PhD as a selfish project

PhD is a selfish project. How come it isn’t? You think for yourself, you write for yourself, you read for yourself. All is devoted to the production of the final, ‘sacred’ document that you need to defend in the end—by yourself.

PhD is also about self-indulgence. You do what you like in the way you like. The supervisor reads and comments on your work for your own good. Your colleagues support you for your own good. As long as you accomplish the work.

Other jobs work for other people. A chef cooks for others, a driver drives for others, an auditor audits for others, and a designer designs for others. A PhD, however, works for him- or herself.

In fact, PhD has more similarities with artist. A pure, non-commercial artist, to be precise. An artist draws as a self-expression, as something that he loves doing even though no one would benefit at the time of creation, as something the he knows he must do even though he doesn’t know if he will make money out of it.

Well, that’s where PhDs differ from artists. PhD students know that there is money in return for doing the work (through salary, scholarship). Or that they even have to pay for it (the tuition fee).

Or maybe, the value of doing a PhD should not be compared to other jobs; that PhD is (still) something in the category of ‘student’. In other words, PhDs—like students—should not be expected to contribute anything during the process; that their highest value is in the learning as much as they can. But let’s imagine if a PhD is like a bucket in the process of filling. Isn’t there anything from the bucket, while in the filling process, that can be shared to others? Or should we wait three to four years later before we, the rest of us, can learn anything. If at all.

Welcome to Academia Inc.

If you are familiar with the manufacturing industry, understanding the world of academia is not difficult. In a manufacturing company, products are designed, manufactured, assembled, quality-controlled, packaged, and shipped. In the academia, writing is the product. Similarly, scholars ‘manufacture’ their writing through the assembly of different ideas and building from the existing literature. During the process, the authors must do some ‘quality-control’—could be by the author herself or by peers—to make sure that important points are adequately addressed. Once it’s ready, the writing is then ‘shipped’ to a targeted journal.

If a company that produces a product aims to cater a certain niche in the market, an author that writes a paper usually do so to address ‘the gap’ in the literature. Hence, it should not be a surprise if, in writing, one receives a comment “Please specify more clearly what is the gap that you are trying to address!” What’s the point of creating a product that has been there already? People want something new. Between the ‘niche’ and the ‘gap’, it’s just one and the same thing.

If a well-received product will bring high profitability to its maker, a good quality writing will ensure the career of its author(s). How well a product is sold is measured through sales at a certain price point, how well a paper is written is often measured through the number of citations and which kind of journal it is published.

But do not be discouraged if your writing is not published—just like not all R&Ds ever reached mass production, writings are not always end up in a journal. Some of them are just not lucky enough to find its publisher: either they are stuck in the middle (and need some time to be recycled as another paper), never got finished, or simply abandoned. The hard truth is, not all ideas are created equal. (FYI, this is why this website is made, because maybe this is the only medium where my writing is ever published. Who knows?)

However, while the ‘production machinery’ of the manufacturing industry is pulled by the demand of the customers (market), I am not sure if the academia is dictated by a similar demand from the ‘market’. Is it an obligation that every scholar writes a paper for an A+ journal? Arguably not. Then where does the pressure comes from? We can see this from two levels. At the individual level, the more you are published in a top journal, the more likely you will land in a financially rewarding position (read: better career). At the institutional level, the pressure comes from the accreditation bodies. Business schools want their institution to be accredited so that their reputation is acknowledged as among those that are best in the world. Business schools want this because if they got accredited, their institutions will get a better position in the eyes of the stakeholders (such as the governments, industry, society, as well as prospective students). If the business schools are better positioned in their stakeholders, it will be much favorable for them to obtain resources for further development (read: to attract more money and talents).

To call those as ‘market’ is rather derogatory. I mean, come on, academia is supposed to be ‘higher’ than that. We are people working for the best of the society. Our concern is not profit, but social improvement. We do research not because we think it’s going to boost our career, but because the world needs a new way of thinking, breaking away from the current condition. And being a professor is not a position that we pursue but just a risk of doing research for so many many years. Hence, to say that the academic world is fueled by the demand of the ‘market’ and that the production of writing is just to serve one’s career seem so capitalistic. Shouldn’t we positioned above that system? Or, are we no different from any other corporations operating within that system?

Welcome, my friend, to Academia Inc.