Thursday, October 14, 2004

So, about that phd (warning: long post ahead!)

Now I’ve sent off the forms, so it’s more or less official, I feel like I can actually discuss the whys and wherefores. In many ways it seems like an obvious decision – I did well at uni, I don’t like ‘regular’ jobs, I like knowledge… but it’s not that simple. When I was at uni I hated a lot of it.

I hated lots of the people there. I hated an undergrad system that often put research and profit ahead of students. I hated having to get up everyday. I hated Colin Campbell and his uber-capitalist approach to managing the uni (money from BAT, sacking lecturers, in favour of top-up fees).

When I finished my degree I knew it was time for a change, to do something completely different. But what? Lots of people I knew (and mostly disliked) were off to city jobs. But I couldn’t do that, they are boring, soul-consuming, jobs that you don’t just do but become. I cannot imagine this. Cannot understand why you pledge your life to this, cannot understand how you become interested in the state of the financial markets or care about the marketing budget of the group you work for. All just cogs. My view of work was of a necessary evil, a certain amount of time that must be traded for money in order to enable you to live and afford to do other things. And not only can I not imagine doing one of these jobs, but I can’t even imagine how you go about getting such a thing (recruitment weekends, second and third interviews, team-building days??? Please, no, it’s all too much, all too lame), nor being put in charge of anything. I still feel like a child, like I’m talking to someone else’s parent when I speak to someone in charge, like I must make nice otherwise they won’t invite me round for tea again. But yet I see on TV people much younger than me going out and doing this stuff, I feel like perhaps I missed some stage of development where I was meant to step into the adult world… but no, that would be boring. I much prefer it here.

So, to work then. Picking a job involved thinking of the place I would hate least – a nice, cosy bookshop – then getting a job there. And that was that really. But things are souring. I don’t hate my job, it’s too insignificant to me for that and it’s often made quite fun by the people I work with, but I am starting to hate what it’s trying to become.

Firstly there is simply the issue of getting bored. There’s only so many times you can re-tidy a wrecked section after thoughtless Saturday browsers, or shelve the latest fad book, before it all starts driving you mad. The futility of it all, the utter pointless labour that only exists to propagate shit. However, I think this is as likely to have sprung from part of my personality, I remember getting bored with uni towards the end, getting bored with previous jobs I’ve had… I think I’ve got some kind of cut-off switch which kicks in after I’ve been coasting through something for a year or two and makes me feel fed-up and fidgety instead of enduring. Not necessarily a bad thing, change is often good, although I also have a bit of desire for a steady-state “I’ve got this job and will never have to worry about finding work again” situation. But it is this fed-upness that overpowers me when I get on the bus in the mornings and think that I simply can’t withstand another day.

Secondly is the whole management/being in charge thing I mentioned above. Now I’ve been at work for a while I keep getting more and more shit to do. Running a section isn’t too bad, at least if it’s something you’re interested in there is something for the soul in the books you’re looking after and ordering. But all this promotional stuff and liasing with managers about how stuff should look and re-arranging because head-office say so and running endless reports and people assuming that you should automatically know how to do all of this… nope. When all my job consisted of was serving customers and shelving it was pretty boring, but at least I had little responsibility, I could shrug it off, I didn’t have a particularly good or bad day, just a day. I don’t want responsibility. No matter how capable I should be (on paper at least) I just can’t make myself care enough to do it really well, nor am I interested in doing stuff well to get promoted and have “a career” (despite still having vestiges of the old behaviour drummed in at school: that things are important and should be done well, that people in charge should be respected, that you should work hard).

Which is also a bit odd as I get really annoyed when other people are obviously incompetent or negligent, but am myself becoming more sloppy and careless and can’t stop it happening.

There is another reason for the above, which I would like to cite as fairness but could also conceivably be viewed as greed or pandering to capitalism. Although I keep getting more shit to do, I am not being paid anymore and every time I have an appraisal I get told “well done, you’re doing well, you’ll go up a grade next time”. That’s now been happening for almost a year. My view of the grading system is that grades 1 & 2 are (relatively) temporary training grades, while grade 3 is a fairly comfortable, doing the job well but not having loads of extra management stuff, kind of a grade. It also has a reasonable jump in pay (although the total pay is still shit). But I’m still at grade 2 for no apparent reason and, in my normal way, I can’t really bring myself to talk to anyone senior about it. Instead it’s manifesting itself in my increasingly laissez-faire attitude. Similarly this promotion debacle seems designed to try and suck me into this system, to make me a happy and productive worker who is hungry for success and promotion (cog). Fuck that. Not only that, but even at grade 3 I’ll still be paid less than the average office temp. How is that meant to encourage long service and hard work? (As an aside there was a pretty good article in the Bookseller a while ago about how bookselling is viewed as a vocation, hence the low pay and highly over-qualified staff – virtually everyone in our shop has a degree but is working in retail, serving a stupid and condescending public. No matter how many times people call themselves “a bookseller” it’s still just a shop, although most shop staff wouldn’t have responsibility for ordering, hence the unfairness of this whole pay thing.)

Now, back to the degree. One thing I have got out of my current job is a slight change in work ethos. At uni I wanted to do nothing but sit around and follow my own whims, and I dreamt of a future where this would be the case (dreaming of self-employment, but even this is less susceptible to whim if you want, need, to earn a living). It’s a utopian vision, but also extremely unrealistic and, I suppose, rather childish. Particularly as my degree at the time was pretty interesting, but I just couldn’t be bothered to put loads of work in. I did well, but on the minimum of effort, thereby probably getting less out of it than I should have. A big part of this was down to the stuff I hated that I mention above. There was also that feeling that I was still jumping through the expected hoops and was not yet free to do my own thing (not that I knew what this own thing would be), I was still in the whole school/uni/job chain where each year seems like just a small part of some enormous task and the pressure of expectation is crushing. Every couple of months more exams and you’re left thinking ‘when will I have to stop proving myself to others, when can I be left alone to be me’. A PhD at this stage would have been a big mistake, I would have got fed up very quickly, shirked the work, probably done OK but not have had a good experience. I would not have been doing it for any good reason, except for it being an easy staying-at-uni next step.

But coming at it now, I can view it as a job. In this context it is so much more appealing. The same kind of hours as now, but instead of shelving books I’ll be able to read them. Instead of running sales reports I’ll be running reports on experiments that actually have a deeper purpose and meaning. Sure, there’ll be times when I’m bored and can’t be bothered, but at least my 8 hours a day will be doing something interesting and bigger, instead of being slept-walk through until I can go off and do something else. So my view of work as a necessary evil fades a little and I realise that a PhD viewed as a job could be very enjoyable and rewarding, that my interest in science won’t be relegated to reading New Scientist and a pop-sci book now and again in my free time, but could actually fill my days with thought. And I’d get paid more.

The only issue I’m still a bit uncomfortable with is the whole capitalist side of it all. Those issues haven’t gone away, my view of uni as an ivory tower of leaning and discourse and academic freedom is still tempered by the knowledge of the corporate sponsorship and business-minded management. But I don’t think it’s as bad as the corporate management that keeps intruding on me now, and at least there is a greater purpose to a lot of what goes on at the uni, not to mention many members of staff who think likewise and haven’t become middle-management automatons just yet.


Blogger Pete said...

Hear! Hear! If I ever write an autobiography, I'm going to plagiarise your third paragraph word for word.

Remember, though: back at uni, you'll be surrounded by all those stupid conveyor belt undergraduates again... That'll drive you crazy. Remember to keep your walkman on you at all times: you never know when you're going to need to close those ears to all that mindless chatter about careers and lifestyles.

14/10/04 10:23 am  
Blogger Katy said...

You are me. Or perhaps a more eloquent, male version of me.

Also, Colin Campbell is still an uber-Capitalist troll beast. So much so that the AUT have greylisted Nottingham University.

14/10/04 10:28 am  
Blogger paulhd said...

Very well put. So much to comment on that I might as well do it on my blog.

14/10/04 11:21 am  
Blogger paul said...

thanks readers (if i may be so bold as to call you that!). another thing i forgot to mention is the timescale issue. i talked about having trouble with on-going projects on here before, and what is worse than an indefinite job? a phd is lengthy, but at least i feel like i'll have a bit of a map and compass for the next few years of life, instead of disappearing into the abyss. i already feel more relaxed at work, thinking: "only a year(ish) left".

don't ask me what i'll do afterwards though...

14/10/04 11:57 am  

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