We Must Mystify the Phallus.

In the struggle against Slavoj Žižek, there have been many losses: time, brevity, genial conversation.

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In the struggle against Slavoj Žižek, there have been many losses: time, brevity, genial conversation. One of the most prescient results of this struggle has been a recent piece for The Spectator, arguing that society (read: cis men) should keep the vulva a mystic symbol, fiercely protected by the old guard of psychoanalysis and ring fenced by that ever slippery notion: erotics. For Žižek, it appears that confronting a vulva head on is an impossible project: his sensitivities are upset, he fears he will not be able to enjoy the sexual act. Finally confronted with the male gaze, the philosopher weeps. It is simply too much to bear. There is, of course, only one answer to this problem: we must mystify the phallus.

As someone who does not possess a vulva, I speak here to those who identify with Žižek and his castration anxiety. If the vulva is too much for Žižek, if he believes it to be a fearful excess, then we must mystify the phallus. We must raise the phallus to an inexplicable, misunderstood and reductive symbol that will allow the philosopher to circumvent his fears of not being able to get it up. Only when the phallus is mystified, will he be able to stop fearing the vulva. In its physical presence, the phallus is a limp stub, a fleshy rejoinder that reminds the philosopher of his essential weakness. Only when retheorized as a vague, murky and deeply coded symbol can the philosopher hope to rid himself of his fear of the real. When the phallus becomes a symbol, he will no longer have to agonize over being kicked in the balls.


Let us not worry about the cost of mystifying the body. Do you feel burning after you have used the phallus? Do not worry. There is no need to go to the sexual health clinic, just truly believe that your phallus is nothing more than a symbol and the burning will go away. Have you a problem that you are too embarrassed to discuss? Do not fear. Rather than having an open, healthy dialogue about your anatomy, simply realise that your phallus is nothing more than an object of female pleasure and, suddenly, the need for medical attention will evaporate. Indeed, once we have mistyfied the phallus we can do away with doctors entirely. Let us misunderstand our bodies. Let us feel ashamed.

Now, like Žižek, I must turn to a seemingly random sluice of cultural artefacts that adorn but fail to conclusively prove my epistemological inquiry. Let us think of Priapus and his huge phallus, of Justin ‘Trousersnake’ Timberlake, of Dick Van Dyke and his clearly posturing name (what a show off). All of these men have one thing in common: they are too blatant about the phallus. The answer lies in the opposition to his positionality (yay: dialectic arguments for the sake of it). The answer is Ross from Friends and the problem that ‘not every man has’. In shouting at Ross, Rachel affirms his phallus while raising it to the level of the symbolic. We will never know the problem, we will only be able to guess of its contours and so it does not matter. Ross can sublimate his shame through being a hateful bag of shit, rather than reaching inside himself and working towards healthier emotional relationships. In mystifying the phallus, we too can hope to be bags of shit.

In her eloquent takedown of Lacan, The Sex Which is Not One, Luce Irigaray notes:

If we reconsider the terms in which the debate has taken place within the field of psychoanalysis itself, we may ask the following questions, example: woman been expected to choose between the two, being labeled “masculine” she stays with the former, “feminine” if she renounces the former and limits herself to the latter?

If we mystify the phallus, Žižek too can engage in this forced questioning of the self – what joy! Through such neurotic self-analysis, the philosopher will be rid of his questions about the vulva. Forced to scrutinize himself on a daily basis, he will no longer have the time or the power to write lengthy, posturing and misguided articles on subjects he will never be intimately acquainted with. Susan Sontag can finally rest easy.

MSA20 Costings

In the interest of accessibility, I am costing all the international trips I undertake during my PhD, as well as explaining how I funded them. I hope that this encourages other researchers to travel, research, attend conferences and the like, if they are able to. You can read about the other trips I have made here.

In November 2018, I was fortunate enough to attend the Modernist Studies Association conference in Columbus, Ohio. Due to the relative difficult of getting to Columbus, this is one of the costly trips I have undertaken so far. This cost was further increased by the fact that I joined the conference relatively late (genuine thanks to the BAMS panel for thinking of me!) The conference itself was fantastic and you can read my review here.

This trip involved pulling many different funding streams together. I received a scholarship from my university that covered the cost of the hotel in Columbus, another scholarship worth £300, and a travel grant from BAMS worth £150. As well as this, as I was part of a reciprocal panel, my conference fee was waived (which saved me roughly £200). All in all, I put around £165 of my own money into this trip.

Aside from the hotel, I did have to pay for the trip upfront, being reimbursed a few weeks later (which I am incredibly grateful for!), meaning that I had to dip into my overdraft, which may be a concern for other students. I managed to keep costs relatively low by booking a hotel with breakfast, eating the meals provided by the conference and finding somewhere cheap for dinner (as well as being bought drinks by some very kind tenured scholars). There were no hidden costs on this trip, but do think of those (I didn’t have to factor an ESTA in this time, either, as I already have an active one)!


Costings

  1. Return flights from London Gatwick to Chicago: £310
  2. AirBnB in Chicago (4 Nights): £100
  3. Return Greyhound bus from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio: £55
  4. Hotel (4 Nights): £440.02
  5. Food Budget: £150
  6. Total Cost: £1055.02

The PhD Handbook: What I have learnt over my time as a doctoral student.

Reviews and Criticism: On theater, cinema, art and more.

Research on a Budget: A breakdown of all my major costings during my PhD.

Think Pieces: Long reads on politics, theory and the state of academia.

Up and Coming: Get involved with my lectures, training sessions and ongoing projects.


All Posts

2018.

How to Create an Academic Podcast | November 13th

Three Years is Not Enough: An Essay on the Modern PhD | July 5th

Against Puppies: An Essay on Mental Health and Academia | April 28th

Returning to the Archive | February 19th

How to Write a Conference Abstract | January 23rd

The PhD Funding System is Excluding the Working Class | January 22nd

PhD Students Deserve to be Paid for their Labour | January 11th

2017.

A Beginner’s Guide to Teaching | December 05th

Costings: North America Research Trip | December 03rd

Review: Howards End Episode 2  | November 20th

Review: Howards End Episode 1 | November 12th

Review: Call Me By Your Name | November 12th

Academic Snobbery Towards Wikipedia Is Naked Prejudice | November 11th

We Need to be Honest: #PhDMentalHealth is at Crisis Point | October 10th

Review: Tom of Finland | October 03rd

Criticism: I’ll Show You Mine, You Show Me Yours | October 03rd

How to Approach a Teaching Interview | October 02nd

Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson | September 21st

A Rough Guide to Phd Funding: Part 3. Interviews and After | September 06th

A Rough Guide to PhD Funding: Part 2. Funding Options | September 06th

A Rough Guide to PhD Funding: Part 1. The Application Process | September 06th

Mental Health at Conferences: A Practical Guide | August 16th

Who’s Afraid of the Real Woolf?: On the Vita and Virginia Casting | August 04th

Modernist Studies Association Costings | August 12th

Critical Kinks: Theorizing BDSM | August 1st

The Trials of Being a #workingclassphd | July 27th

Midlands PhD Skill Share | July 05th

To Academics, Having Just Buried My Friend | June 20th

Towards Academic Self-Confidence | June 11th

International Research on a Budget | May 31st

A Beginner’s Guide to Conferencing | May 31st

A Beginner’s Guide to Archiving | May 31st

East Coast Research | May 14th – May 30th

Queer without Queries: Queer British Art 1861 – 1967 | May 03rd

The Art of Place: Sussex Modernism Comes to London | February 20th

The Midlands Modernist Network | February 13th

Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Protest | January 23rd 2017

Nottingham Trent Book Club | January 23rd 2017

The Thatcher Network Conference | January 22nd 2017

Queer Modernism(s) | January 11th 2017

The Modernist Podcast | January 02nd 2017


2016.

Farewell to the Pioneers: On Losing Our Queer Icons | December 27th 2016

The Virginia Woolf Zine | December 26th 2016

How To Set Up An Academic Podcast.

A simple step-by-step guide.

In December 2016, I set up the Modernist Podcast, an open access platform that features interdisciplinary dialogue between academics working across the broad field of modernist studies. As a first generation scholar who had all but fallen into academia, I wanted to create a network that would help me feel supported in my career choice. The podcast has done just that. Over my time as a PhD, I have interviewed students across the UK and in the USA, made firm friends through podcasting and had access to corners of the field I would not have stumbled across otherwise. Further to this, I have been very fortunate and in the past two years the podcast has taken off in a way that was initially unimaginable to me. We now have 16 episodes, 4 minisodes, a listenership of nearly 15,000 and articles about podcasting in scholarly journals.

In this blog post, I want to discuss how I set up the podcast in the hopes of helping others set up similar ventures in other fields (or indeed in modernist studies!). I am going to keep it as brief and uncomplicated as possible, as that is how I like to work when podcasting. Feel free to email me should you need any more information!

What You Need.

  1. A microphone or Dictaphone.
  2. Editing software.
  3. A basic understanding of the digital technologies you use.
  4. Time, energy and enthusiasm.

How To Create a Podcast.

Stage One: Develop a concept and a structure. This is deceptively simple. It boils down to three things: What do you want to talk about? Who do you want to talk to? How do you want to structure this?

  1. What do I talk about? I decided early on that I wanted the Modernist Podcast to function as an alternative to journals or conferences, but to buy into the same kinds of knowledge sharing. As such, the podcast interviews between three and five academics working in the field about their research projects, grouping them under loose themes such as Modernism and the Environment or Modernism at War.
  2. Who do I talk to? Following this decision, I resolved that I wanted to carve out a space for those who struggle to get a foothold in academic discourse. In turn, the podcast only interviews those who are undertaking their PhD or are within three years of submission. We have special episodes with artists, established academics and practitioners, but these are markedly different from our usual fare.
  3. How do I structure these conversations? This was the most difficult question for me to answer. Partly this is because – and this comes as a shock to many – I didn’t listen to podcasts before setting one up (I do now, ravenously). Due to this, the Modernist Podcast has a relatively simple structure, though one I am now grateful for (it makes editing easier). Each episode, I give participants up to fifteen minutes to discuss their work, asking them open questions based on research statements they provide me before the interview begins. At the end of the episode, I ask the same questions each month: What excites you about modernist studies and what boundaries do you feel still need pushing? This gives episodes consistency, while allowing them to avoid being overly repetitive.

In all, the Modernist Podcast is a research intensive discussion that focuses on a deep dive into a handful of scholars work, while exploring a wider theme. Our minisodes are slightly different, centring humour, a conversational tone and informal discussion by focusing on the materiality of academia. This helps keep the podcast fresh and has allowed me to expand beyond my original ideas.

Tip: If you want to get started with a podcast, I suggest you listen to the following first:

  1. Secret Feminist Agenda by Hannah McGregor.
  2. Serial by Sarah Koenig.
  3. The Animals Podcast by Katharine Bucknell.
  4. Unpopped by Hayley Campbell.
  5. Truth and Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast.

These will give you a good insight into different presentation styles and diverse structures.

Stage Two: Participants. Having decided on the kind of person I would have on the Modernist Podcast, I put a call out on Twitter and tagged the relevant bodies (associations, big names in the field, journals). Soon I had a number of messages and emails inquiring about being on. I arranged these participants thematically into the first three episodes and then looked at the gaps that needed filling. From here, I reached out to people that I found on Twitter that fit into the first three episodes, explained the project and asked if they would consider being on. I am grateful to this day to the first five panellists (Sophie Oliver, Jade French, Fran Bigman, Rio Matchett and Katie Dyson) for taking a chance on me, as they moulded the podcast into what it is today.

Tip: You will have dropouts. Make sure that you have a constant conversation with panellists, give them firm deadlines and check in with them before things are due. Ensure that there is wiggle room in case people have problems submitting on time or you have an unexpected pressure on your time.

Stage Three: Record. This is my favourite part of the podcast. In the early days, I would travel up and down the country to meet participants. ‘What?!’ I hear you cry. Yes, this would be exorbitantly expensive but my dad is a train engineer and I received free train travel until I was 25. Meeting people face to face is great, however, and if you can get funding for travel, I would heartily encourage it – not least because meeting people in your field is great for making friends (you would be surprised how intimate podcasting is). I record on a Dictaphone that I bought for £15.99 off of Amazon, but there are many higher end options.

I still try and meet as many panellists as possible, but things have had to change since I hit a quarter century. Now, I usually take the same approach to panellists in the UK as those internationally. I have panellists send me a short (1 – 2 paragraphs) research statement that outlines their work ahead of time, then write a series of questions which I send via email about a month in advance. Panellists then record their answers and send these back to me before I edit them centrally. Yes, it’s low-fi. Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it works.

Tip: Make sure you send your panellists an outline of how you expect them to record. Send them instructions about what to record on, what length of time they are allowed and any other recommendations you have. All this will help assuage any questions while ensuring your participants feel supported and comfortable.

Stage Four: Edit, edit, edit. I edit on Adobe Audition. It’s a sweet piece of software and incredibly user friendly. Luckily, my university already subscribes. If you don’t have access, I would recommend a free online alternative such as Audacity (though hunt around for what suits you best). When I began podcasting, I had no idea how to use these kinds of software but a few YouTube videos and extended blogs later, I began to play around and teach myself. Be brave and you can reap the rewards! If anyone complains about the editing, sound quality or professionalism, remind them that they are getting a free piece of scholarship from an underfunded grad student (if you aren’t one of these, then they are still getting free scholarship!). If they have money to support you, great. If they don’t, they’ll soon be quiet. If I have recorded the panellists live, I send them a copy of the podcast to listen to before I publish it (they might have some edits for you). If they have submitted their own answers, I skip this step (they will know how they sound).

Tip: If I interview panellists live, I always rerecord my questions later to improve the sound quality. You might have fancier equipment than me, however, and not need to do this.

Stage Five: Publish. Currently, I subscribe to Soundcloud and publish my podcasts via there. It costs me around £8 a month (which I pay out of my own pocket). I like Soundcloud as it is cheap, unfussy, and I can easily use the RSS feed feature to link the stream to the iTunes Podcast App, but there are other options out there (Stitcher, Spotify, PodBean and so on). From there, I link the episodes to our website and put them out on Twitter and Facebook. And that’s it, the podcast is out in the world.

Tip: Make sure you find a system that works for you. What kind of audience are you looking for? What are your goals? How big do you want your podcast to be? Consider all of these before putting money down.

Sounding Out.

Before I go, a few more things. Academic podcasts are usually very niche. As critics, our interests are hyper rarefied. If you are looking for a broad audience, consider the ways in which you can make your scholarship interesting and accessible (or consider hosting something different entirely! Podcasts can be just for fun!!!). If not, expect your podcast to grow slowly. This can be disheartening at times, but with persistence you will find a core audience.  

To speed up the process, put yourself out there as much as possible. Use social media to your advantage and don’t be afraid to email people you think might be interested in listening. As your community grows, drawn on them. Earlier this year I ran a funding drive which allowed me to cover the cost of website hosting for two years, as well as hire two students interns. Since then I have spoken about the podcast at conferences and published in international journals about podcasting. If you are putting in labour, think about what your podcast can give you: What funding can you apply to? What journals could you write to? What events could you present at? All of these will help with promotion, as well as add contour to your academic CV.

If you have any questions, just email me. Good luck!

Academia is a Dinner Party (and I Don’t Know How to Act)

On the place of feelings and emotions in academia.

I have visceral memories of the first time I went to a fancy dinner. Perhaps visceral is an odd word, but that is how I recall the night in question. It was enjoyable, yet searing. Everything felt unreal, like at any moment someone would yell ‘surprise’ and it would all be over. I was incredibly aware of my body, my movements, how I acted, how I spoke, and at the same time I was completely unaware of how I should move, act and speak. I felt out of place.

Previously, I have talked a lot about the materiality of academia, in particular class, mental wellbeing and how the neoliberal university functions. I want to use this post, however, to think less logically, and talk emotionally. Put simply, I want to ask how it feels to be young scholar right now, and in particular how it feels to be a working class person in an overwhelmingly middle class academy.

In itself, writing this post is an emotional experience. I am cautious of being truly exposed and vulnerable in an academy that does not appreciate messiness, as well as fearful of what people will think. At the same time, I do not want to elicit feelings of pity in others. And this is because this post is not simply about me and my emotions, it’s about the conversations I continue to have with my peers about feelings we share collectively, about how we have felt our way through the academy and about how our feelings are being negotiated. I am not looking for sorrow, I am searching for strength.

This yearning to speak emotionally stems from a recent phone call I had with my mum, in which I expressed that I felt like a failure. I even cried. The reaction was a different emotion altogether: shock. To my parents, simply undertaking a PhD is a major success. My mum told me about how proud she is, and asked why I couldn’t see this in myself. It was hard to convey my answer logically, and that is because it isn’t wholly logical. It’s emotive. How could I explain that my PhD did not feel like a success, because within the academy the PhD feels like the bare minimum? How could I explain, seemingly paradoxically, that any other wins feel minor in the face of the thesis, and are written off by the pressure cooker atmosphere of starting a career in academia? We can never do enough. Yet this is the very reason that discussing our feelings is important, because our emotions help chip away at the veneer the academy wants us to put up, allowing us to show that our labour is difficult and intense, and to expose the ways in which we are left frustrated, burnt out or let down. Talking emotionally allows us to seek out new ways of connecting with one another and to begin resisting the pressures we feel collectively.

Returning to my first dinner party, there are many reasons I felt out of place: I had not ordered wine before, I did not understand which fork to use, I had never been to such an expensive restaurant. Though I was with my then-boyfriend, I struggled to relax. Academia feels much the same. Thinking through the last couple of years, the emotions I have experienced in regards to my work have been overwhelmingly high energy: excitement, anxiety, stress, triumph. Everything feels driven by a frightening velocity. Rarely do I experience comfort when it comes to my work; I am constantly on edge, looking for another opportunity and hunting down the next item on my checklist. We have been all been told what we have to achieve to have a chance at success after the PhD has finished (articles, impact work, networking, conferences, funding grants, to name but a few) and ticking these off while writing a thesis requires speed, a pace that drives my emotions to giddy heights. No wonder, then, so many of us are suffering mentally. This is not just about the materiality of our situation or its physical effects, it is about how we treat ourselves, how we experience our successes and how we respond to what is happening around us. It is about how we feel.

Such feelings are only intensified by the way in which academia works. Here, I am thinking especially of the kind of feedback we give and receive, perhaps best summed up by two words: Peer Review. We have all read the jokes, all seen the memes. We make light of the infamous Reviewer 2. But the reality of the situation is often bleak. Having poured hours of energy into crafting what we believe to be an excellent article, we are skewered by a member of the community to whom we have no right of reply. Yes, there are reasons for this. Yes, to a degree it is about rigour. Yet, in the face of many reviews my friends have shown me, I cannot help but draw comparisons between peer review and online harassment. Protected by anonymity, it seems many reviewers feel it is okay to degrade not just the piece they are reading, but the intellect of the academic who has written it. Often it seems like the process is not about fostering productive, uplifting feedback, but about tearing someone down. It seems critique has become too readily conflated with condemnation. I think here of the theorist I feel most strongly about, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and her own work on affect. Why do we continue with such paranoid readings that excoriate writing, rather than asking what a text can offer us? Even writing this feels difficult, as we are not meant to react emotionally to peer review. The process is ostensibly about our research, not about us. Yet we can all see this is a fallacy. Within academia, our work is intractably chained to our standing and to the currency we hold within debate. Our work, then, is about us. In turn peer review should not leave us feeling wounded or attacked, but encouraged, hopeful, invested and uplifted. After all, it feels to me that positivity and respect are the most fertile breeding grounds for pushing our research to its full potential.

My experience of academia has been compounded by the way I have been taught to act by those around me in the academy. The world I come from is loud, shouty, intense and beautiful. It is my granddad catching wasps with his beer glass, then laughing and slapping his knee as he frees them again. Too often, I feel academia is a world away from this loudness, marked instead by an intense, fastidious hush. And I do not mean the silence we all need to undertake our work. I mean the manner in which we are permitted to act. Speaking with genuine feeling often feels improper. Referring to things excitedly as ‘fantastic’ or ‘brilliant’ is met with stern-faced measure and passive aggressive pushback: tight-lipped faces, sharp intakes of breath and muttered words. Apparently we cannot celebrate.

And yet we cannot moan, as we are told time and again that the difficulties we face are just the way things are in academia, just part of the process. In this fashion, we are cut off from our feelings, siloed into a space marked by neoliberal language where all that matters is the bureaucratic rulings of journal ratings, the REF and publishing standards. Our work must be adequate, passable, beneficial, at most interesting. It must never breathtaking, perplexing, curious, harrowing or inspiring. Such systematisation does not just affect our research, however, but doubles back around and leaks in to how we experience the workplace. In a marketized academy, passive aggression is the emotional reaction du jour. In this way, rigour becomes conflated with restriction. Speaking out, discussing our feelings, talking about the impact our work has on us all pose a risk. We must keep quiet, for fear of putting our head above the parapet. I reject this. Yes, we are meant to criticise from an objective standpoint, yet this cold, precise way of working does not need to extend to our conversations, or the way in which we treat each other. Feelings have an important place within academia. They are not gushing feebleness, but expressions of the realities we face in an ever-tightening system. Effacing emotions from our workplaces simply weakens the bonds we so rely on to uplift one another, to withstand changes that damage our capacity to feel well at work and to resist the marketization that sucks the life out of academic thought.

In all, my emotional reactions leave me feeling excessive. I feel too much. I feel gauche. I wonder if I am meant to be here. In this way I am reminded again and again of other dinner parties I have been at, of unspoken rules and regulations, of stifling etiquette. And so I begin to wonder if my excesses are marked by class, by vulgarity, tackiness, unruliness and bad manners. I wonder how it would go down if I took the same approach as my dad to his workplace, if I was as bawdy, brash, honest and jovial as the mechanics he works alongside. I wonder to what extent the explicit bureaucratic and implicit social regulation of feelings in academia is about gatekeeping who has access to the university. I wonder what would happen if I embraced my excesses and began allowing myself to react emotionally to my workplace. I am sure I am not alone in this. And I am sure that my peers have a multitude of different feelings, predicated on experiences mediated by class, race, gender and disability. Again, I wonder. I wonder how anger, sadness, joy, disgust and jubilation are employed by and against my colleagues. I suppose I am wondering because we are not talking enough about our feelings. And I hope that my own ruminations offer a gateway of their own. Not a gateway with a keeper, but an open door to discussion. How are you feeling today? Answering this in itself requires the motivation of a strong emotion: courage, but it is only by speaking about our emotions that we can come to understand how integral feelings are to the process of academia. 

As I finish, I should draw attention to the brilliant work scholars are undertaking to discuss feelings. In particular, I am thinking of Ellie Mackin Roberts, who has been fostering academic kindness through multiple projects; of Laura Sefton, who has discussed her experience of academia time and again in a manner I struggle to do so myself; and of Catherine Oakley, who has successfully raised the necessary funds to examine the repercussions of taking parental leave. Follow them and support their work, because they are helping to make the dinner party that is academia a kinder, fairer and less regulated space. Could you pass the salt?

Three Years is Not Enough: An Essay on the Modern PhD

The PhD system is outdated and outmoded.

As I write this, I am sitting in Hong Kong airport awaiting my flight home. I am currently on holiday. The summer break is a contentious time for academics, especially those in tenured positions. In many ways, PhDs have more flexibility than those in full time posts. We are not restricted by teaching, marking and research in quite the same manner. Our year is not shaped by  the contours of the academic calendar in quite the same way. My summer is not a madcap dash to write as much of my next book as possible. This does not mean, however, that I am guilt free about taking time off. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram I see my peers at conferences, writing articles and undertaking archival trips. It feels as if many of them never have a day off. Their whole life is academia, and while I believe this is not the path for me, I cannot blame them. And why? Because a PhD is no longer enough to secure an academic job. Indeed, it is not nearly enough. The PhD is simply the baseline, a tick box exercise. Aside from the PhD, we are now required to have a range of accoutrements to bolster our CVs: publications, conferences, impact work, fellowships, teaching, awards, and numerous other ventures.

Debates have recently been reignited on social media about the length of the PhD system in the UK. There are whispers that the PhD process will be shortened to three years, with the write-up year cut completely. And it seems some academics are in agreement with this. I wholeheartedly see the basis of this argument. Of course, for many, a PhD does not take longer than three years. If one puts in regular hours over the course of the week, it is more than possible to create a suitable body of work that is ready for submission. Nonetheless, scratch the surface and one can see that there are deep issues with this approach.

The first of these issues has been repeatedly discussed by scholars such as Laura Sefton and Catherine Oakley. In short, a cookie-cutter approach to academia elides the many stresses that can mar the PhD process. Illness, a death in the family, divorce, changes to the supervisory team and a host of other issues can radically change the time it takes to complete a doctorate. In turn cutting the option of a fourth year makes the PhD process completely inaccessible for many and can have deeply damaging repercussions. Add to this noxious mix the fact that most doctoral candidates are still not offered sick pay, or that many others are not funded at all (and thus required to work alongside their PhD), and it becomes ever more obvious how redundant a one size fits all approach really is. I do not wish to dwell on this issue however. To do so would be to bang an already well-beaten drum and take attention away from the work of others. Rather I encourage you to read their work, to meaningfully engage with what they are saying, to share it, to echo it and to strive to help implement the necessary changes that many new scholars are asking for.

Instead, I want to return to my original point, and think through the ways in which a three year system is no longer a suitable training ground for a scholar to develop the skills necessary to prepare them for the academic job market. Yes, for many, a PhD is achievable in three years. But a PhD is no longer enough. Instead we are required to undertake a raft of other, incredibly time consuming and often unpaid, projects. If we are to have any chance of success in ascertaining an academic post after our PhDs are over, we must be comparable in many ways to our tenured peers. A highly original, well-researched PhD is the minimum expectation. Stunning references from field leading scholars are a must. On top of this, we are repeatedly told that we must have teaching experience and two to three publications under our belt. Pay it no mind that the PhD process is a time in which we are meant to hone our craft, it is necessary to start producing publishable material from the jump if we really want to be considered for a post. This is exacerbating a dangerous culture of overwork. I have seen PhDs post their reading lists on Christmas Day, known PhDs to believe working a seven-day week is compulsory, seen many of my friends suffer from a deeply troubling concoction of mental instability and refusal to seek help.

Moreover, it is increasingly clear that we need to overachieve not just to secure a full-time academic position, but to have any chance at applying for a quality postdoc. The job market is now so fraught that many who start their PhDs in their early twenties are well past thirty when they begin having any tangible level of security, or paying in to a pension. Many feel it is advisable to extend the PhD process by a year not to write-up the rest of their thesis, but to undertake more unpaid labour in order to strengthen their hand when they finish. This adds another year to the whole process, and offers very little in the way of a tangible return. Articles can be rejected, teaching might not be available, a fellowship might not come through.

Considering these multivalent pressures, something has to take a hit: our thesis, our time, our mental health, our personal relationships. We cannot be expected to keep spinning plates. At some point, one will come crashing to the floor. Indeed, as statistics show, PhD students in the UK are facing overwhelming levels of mental illness, with little being done to combat stress levels, let alone conditions such as depression and anxiety. Cutting the option of a fourth year will only exacerbate such issues, as well as dissuade many from undertaking a PhD. And these losses will be an access issue. It will be those with the least time and those that need extra support who will be effaced from the process: those with families to support, those with caring responsibilities, those with disabilities. With changes to undergraduate courses already squeezing many out of the picture, the removal of the fourth year will only serve to rob many of the opportunities they so sorely want to work for.

The PhD system has become outdated and outmoded. The expectations placed upon young scholars well exceed what the doctorate can offer. If we truly consider what one needs to succeed in the academic job market, the system needs overhauling completely. An extension, rather than a reduction, in time is wholly necessary. Either we must extend funding to four years, or we must add an additional year to the end of the process in which students are able to undertake projects that have become a necessary appendage to an academic portfolio. Whichever option we choose moving forward, we must recognise how unfit for purpose a PhD has become, and how ludicrous the expectation that three years is enough to prepare for the sink or swim atmosphere of being an early career researcher. This is no longer about the thesis, it is about a broken system that continuously fails new scholars.

My gate is being called, and so I have to wrap this up. Next week I return to work, and with it the crushing sense that I have to stretch myself thin if I am ever to enter the academic job market. As I inch ever closer to the third year of my doctorate, it is a weekly worry that I have not produced enough, that I have not made enough contacts, that I have not managed to publish in the right places. So while I feel confident that I will submit my PhD within three years, I am just not sure that this is enough.

Against Puppies: An Essay on Mental Health and Academia

On structural support and flashy gimmicks

I am mentally unwell. I cannot pinpoint when I realised, but I have been aware of my mental instability since before I became a teenager. I do not think I will ever recover, because I have nothing to recover from. My mental health is a core part of my world, my perception, my interactions and my intellect. It is not a question of recovery, but a question of stability. I am at peace with this. Managing my mental health is an ongoing process and one that I am, finally, succeeding with.

Last year I experienced a nervous break. I developed a stutter, became increasingly violent towards myself and failed to leave my bedroom for a week, amongst other things. At my lowest I realised I had to discretely take time off from my PhD to recover, and that the only way for me to heal was to regain control over my time, to make space for myself, to discover unhealthy patterns and break with harmful behaviours. Learning to manage my mind again was a complex process that involved weeks of living off of fast food while I cared for myself, stripping alcohol completely from my diet and sleeping whenever I could, whatever the time. I considered medication, opted for therapy and told very few people what was going on for fear of colleagues feeling sorry for me. Though I have been living with mental health issues for over half of my life, I was deeply ashamed of how I would be thought of in the academy.

This week, a tweet by fellow PhD Laura Sefton reminded me of just how frustrating and isolating my mental illness was. More importantly, it reinforced that during my most intense period of self-care, I needed structural help. Whilst I was unwell, I did not turn to healthy eating, yoga, the gym, mindfulness, a sleep schedule or puppies for help. I looked after myself when possible and used the rest of my energy to wrangle with my issues, slowly chipping away at the difficulties that had built up over the past few years. In this personal essay, I want to reflect on the help that was available and the help that was not, and how academia can support its workers better.

The PhD process as a whole is gruelling. Explaining this to my peers who work office jobs is difficult. I manage my own time, rather than work a typical nine to five, which seems like a dream from the outside. In reality, it leads to a crushing pressure that never truly allows you to escape from work. If I am taking time off, I am wasting time. If I am working regular hours, someone else is likely doing more. In fact, I know they are, because they are tweeting their reading on Christmas Day. Moreover as PhDs we are placed under a microscope and scrutinised as individuals. Criticisms are not directed at teams, but at singular workers, with the weight of our labour measured against that of our colleagues. We are not permitted to be anything less than sheer excellence. This is to say nothing of the peer review process or the backroom snipes which are frequently unkind and often cruel, adding to an unforgiving work culture by breeding toxic relationships between staff.

The PhD system creates a suffocating atmosphere that robs us of personal time and space. And many permanent academics are helping to foster such a culture by shouldering students with unpaid labour. Recently, I bumped into an academic from my department that I respect and like on the weekend. On my return to work, I had an email from them in my inbox. It had come in during my time off and asked if I could perform a task not associated with my PhD by Monday morning. Evidently, the expectation was that I would be checking my emails at the weekend. This kind of behaviour is invasive, but unsurprising. The daily grind of academia is such that even the colleagues we are fondest of forget to set boundaries. I understand this and though I push against it, I try not to shoulder individuals with too much blame. Our jobs become conflated with our lives; they are a vocation after all.

During my period of illness, it was exactly time and space that I needed. The PhD system does not provide for this. As many have stressed, PhDs are not afforded sick pay, meaning wellness becomes a deeply pressing economic burden, as well as a physical, emotional and social drain. I am lucky enough to be funded to undertake my studies, meaning that I could discretely opt out of working for a short time and still pay my rent. Others are not so fortunate. I regained stability relatively quickly, without caring responsibilities or needing to get used to new medication. This was a privilege. Similarly, many of my self-funded peers are facing deeply entrenched mental health frustrations that are even harder to navigate. Unable to take time off work, these go largely unrecognised, while we patronise them for being so intrepid.

The sick pay question is a deep shame on the academy. That PhDs provide so much free, and often unrecognised, labour for their departments while not being offered the benefits of their tenured counterparts is a stain on our working habits. Yet more incredulous is the fact that the only option available to many is to delay our funding. Without my stipend, I could not pay my rent. It is as simple as that. All too regularly our tenured friends offer hand-wringing and platitudes. We are told ‘that’s just the way it is’. This is complicity that reinforces how the academy believes it should be. I often wonder if we are classed as students simply to be robbed of our workers’ rights. Personally I would rather be paid than offered a stipend if it meant that I had a seat at the table, complete with the labour rights I am so sorely owed.

Without workers’ rights, I turned to the students’ union for help. Fortunately my institution provided me with free therapy, though I am aware provisions for this are scarce at other universities. Self-care can only go so far and for many, regaining control over one’s mental health begins with structured forms of therapy from professional services. The academy needs to encourage conversations around this, as well as ensure that services are signposted correctly. Shifting the burden of PhD mental health on to students’ unions eschews responsibility, dividing our labour from our mental wellbeing and eliding the impact the neoliberal academy is having on the postgraduate community. Compounding this, therapy often takes time and not having sick pay can reduce its efficacy. In tandem with such a lack of structured support, PhDs are rarely provided with return to work procedures. A phased return to work is often vital, but without workers’ rights this is simply not a possibility. Where provisions are afforded, many of us are forced to keep quiet about mental health issues for fear of our stipends being revoked, effectively removing such procedures from the table.

In lieu of workers’ rights, sick pay and holistic mental health provisions, the academy options a flimsy regime of flashy mindfulness slogans. We are encouraged to take up exercise, eat healthily and sleep well. When many of us are overworked to a point of exhaustion and not paid well enough to buy fresh food for the privilege, such encouragements seem laughable. Forget that mental illness often leaves you unable to properly care for yourself, the material conditions of undertaking a PhD often do not allow us the means to anyway. Perhaps most sinisterly, these prompts also shift blame from the institution and on to the individual. Your mental health must be because you did not get enough sleep, not because you had to stay up late marking after your bar job to make ends meet.

Perhaps most patronisingly, we are offered a free yoga session or the chance to cuddle a puppy. Let me make this clear: I love dogs. It is my dream to own a rescue dog, over and above having an academic job. Yet what these schemes symbolise are marketable stress relief techniques that do little to improve our situation. Bringing puppies on to campus pleases parents and allows universities to market themselves on social media, a veneer that covers how many undergraduates are turning to study drugs or dropping out due to the weight of it all. And while stress exacerbates mental health issues, it is often not the sole cause of them: temporarily reducing one’s stress level before returning to an office without windows does little to ameliorate mental illness. Indeed such token gestures often read as patronising attempts for universities to cover their own complete lack of support: of course they care about our mental health, just not enough to invest seriously beyond one afternoon a semester.

This essay comes in the wake of a series of other excellent critiques from the PhD community, especially those put forward by Laura Sefton, Vik Loveday, Catherine Oakley and Sophie Jones. These conversations need to continue, and we cannot blame each other for speaking out. On this, I feel it is important to note how much community building is being led by women in academia. Foremostly, I want to thank all those who have been engaged in such vital work. Nonetheless I believe that to some degree the burden of such community building is being imposed by entrenched views of affective labour as women’s work. In recent weeks, I have also noticed increased critiques of women on Twitter specifically in regards to their speaking out on issues related to mental health. As someone with a high level of male-bodied privilege, I have not been privy to such harassment. This is a call for men in academia to speak up when they see such abuse. It needs to end, not least because policing our colleagues’ gratitude and pointing out how yoga really does help with stress once again continues to place the blame on the individual, rather than attend to their very working conditions.

We deserve better. As PhDs, we need structural support on an institutional level if we are to see the crisis in mental health improve. This goes beyond the academy and includes funding bodies such as the AHRC. We should not be rendered economically liable for our illness and left without recompense, nor should it be expected that we foot the bill for necessary care. Talk is cheap and mindfulness without the tangible rigour of systematic rights will not suffice.

So no, I am not against puppies. I just believe we deserve more.