She said, "You know, honey, it's such a shame
You'll never be any good at this game
You bruise too easily", so said Mary
-- Billy Bragg
A seemingly minor incident while I was a PhD student appears to have made a big impression on me. A friend of a friend had just completed his master's degree and was looking into opportunities to do a PhD. After he explained his project to me, I thought that one of the professors at my department might find it interesting so I arranged a meeting between them. The idea was to get some input on the shape of the project and, of course, to see if the professor might want to supervise the thesis.
It ended up being a very informal and very short meeting. The prospective student explained a bit about his background, the content of his master's thesis and what he wanted to do as a PhD student. The professor then said plainly that the only thing that mattered was finding some funding. Until that was in place (and he expected the student to solve this problem by some "external" means), there wasn't really anything to talk about. At the time, I was shocked and embarrassed on behalf of my institution, but in the months that followed I began to notice that this professor had decided that the university reforms that were going on back then (I guess about ten years ago) had changed what he called "the game" (shades of The Wire!). He had, apparently, decided to become an honest cynic. He would no longer play the part of the fool who actually takes ideas seriously. The sooner he could disabuse a budding scholar of the notion that his ideas mattered, the better he now felt he was doing his job. He was not going to pretend an interest in anything but money.
I suppose the air was thick with "incisiveness" that day. Instead of cultivating an air of erudition and a genuine interest in the developing intelligence of a young scholar, this professor was challenging the prospective academic to become a "man of a different stamp". Get used to hustling yourself into the social and material conditions under which your research might get done, he was in effect saying. The "game" of simply demonstrating your ability to make a contribution to a serious intellectual community that is driven by its own collective curiosity about how the world works no longer exists. First you must validate yourself externally. You do this by arriving at the department you want to work at (and in the office of the professor you want to work with) with, at the very least, a plan for how you will attract resources to pay your way.
Industrial PhDs in particular are expected to play this game. They create the conditions under which to do three years of research by negotiating with industry sponsors on the one hand and research institutions on the other. They become intermediaries that bring a bag of money to the department that gives them a position, and intellectual credibility to the company that funds them. The student gets a change of pace and an extra qualification at the end. Everybody wins.
The problem is just that an assessment of the mind of the PhD candidate is not really very relevant. Just as happened with that professor many years ago, other issues force themselves into the foreground. The ambitious, driven young go-getter who wants to add an intellectual edge to their profile (and do some interesting work) is much better suited for this kind of thing than the reflective, troubled intellectual who wants to get to the bottom of things. Indeed, for reasons that a writing coach like me can only find tragic, it's altogether likely that from the point of view of ensuring "completion", the go-getter is usually the safer bet. There's a broad range of quality that will ultimately yield a degree. Those who are likely to produce exceptional work are, perhaps, also more likely to be undermined by their perfectionism and somewhat, ahem, "intuitive", work habits. This is the problem that increasingly (if only metaphorically) keeps me up nights. The curious, deep-thinking type is in danger of being crowded out by the ambitious, hard-working type.
Both of these figures are of course caricatures. But we need to think seriously about what sorts of characters we are attracting to and repelling from the university on the new conditions. It's probably not yet impossible to get job if you are obviously a genius but just unable or unwilling to hustle; nor is it yet possible, I hope, to get yourself one if you lack all scholarly abilities but own a winning smile and have mastered one of the arts of influence. Still, we're getting there, I sometimes fear. And the tragedy is that both types are indisputably virtuous. This isn't about good people and bad people, nor about who deserves to be rewarded and who doesn't. It's about what types of minds are likely to dominate in our universities in the generations to come.
Academies and corporations both carry out valuable functions in society. But academic values and corporate values are simply not the same thing, even if they are of equal value. (If it is possible to not understand it too quickly, let's say that they are of "equal and opposite" value.) To assume that if two things are both of value then they are of value in the same way is, well, totalitarian. It would be no better if our corporations began to valorize academic attitudes.