A PhD in Philosophy: more useful than expected!

I started my PhD in Philosophy shortly after a major restructure at my workplace promised to dramatically alter my professional life in more pragmatic directions. I joked at the time that I was studying Philosophy so as not to become excessively practical.

But it turns out that a PhD in Philosophy is not as useless as I had hoped. That is, in keeping with the ethos of this blog, I had expected that Philosophy would be free from the kinds of insidious controls that ravage more useful occupations. I had hoped that a PhD would give me the freedom to explore my interest in Chinese Philosophy on its own merits.

Unfortunately, it turns out that my university has embarked upon a program of radical self-transformation intended to lift its research ranking. This “research intensification” strategy translates into two measures: first, the recruitment of high-profile researchers to specialised research centres within the university. Second, the application of downward pressure on existing staff to encourage an outcomes-based mentality in research generally, with the corresponding threat of cuts to research allocations.

Some of you may recognise in this brief outline the essence of a “performance management” strategy more commonly found in corporate and bureaucratic environments: bring in new people at the top, and “performance manage” subordinates until they either leave of their own accord or comply with the new regime.

What does this have to do with a part-time Philosophy PhD student? Well, on top of all the challenges intrinsic to pursuing a PhD, it means being actively managed by the administrative arm of the university, “jumping through hoops”, meeting administrative goals extrinsic to the subject matter and the discipline, and generally dealing with an outcomes-focused, antagonistic administration. The great challenge of meeting the academic standards of my discipline was overshadowed by the demoralising demands of an arbitrary managerial culture.

The slogan of this blog is that “the superior man is not a utensil”, and in writing it I have been continually engaged by the idea that our preoccupation with utility diminishes us.  As Zhuangzi wrote: “Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

Working toward a PhD in Philosophy was supposed to be an expression of such uselessness. It was supposed to reveal the value inherent in the pursuit of learning, against the current of increasingly mundane efforts to prove the economic merits of such endeavours.

But it turns out that even a part-time PhD in Philosophy is too ‘useful’.  Universities are becoming big businesses, more a home for managers and administrators than academics, let alone for people who wish to study for their own personal development and for the sake of learning itself. A student like me is therefore ‘useful’ in the sense that my existence is increasingly anomalous in a performance management culture, and I must either strive to meet the requirements of this new order, or withdraw.

I’ve found management culture to be insidious and unpleasant, antithetical to the discipline I wish to pursue. If I were angling for an academic role in future I might have to be more circumspect, but since I was never counting on academic employment in the first place, and given the other demands on my time and attention, I’ve been pleased to withdraw from the program.

My supervisor has been excellent, and I will miss working regularly with him on my topic.  I’ve learned a huge amount about the free will debate, and enjoyed the opportunity to look deeper into the Chinese philosophers I admire. Perhaps I will have a chance to return to this theme in the future, but for now it’s fitting that it come to an end.

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