Jan 2, 2017

PhD blog 1/17: Half-year review

So, I've now been a postgraduate student at the University of Helsinki for half a year. The experience has been so thoroughly lonely, depressing and frustrating that I'm seriously considering quitting. When I wrote that there's no orientation for new students whatsoever, I wasn't exaggerating. I'm still not sure if my doctoral program knows I exist; if my name wasn't on their list of students, I'd be pretty sure no-one's told them I've been accepted into their program. My subject has at least noticed I'm around, but not much more.

The practical form my work this semester took was reading a pile of theory and background literature, and writing the first draft of my introduction, which clocked in at some 30+ pages. In addition, I completed the fall semester of teacher training. This was a pretty rough combination, and I'll admit that at times I was completely exhausted. Some time in November I hit a stretch where writing was incredibly difficult; I'd manage a single sentence at a time, followed by what I swear felt like an hour staring at the computer. But I finished it in the end, though, as well as my teacher studies. That's not the problem.


My fundamental problem with postgraduate study is that none of the above matters. I worked my ass off to produce that introduction, and nobody cares. I've unsuccesfully applied for both funding and work; all my applications were summarily rejected based on my CV. At no point does the quality of my work even begin to enter the equation. Nobody making decisions about my future knows or cares if what I'm writing is any good or not. Doing research and writing a PhD will get me nowhere. Instead of, you know, doing science, my priority would need to be building my CV in order to be able to do science. But even that's not as easy as it sounds.

In my experience, there are basically three groups of PhD students at our university. The first, most fortunate few are the people employed by the university as paid doctoral trainees or something similar. They actually work at the university, receive a salary, and get to be part of the university community and network with people and whatnot.

Then there are the people who've applied for a grant from a foundation and gotten one, meaning that one of the foundations that funds PhD work is going to support them for whatever period of time they applied for. This is a pretty good state of affairs, because hey, they're being paid. However, when the Kone Foundation gathered feedback from researchers they'd awarded grants to, a major problem they identified was that researchers on grants were being shut out of their university communities. This had been a problem in previous years as well, but has since gotten worse. So even if you have a grant that lets you work on your thesis full-time, it doesn't necessarily mean the university is willing to offer you anything.

At least they have a grant, though, because the third group is the rest of us. We have nothing, neither work nor grant, and are left to fend for ourselves. In my case, I can look forward to one meeting per semester with my supervisor. Apart from that, I'm on my own. There's a seminar that meets more or less once a week, but almost no-one attends it. That's pretty much it. I've barely even met many other doctoral candidates from my subject or program; there's very little reason for me to have anything much to do with either. So while grant researchers may feel shut out of the university community, from the point of view of a first-year postgraduate student, I'm surprised to hear that there is a university community out there somewhere. I've certainly seen nothing of it. Nobody gives a shit who we are or what we do.

It's difficult to escape the impression that we're already being quite aggressively sorted into haves and have-nots, in ways that aren't in any way based on the quality of our work. For those of us on the outside looking in, so to speak, it's tough to come up with anything to do to change that. Obviously trying to network with people is always something, but when you barely ever get an opportunity to meet anybody, that's very hard to do. When nobody really cares what you do, how are you supposed to distinguish yourself? I don't really see a way up the ladder, and that's pretty depressing. I don't know how to integrate myself into a community that doesn't want me. It's thoroughly demoralizing.

There's also a broader political angle to this. Our current right-wing cabinet has mounted an unprecedented assault on education. Massive budget cuts have been combined with a public campaign against universities; from the prime minister on down, they've heaped scorn on us, misrepresented statistics and told brazen populist lies about professors' summer vacations. How has our university responded? With complete craven surrender. Ministers who publicly insult and slander our universities are invited to speak at them, and when students protest, the university has its staff try to block them - the very same staff these ministers have attacked as superfluous and demanded be fired. During the current fiasco, it's become painfully obvious that the people in charge of our universities are reprehensible cowards. As a potential future employee, this tells me they're not going to stand up for me or anyone else. Our union has also failed to produce anything whatsoever of substance; snarky press releases that the media ignores aren't political action. So when I say that nobody cares about us, I also mean it in a wider sense.


This first semester, I set out to start familiarizing myself with theory and background literature, and write the first draft of my introduction. I've done both, the latter largely thanks to the excellent writing seminar run by my doctoral program. However, the semester's been so depresing and alienating that my first priority for spring 2017 is to try to figure out what to do with myself if and when this so-called academic career doesn't come together. Given the way things are at our university and the long-term career prospects on offer in the academic world, I'm not sure I can justify spending four years of my life on a piece of paper and a fancy title - especially if they're going to be four years like this. Basically, the work I do isn't worth shit to anyone.

So in short: if you're thinking about postgraduate study at the University of Helsinki, don't.


Leon said...

Have you considered moving? Doing a postgrad (masters) in Canada has been a much different experience. There's a lot of support and our government aren't a bunch of short-sighted, blinkered twats. Now there is almost certainly a gulf between a doctorate and a masters (just as there is between a masters and bachelors) but none of the doctoral students/TAs I've talked to have felt so bleak. Your English seems pretty good, have you looked at some of the Commonwealth countries?

Michael Halila said...

I'm strongly considering moving. I'm looking into some exchange options to start with. Mostly I'm struggling to find a place where I could combine military history with gender studies, and I haven't really found many likely places in Canada (I did look!).

Leon said...

Gender studies and military history, quite the combination. Best of luck with your searching then.