On a recent field trip to the Imperial War Museum in south London I was taken aback at how much this chunk of the Berlin Wall seems to bear relevance to what PhDs are for.

After experiencing the apparently common phenomena of First Year Fun and Second Year Slump I have now moved on to Third Year Cynicism (my apologies for being unable to find a synonym of cynicism that begins with a ‘Th’). I feel cynical about the purpose of PhDs and how that purpose must have evolved from a purpose more noble in years past. Sure, we’re ‘changing the world’, but progress seems slow. At present, I count at least five academic staff in my own department alone who have no publications, and no visible ongoing research. And, unless their staff profiles’ ‘research and publications’ sections are empty because they are relentlessly busy doing life-saving research to create a utopian world, that’s pretty disappointing.

I had hoped so badly that getting to the top of the academic qualification ladder would mean being able to change life, to work harder for peace, to create a classless society. Now, I just feel cynical. I can’t work out if that’s because I’ve been working on my thesis for too long, because I don’t believe in it any more, or because I’m just being stupid.

But I do think, with increasing marketisation, competition between universities for research funding and league table status, and this overwhelming emphasis on corporate advertising to trumpet out people’s achievements, we’ve lost track of the fact that we need to use PhDs for change, not for self-promotion. While most people would happily agree, change is hardly at the forefront of our minds every day while we’re editing minute details in a diagram, fixing PowerPoint slides, or attending lab meetings.

Change is a far-away ideal on the horizon of doctorhood. Conversely, it should be the blood that runs through our veins.

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