps they ought to be seen as professional qualifications because they are effectively the minimum criteria one needs to be an academic researcher or lecturer. In that case, there is an argument that doing a PhD is akin to a training contract that might be done  by someone hoping to qualify as a solicitor or barrister or accountant or a company trainee scheme.

Perhaps universities do subconsciously recognise that a PhD student is not quite a student by the provision of studentships in exchange for limited teaching work. This almost sounds like a contract of employment. Unfortunately, there are not available to everyone. But the payment is for teaching work, not for being a researcher.

An alternative, unstudentlike name for a PhD Student would be Doctoral Researcher and this sounds like a good job title. Or one could go for the more professional-sounding Trainee Researcher. Either way, there is a case for making PhD Students into university employees, with a salary (that is comparable to a trainee solicitors).

But there are disadvantages to PhD Students as employees. Employees are agents of their employer, so the university could hold any intellectual property rights to research, unless a clause was written into the contract. Why would they do that?

Furthermore, being an employee would increase the financial and legal obligations of the university. Studentships are already hard to come by and they are offered within a particular research area. Surely offering Trainee Researchships would simply narrow the sort of PhD research done to what the university is interested in. It would most likely lead to the exclusion of people who currently have a greater degree of freedom over their research.  After all, why should university pay people to do whatever they want?

Plus, as employees, we would probably come under all the usual targets and the bureaucracy that one could reasonably expect. And this would no doubt undermine the current freedom that PhD students do have.

As much as I would love to be paid trainee researcher, on balance, I realise that being a PhD Student is also completely different to being an employee.




Reflections on writing up (a chapter)

I always thought that my working style on my PhD was to write up as I go along. Since my superviser suggested a few weeks ago that I should put a temporary freeze on new reading and produce my first chapter, a theoretical framework, I have realised that making notes and playing around with ideas is not the same as writing up.

I know that writing a thesis is not about the number of words. But having 80,000 words cited in the university documents was overwhelming. Indeed, even having my supervisor mention 20,000 words or so for a chapter still seemed quite a lot. Then I read a blog post on how writing a thesis is a bit like losing weight – instead of kilograms counting, you are word counting. (I am sure it was The Thesis Whisperer but I can’t find the actual post. It’s possible it was tweeted.)

With losing weight, trying to go from, say, 87kg to 60kg is an unsurmountable task. But celebrating every time you lose 1kg makes losing weight so much more motivating. Instead of thinking “still got some way to go”, you think “I’ve done well”. But the important thing is not to think about losing weight, just live, get on with what you have to do and don’t eat too much.

So, with writing up, I didn’t think about trying to get to 20,000 words. I just wrote what I could. Before long, I got to almost 2,000 words. After that, I noticed that I was going over the 1,000 barrier every day – 2,000, then 3,000, then 4,000 and so on. So I made that my daily goal. That means that I can write 20,0000 in 20 days. That’s less than a month. All of sudden, it seems very doable.

Let’s just hope, by the end of the month, I will have lost enough weight to fit my first chapter under my belt.


Doe, a deer: the beginning according to Julie Andrews

I should add that the other challenge I found was knowing where to start. So I followed Julie Andrew

s’ advice that she gave to the Von Trapp children when teaching them to sing: “Let’s start at the very beginning, the very best place to start.”

I have also found that the act of writing isn’t necessarily linear. I have gone back and forth, fleshing out thoughts here and moving paragraphs around there. And, maybe this isn’t the right way to go about it, but while I have put a freeze on new reading in general, it doesn’t mean that I don’t actually do any new reading. In many ways, writing up gives a direction to my research that perhaps wasn’t there before.

University of Westminster – Forward Thinking (via PENh.D – Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?)

Yeah! My first contributed post, flying the flag for University of Westminster and their array of promotional stationery. Whoever said that the pen wasn’t mightier than the sword ought to be impaled on said pen and sword and be asked which was more painful – purely in the interests of research obviously.

University of Westminster - Forward Thinking Todays pen post comes from Pravin Jeyaraj. Pravin blogs at ‘notaphdthesis’ and tweets at @notaphdthesis. As I am doing a PhD at University of Westminster, I happened to have pen lying around somewhere. I can’t remember the exact situation where I was given it, but it was probably at enrolment or one of the university research training session. What’s odd is that the university’s main colour is red, but the pen is light orange, with white writing. … Read More

via PENh.D – Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?

Rememberance Day – the most ironic day of the year

So today is Remembrance Day. Before I say what I am about to say, I believe in the importance of Remembrance Day, I believe in the memory of all those who have fought and died for our country to protect our freedoms, human rights, liberty and democracy. And herein lies the irony. On the day that we are suppose to look back to the horrors of war and utter “Never again”, we (as in humanity) have never seemed so eager to go to war for whatever reason than since the day was first instituted in the aftermath of the First World War. If we really are going to take Remembrance Day seriously, let’s bring our troops back from Afghanistan, let’s get rid of Trident and our stockpile of nuclear weapons (three words: Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and let’s offer a real, genuine hand of reconciliation (and eventually friendship) to countries such as Iran and North Korea.

I think part of the problem is the way that we ‘celebrate’ Remembrance Day. If you go to church, you’ll probably have it included in this Sunday’s service – although if your church is anything like mine, it will probably be en passant. You may (or may not) be wearing a poppy to show that you are marking the day, but are you really? What exactly are you doing? Donating some money to the Royal British Legion or Help the Heroes, possibly having a two minutes’ silence but otherwise getting on with your day as usual. And let’s be honest, did people die to set us free just so we can be a slave to the system? (I’ll let you decide what the system is.)

Remembrance Day is, for us, what 4th July Independence Day is to the Americans. Former British colonies, such as India, Sri Lanka and Canada, celebrate Independence Day too, to mark the liberation from our rule. So why don’t we really celebrate today? Let’s make it a National Holiday, perhaps an extended weekend (such like Thanksgiving in the US). Let’s have some kind of procession in the street – and not just a military one but a showcase of pluralism, multiculturalism and peace, kinda like Mardi Gras and May Day all rolled into one. And perhaps let’s name it World Peace Day or something.

Which brings me on to my final point. Yesterday demonstration in Central London by students and lecturers against the coalition government’s cuts to higher education and plans to increase tuition fees for 80% of students is perhaps the best celebration of Remembrance Day. It is why people died in the first place, so that we can have the freedom to protest and to express our views.


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