Some notes on the transcription…

I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.

I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.    

You can find the full interview here:

Hello, Nicholas. Hello. So gorgeous to have you here. Thank you so much for your time. And this is a very exciting topic that we’re going to be getting into today. I was just saying before we started at the end of last season, I asked people what they would like to have forthcoming podcast episodes about. And someone said, they’d like to kind of have an episode that really thinks about the changing culture of academia and the changing landscape of PhD study. And so when the email came in about you and your work, I was like, perfect, this will be great. So that is what we’re going to get into today, in terms of what you’re calling this process of reimagining. And your thinking around this based on a wealth of experience. But before we get into that, I’m going to let you introduce yourself. And as, as every guest has to tell us a little bit about your journey going right back to your PhD journey, how that was for you, and then your career after that.

Great, well, thank you, Emma, and it’s, it’s great to be here with you. I did my PhD a few years ago, back, in fact, in the 1970s University world was a rather different place than it is today. So you know, so bear with me flashback. I became very interested as an American growing up in a suburb where I didn’t have very much experience of the world at large by the fact that when I was 12 years old, my father took the entire family to India for a year where he taught on a Fulbright scholarship in a college just outside what is now Chennai, what was Madras at the time. And because of that, I just became fascinated by India, when I went to college, I majored in Asian and African Studies. And I had the opportunity to go back to India to do a senior thesis, which I did on caste politics in South India. And then I went on, and I just wanted to continue that kind of work. I did my PhD at the University of Chicago, I did it in the history department. But I did it at a time when any kind of study of a place like India was part of what we called in the US area studies. So still sometimes called that, but that meant that I had a history, PhD, but I actually studied primarily with an anthropologist, and took courses with political scientists, with sociologists with the literature, people, Sanskrit, us and, and others. So I had this broad interdisciplinary experience in my PhD, and I was able to go back to India for 18 months to do the actual research. Of course, like, I think every graduate student, you know, there were things, some things that worked really well. And there were other things that were not great. I had a one member of my committee, who I had some disagreements with, and turned out to be a problem when I submitted my PhD thesis, and he thought I should write it, or rather rewrite it entirely. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t a completely smooth experience. I’ve had, you know, great academic success ever since. So I’m not complaining, but I did, I did experience how how vulnerable graduate students can be, you know, to to a mentor, with him, one might have some differences of opinion. And of course, there are times when you need to be, you know, part of mentoring is to tell the student to take a different direction or to, you know, do something that they might find, initially, you know, not what they wanted to do. But this, I think, was a kind of a kind of ideological and methodological disagreement. So, I became came aware during that process, that it was really important as a mentor when I got the opportunity to do that from the other side of the table, to really try to make sure that I didn’t let disagreements about some issues get in the way of my responsibility as a mentor.

What I What a gorgeous lesson that is in terms of what you can offer to your to your students in that. And I know that this theme of in your own work of interdisciplinarity is probably going to come up again in a minute in terms of seeing how academia functions, and how we negotiate that. So if you said of very humbly those of you had some success with that, you, I’d love you to tell us a little bit about kind of where the journey took you because I think that we’ll set up in terms of, from what point are you reflecting back on the kind of the state of the nation in terms of the state of academia now, and in terms of how you see the culture changing, and the possibilities you see from the future? So can you tell us a little bit about what happens after your PhD?

Well, I was very fortunate to get a job out of graduate school. There weren’t very many jobs in South Asian history when I was applying for them. So it seemed like a, a time when I might have to do something else. And I’ll come back to that question. In fact, later on, because we’re in a similar moment, in terms of job opportunities in some fields. And my field in particular older went through a kind of golden age in between, it’s no longer what it has been. It’s more like what it was when I was when I was on the job market. But I got my job at, at a at an odd place for me. But a wonderful institution, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, Cal Tech. And I was basically teaching courses to Caltech students who were majoring in physics and chemistry and engineering, wow, about, you know, Asian civilization and very broad kind of distribution courses and so on no PhD students, but I had a wonderful time it was when I was able to turn my thesis into a book, and ultimately get get tenure and, but as soon as I did, I was offered a job to go to the University of Michigan, which had a very top graduate programme in South Asia. And in particular, in the two fields I’d worked in, or the two disciplines history and anthropology. And I went there and enjoyed, you know, having having colleagues enjoyed having the opportunity to teach graduate students, and being allowed to create with a colleague of mine, who was a classicist, Sally Humphreys, a joint PhD programme between the department’s of history and anthropology. And it is still functioning, it’s still a great programme. It’s the interdepartmental, PhD programme and, and Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. But it got me involved not just in graduate teaching, but in also trying to create opportunities for graduate students to get the kind of ad hoc interdisciplinary education I had been able to get, but again, in an odd way, at the University of Chicago, so, so I, I enjoyed my time in Michigan. But you know, things happen. And because of the success of the Anthropology and History programme, I was actually recruited to Columbia University to be the chair of the anthropology department. So I couldn’t say no to the bright lights, moved to New York and, and had the opportunity to hire a lot of faculty and to really create a new graduate programme. In the anthropology department, where, for the first time, we were able to offer full funding for every PhD student we admitted, we were able to, you know, give them effectively five years of support. But, you know, in which I also learned about some of the difficulties of funding PhD students, making sure that they had teaching opportunities, but trying not to overuse them, to the point where it interfered with their own graduate work. And then, too, I began to experience for the first time, the difficulty is when you had students who did very well, but still had to enter into a job market where there were fewer jobs than, than there were applicants. And where there were lots of disappointments and where mentorship really, you know, started with the first day of orientation and in the fall of the of the first graduate student here, but continued right through a career that didn’t always lead in a straightforward way to academic employment. Yes,

yes, yes, yes. And I think that’s, that’s a really useful moment for us then to talk to go into our kind of next topic. Although this doesn’t cover your whole CV, but we will put that we’ll put that in the show notes. But just to know that you’re very accomplished and have a lot of experience in in kind of steering institutions to because there’s chance with Barclays, Berkeley, you you’ve kind of steering that institution. And so, you would now have gotten to a point where you are reflecting on this culture and this or the culture of academia, but also as you’ve just mentioned there how that sits within the wider culture and people going into the job market that which is As a kind of a wider job market. So this this sense of, you’ve just written a book called The City of intellect. And so this this sense of thinking about the university as a as a potential as a city of intellect, but what that means in terms of the changing culture of the university. So can we sort of get into that now? And, and, and how you see it, what you see the challenges, as and what you see the opportunities as?

Yeah, well, you know, just to go back for a second to my time at Columbia, when I when I went there, the tendency at a university like Columbia was to admit a lot of PhD students, but not to fund them fully. Right. The History Department at Columbia, when I got there in the, in the mid 90s, had something like 300 graduate students on the books, but very few of them were actually full time students, many of them were doing other things. Some of them were teaching adjuncts as adjuncts in in departments across the greater New York area. But it wasn’t a very responsible way to run a graduate programme. So we downsized, we, we restricted admission, basically, to those who have full funding. And then we had support from the Mellon Foundation in the US, which was trying to encourage universities to speed up the time to degree for PhD students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. But, you know, the truth is that when faculty are teaching graduate students, they’re often engaged in an act of kind of reproduction. Yes. And I heard, heard Luke, my non professor at Harvard, talking about the crisis in the humanities the other day, and he said, graduate school is the bedroom of faculty in the sense that it is where, where they reproduce themselves. And, and, and, of course, the problem there is that we’re often trying to train our graduate students to be like us. But we will trained to be like, you know, like our mentors. And it’s a very, very, you know, conservative way to think about how you train students, and probably not a good idea to try to clone oneself in a graduate student, either, because, you know, it’s, it’s not a good idea in the sense that you want to cultivate the creativity. And you want to support the interests of your own students, but also because the world is changing, and the world of the university is thinking very, very quickly. And that’s really to the point of your of your question. Yes. So it doesn’t make sense anymore. For a graduate student who has very uncertain career prospects, to spend eight 910 1112 years doing a PhD in the US, the average time to degree in some humanities fields is eight or nine years, it’s obviously quicker than that in the UK. Yes. But, but this has been a major issue. And of course, on the one hand, in the US, we say, you know, the graduate student comes in, takes graduate seminars, you know, develops a sense of an intellectual community often reframes what their plan is for what they want to do further research. And that’s, you know, What is distinctive about a US PhD education. But if you spend too much time, in those seminars, if you spend too much time, you know, again, trying to, to conform to the expectations of faculty who want you to be like them, it can make for an extraordinary expenditure of time. And, and, and so I became, you know, really very committed to the idea that we had to speed up the time to degree. But we also had to think more broadly about what we were doing when we were training a graduate student. And now just fast forward to when I moved to Berkeley, the first year, I was there as Chancellor, I was meeting the, the President of the Graduate Student Association at the University of California, Berkeley. And he had just done a survey and he, himself was doing a PhD in philosophy. But he told me that 50% of the graduate students at Berkeley, when they were able to answer this question, anonymously on a survey, declared that they did not want academic employment, they actually wanted to get their PhD and then get a job outside the academy. But most most of us, most of us faculty, actually, not only didn’t know that, but we treat our students, all of them as if they’re going to go on and have an academic career just like us. Yes, yes, yes, yes. But But the other thing that came out in this conversation with the head of the GSA at Berkeley was that students were often I’m reluctant to confide in their own faculty mentors that they might have other kinds of interests and ambitions, because then they were worried that they would become second class citizens in the Ph. D. programme. So, I began talking to departments and faculty and colleagues and others to say, look, the world is changing, and, and we have to be able to think about a PhD outside of our own context of the university. Now, that was back in 2013. Right, in the intervening 10 years, you know, the situation has just become much more intense, because the job market and in many of these disciplines has gotten worse and worse. There has been an overproduction of PhD students. Not only that, there is, I think, a growing sense that there are huge opportunities for people with PhDs to go off and do other things not to take away from the experience of being a PhD student, but to suggest that it isn’t an act of failure to decide to do something else. It’s often an act of, of real, and, you know, serious ambition to use the PhD to make a difference in the world, but in a different way, perhaps. Yes. And so that that was the frame within which I began to think about how we have to really begin to change the way we do graduate education. When I when I started writing my book, the city of intellect, and I thought about it in several respects. First, that there is a difficult job, job market to be sure, but but really second, that we owed all of our students the opportunity to think about a PhD differently, then we thought about it as faculty. And that, to do that, we had to reduce the time to degree radically, we had to remember our own experience, which was often that once we finished the PhD and got a job, there was actually a great deal that we learned after we got the PhD degree. 

Yes, yes, you don’t have to know everything in order to get the PhD, the PhD as a credential, but it’s a moment in a journey. And it doesn’t have to become this thing that becomes almost an impossible, you know, peak to climb, when, when it comes to, you know, setting the kinds of expectations for what a dissertation should be for what a you know, for, for what the full set of accomplishments that are part of the PhD programme should be. And of course, at the same time, cost of living issues get worse and worse. In California, they were around the cost of housing in particular. And there were so many other challenges that graduate students were facing, as well as concerns that they were being used effectively as cheap labour led to the growing, growing movement for unionisation among graduate students who no longer accepted the argument that they were simply there as apprentices learning from their masters and, and just simply transitioning to full time employment and the Academy, all of the terms that used to undergird those, you know, those those those assumptions had to be rethought. And I think that they’re clearly being rethought by our graduate students, but they need to be rethought by faculty by Dean’s of graduate divisions. And by university administrators more broadly. Well, I

think that is what will be music to people’s ears in terms of all those feelings and challenges that people are having. You articulating that and you talking about that from the position that you can look back on it from, from the from the experience that you can offer to that because all of those things that you’re you’re saying people are living that I love this one I love, I love and horror, I’m loving, horrified, in equal measure by this sense of this kind of bedroom of academia. Because I think that that that kind of really intense experience that some people have, and feeling like they are being moulded feeling like they’re being sent in a particular direction that doesn’t feel comfortable to them, seeing that it’s seeing the institution from a very different perspective than their supervisors and mentors are seeing it. And to be able to have a kind of articulation of that I think is really, really helpful. As well as the really important issues kind of calling out the really important issues about you know, casualization of teaching and the way in which PhDs are vulnerable, as you said right at the beginning it says the vulnerability of PhD researchers and the way in which they can be exploited I think this is just And, you know, really, really helpful to put it out there so that we can kind of have a look at it. And so I think I’m aware of time, before we came on, I was like, blimey, it’s not long, not long that we’ve got. And I’m aware that we’ve kind of we’ve, we’ve, we’ve put that out there. But and we’ve all we’ve touched on some of those issues and touched on some of the things that kind of the reimagining aspect of, of, of your work. And I wonder if, before we go to to kind of a top tip for people who are living that experience, and what you know, what can they do? And how would they think about that? If there was anything else that you wanted to say around that? The kind of where, where you see things moving forward, how you see things potentially continuing to change, hopefully for the better?

Yeah, well, let me give one example of something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. And that is really a continuation of what I was suggesting about the need to think differently about what a graduate education is leading towards. We, you know, almost every day, we see something in the news about artificial intelligence and about chat, excuse me, chat GP, and, you know, the extraordinary power of these new large language models. And we, of course, are reading about everything from existential risk associated with with AI two questions having to do with what it’s going to do to the economy, how is it going to affect, you know, issues around structural racism and bias, and indeed, how we might think about regulating and governing this new technological power that we’re producing. And, and as I, as I’ve been engaging with this, and my work at the New York Academy of Sciences I’ve been, I’ve been thinking that, you know, the truth of the matter is that the kinds of questions now that are being raised around around AI and technology are questions that have to do with ethics, with the kinds of traditional concerns of moral philosophy, with this huge infusion in social science and sociology and anthropology, that have to do with, with thinking about the social and cultural and behavioural effects of, of new forms of technology. Were thinking about what this does to community, what it does to individuals, what it does, even to our mental health, and all the psychological issues. And I’m, I’m saying that because I think what, what universities overlook, sometimes is that here we are, training a lot of different graduate students in fields, where we’ve been thinking that, you know, the real question is whether they’re going to get a job and, you know, in the 18th century novel, and in fact, you know, the kinds of skills that we train are going to be important for the world outside the university in some ways, even more than they’ve been in the past. Yes, yes. And so I, my last thought is that, you know, as we think about these graduate programmes, not only must we be interdisciplinary within the university, but we have to connect with some of the pressing issues, whether they have to do with AI, whether it has to do with climate, whether it has to do with the geopolitical tensions, that of course, we were, we’re living in a time full of, and, and that, you know, there is, in fact much that, that our, that our PhD students can contribute to the world, whether they go on to an academic career or not,

I love that I just I love in your work, the way in which you’re giving this kind of expansive perspective of not only, you know, that the PhD experience, and what that could, could encompass when we get out of the bedroom, what that could encompass, and also the, you know, because that expansion then expands the role of academia and and what we all as, as learners want to offer to the world. You know, our love of knowledge and our desire to, to share that and be curious about the world and change the world. And I think that this sense of mission in your in your book is really strong. And I kind of I think we’ll have we’ll have in the show notes, the detail of this book. I really, thank you for articulating that. Thank you for sharing that vision of what things might be. I think this is awesome this. Before I let you go, I’m going to ask the very reductive question, having gone into an expensive space reductive question of do you Have a top tip for current PhD researchers who who are who are there in the academy trying to negotiate this changing culture?

Well, you know, I, you gave me a tip ahead of time that I was going to be asked for this tip. So I’ve been thinking about and of course, like, like many members of faculty, I can’t come up with one that you know, and but it does relate to, I suppose, what I’m going to say, which is that, you know, what I, when I, when I look back, I remember feeling completely stymied by this idea that I had to write a dissertation that was going to become, in a way a kind of symbol of my own intellectual propensity. And it became a huge burden. For the longest time, I just couldn’t start writing, I just went back and did more research and more research and more research. And, and it was only when I finally sat down and just said, Okay, I’m gonna write, you know, I don’t, I’m not going to write, I’m not going to wait for the perfect moment of inspiration, I’m just going to start writing something. And I run it. And of course, that was, it was on yellow paper, and I was writing with with a with a pencil, and I ripped up the first few sheets of paper. I did ultimately, by the way, write my dissertation on a word processor, but this was early drafts. And, and yet, once I wrote something down, I realised that writing a dissertation is much more like building a kind of, you know, building a shed or a wall of some kind, it’s really just one piece after the next. And when you start writing, you actually realise, you know, far more than you think, you know. And if you’re writing about what, you know, there’s a great deal that you have to say, if you’re only thinking about research, you’re only thinking about, in the end, what you don’t know. And that drives you in a different direction, away from actually getting it done. And the pH of the tip is the PhD, is a credential. But it’s only one step in the journey of your life. And, and you have to treat it like a like any other step, and, and not make it into a kind of test of your own self worth. Or a kind of index of, of self affirmation, because finishing it is affirmation enough. 

Oh, my goodness.

I know so many people will be able to relate to that sense of this is such a huge thing. And that the burden of this, I love it, this sense of that is just a credential is a step. It’s a transition. And I also really love this, you know, more than you think, you know, more than you think, you know, just start writing. I know it’s easier said than done, just start writing. But you know, you and I have done that. We know that feeling. We know it’s easier said than done, but actually taking the action. There’s there’s magic in that. Nicholas, thank you so much. There’s so much more that we could have talked about. And I’m aware we just touched on the issues. But thank you for doing that and for giving us opening up this discussion for us. Thank you so much.

It’s my great pleasure to be here. Thank you, Emma. And thank you all

for listening.