Well, I don’t know how much the ideal of using PhDs as a force for peaceful change in the world can be translated into reality. Some of the challenges facing academic researchers today are pretty tough:

  • Cuts in state research funding stemming from wider austerity measures
  • Cuts in state teaching funding, ditto above
  • Hence even more increased competitiveness in research council, private sector, and non-profit organisation research funding
  • Hence marginalisation of ‘blue skies’ research and increased focus on hypothesis-driven, certain-outcome investigations
  • And an (in my view) unhealthy obsession with the concept of research ‘impact’, which is materialistically, instrumentally, and unpragmatically defined.

In fact, research impact is probably a whole separate post in itself, which I might address another time.

In a way, I don’t think we can totally blame many of today’s academics for being so fiercely competitive in activities like grant applications, networking, and self-promotion (‘selling yourself’, as it’s sometimes put). It’s a culture that has evolved out of necessity for researchers – for us – to keep up with the ever-changing ways the wider political and economic climate affects academic life. If public spending and inflation had never gotten out of hand (in an ideal world, obviously), there would never have been a need for austerity (except perhaps under hardcore right-wing administrations, but then again they wouldn’t exist in an ideal world). If so-called ‘free market’ ideologies hadn’t been applied so rigorously to higher education (by, I might add, a certain hardcore right-wing administration in the 1980s UK), there would be no league tables, university rankings, research assessment exercises or ‘excellence frameworks’, and no student consumerism. In other words, we could perhaps have an academia in which we collaborate rather than compete, do research for peace rather than for prestige, and aim for pragmatic, real-world impact rather than impact based on paper citations or journal rank.

When I was first starting out I imagined academic researchers to be progressive, politically rebellious intellectuals who questioned everything, especially the state and self-serving politics, and who actually believed in something, some values or principles or things they hold inalienable. Well, as people further along in their careers probably know already, it’s disappointing to see that’s not the case! Even in my own limited experience, I’d say probably 95% of the academics I’ve come across have come across as intellectually exhausted with keeping up with today’s research life and struggling to produce research that has direct usefulness for some form of social progress (as opposed to just constituting another publication for their CV with a vague statement about how the work might one day aid in the understanding of such-and-such a pressing world problem, pending, of course, much future research).

So where are we going with this?

I’m just saying I guess I realise it’s easy to say we should use PhDs to bring about sustainable world peace, but how to change today’s evolved research culture to bring that about is a harder, and as yet unanswerable, question (but you never know what might come out of future research!). I think right now though, before the whole of degenerating academia can be changed, each PhD student has a choice to do research directly and expressly for world peace, if they want. It’s a tough choice because to be ‘successful’ in today’s academia, the research community expects us to have ‘high impact’ publications in ‘high impact’ journals, an eyeball-popping funding record, and a glamorous employment history at ‘high rank’ institutions.

But then…

What if I publish open access journals because I believe all researchers, and anyone else, should be able to read and use my work without having to pay subscription fees to print journals, which essentially take papers from researchers for free, publish them, and then sell them back to researchers for a fee for cutting our forests down?

What if I assess the impact of my research, and others’ research, based on what real-life, observable outcomes it has brought about for real people, rather than how many times it is cited, how many times its journal of publication has been cited or how highly it is ranked, or what its rejection rate is?

What if I evaluate researchers’ employability from what they have done with their funding, rather than from how much of it they have been awarded?

What if I believe all higher education and research institutions should be cleansed of segregational, class-creating ranking systems and of all activities relating to self-promotion, advertising, and corporate marketing, and instead be formed into an equal, international intellectual network in which funding is distributed according to the ability of projects to directly solve world problems, and as equally as possible, and in which there is as little professional hierarchy as possible?

What if I think today’s researchers must believe in something and be willing to not conform to established academic culture in many ways in order to stand up for those things they believe in, rather than stay silent in the safe little position they have found in such trying times of austerity?

What if?

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