Thursday, April 23, 2015

Academic Destiny

I saw this quote on Twitter and got (perhaps irrationally) annoyed:

Does that hold true for academia?

I don't believe so!

I believe that I have reached this stage of my academic studies through my own talent and hard work, along with immense support from academics, friends and families. But ultimately, I steered the course of my future through the choices I made and the hard work I put in. 

Now, academic studies raises the question of subjectivity, which is especially true in a field like humanities which lends itself to multiple interpretations and opinions. But throughout my academic studies, problems of subjectivity in the review process has been substantially negated through a mixture of coursework and anonymous examinations. Subjectivity is never gone, but at least it is reduced.

Yet, the PhD thesis is an unusual beast. While there is oversight by a supervisor (or multiple supervisors), and progress reviews throughout the process, ultimately, in the UK at least, the decision comes down to two people. And of those two, the opinion of the external examiner holds more weight and is often deferred to.

In that instance, the subjective interpretation of a thesis is exacerbated. It may come down to the examiner not liking the approach you took, or just not writing the thesis that they would have! And while the internal examiner should, in theory, be on your side, often it is hard to contradict the opinion of the external.

By this point, my destiny is no longer in my own hands, but in the hands of someone who may fundamentally disagree with me. 

Do examiners remember this? I often wonder how long it takes academics to forget their own PhD experiences and lose some sensitivity to the stress of the process.

And of course, the question of subjectivity extends beyond the PhD into the peer review process for publication, to academic interview panels, etc.

I have been in charge and in control of my academic destiny for the past 10 years, and last July I placed that destiny into the hands of others when I submitted my thesis. 

My destiny is still in their hands and I look forward to getting it back!

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