PhD students are a waste of space

Like most PhD students, I can empathize with many of the typical scenarios amusingly depicted in Piled Higher and Deeper, but I enjoy working with my supervisor and I have been given plenty of encouragement to grow academically. I am challenged to explore my work independently while guidance is available to me if and when I need it. I fear, however, that core features of academic life are increasingly at risk within the vulnerable state of Higher Education in the UK today.

Here is a brief email exchange between my department and myself this morning:

Dear Fran,

I have been asked to write to inform you that from September you will no longer be eligible for workspace within the school and you should vacate the workspace you are currently using by 31st July at the very latest.

You are still entitled to use the University's library and computing facilities.

Many thanks,


Dear xxxx,

As you know, my extension year ends on 30 September 2010. I therefore do not understand why I (and other full-time research students) should need to vacate our workspaces on the 31st of July. What happened to the other two months between 31 July and 30 September?

As a side note, I have consistently been told that departmental space is scarce, which I have always appreciated. My desk is basic (nigh on shoddy) and in a room with 8 other students. It doesn't even have drawers to keep things in
[edit: There are empty tracks where drawers used to be. I asked for replacements, to no avail]. I had no privacy all year to conference with my undergraduate students. I have had to deal with people moving my computer, unplugging it when it was still switched on, leaving coffee stains on my papers and keyboard and numerous other inconveniences due to the complete lack of respect for my workspace all year. We have been doubling up on spaces as it is. I therefore find it particularly appalling that we are not only herded into too small a space, but quickly discarded to make room for the next herd. I do not have a solution to the department's spatial woes, but as a fee-paying student and a regular, paid member of staff with multiple responsibilities in any given academic year (teaching, IT admin, research), I hope the department does not take my lack of sympathy personally.

This complaint is not directed at you personally, but at the policy in place. I would therefore be very grateful if the powers that be could provide a more satisfactory explanation as to why my extension fees are now worth less than they were last month and why the School is so quick to want to wash their hands of me.

I wish to keep my current desk until my registration expires, or be provided with a decent alternative and secure space.

Kind regards,


I would normally not air such exchanges publicly, but I was inspired by a call to action from a fellow research student who, like myself, feels that PhD students too often put up with being ignored, let down, and treated like lesser academic citizens.

My concerns are also increasingly in response to the latest tide of fear flooding British HE which sees universities under fire to cut costs, save space and increase efficiency. While I was reading the above email in my student email account, over in my "staff" inbox (the fact that the two roles are incommensurate is telling in itself), I received a notice that the University is now accepting applications for "voluntary redundancy" settlements for positions that will remain permanently unfilled to help pay for more student enrollment:

The costs of the voluntary redundancy/early retirement will be recovered through permanent salary savings i.e. the post will not be replaced.

More students, less staff, less office space, more red tape, less time, less effort, less respect. Is this really where we want to go?

Can lowly PhD students make a difference, or are we as expendable as the email above implies?

In return for their rising tuition fees, students get access to a university library and computers and a well-established academic infrastructure (in addition to qualifications and hopefully chances to obtain fulfilling jobs).

Computing facilities are important. My department thankfully runs and maintains its own Apple computing lab (which I helped to set up and administer) with local servers and brand new machines that are excellent to work with, especially for photos and video. As for university-wide facilities, most students prefer to avoid the packed computer rooms if they can. Plus, not many of the bloated Win Vista public computer facilities on the Kent campus can match the speed of a decent low-cost laptop or netbook.

As for the library, the anthropology shelves are fairly comprehensive, but journal holdings range from good to appalling. I have borrowed less than 10 print books from the library this year - which I could have afforded for far less than my fees amount to - as most of my reading material is available online. But my tuition fees give me access to e-journals and online resources, a bargain compared to running into inflated pay walls. As an Open Access advocate, I hope that this will eventually become a non-problem. At present, there are a considerable number of ways to acquire many free, peer-reviewed journals online, with more on the horizon.

With Universities’ hold over computing facilities and academic literature being challenged by new availability, what allure will these old and archaic institutions have left? Why should research students continue investing in what we can buy for ourselves in PC World or procure freely on the web and with a lot less paperwork?

Put simply, computers and books are not why we should be embarking on academic research. These are accessories to learning, but they do not constitute learning.

The truly priceless asset of a university education – what we should be venturing to protect and nurture – is the academic environment. Departments, buildings and lecture halls are full of knowledge ready to be shared, full of enthusiastic researchers and sharpened thinking, full of collaborative spaces, new ideas, innovation, a sense of community and pride in collective efforts founded on individual autonomy and respect … or?

Take away our desks, close down our offices, replace privacy with open-plan zoos, remove our communal rest areas, put more distance between students and staff, eliminate our ability to share, learn and collaborate openly with our peers and all is lost. A university department should be lively and dynamic. We should see the friendly faces of our colleagues and students who feel happy, respected and comfortable, not the overworked faces of strangers sprinting along lifeless corridors from bookshelf to windowless corner before hopping on the bus home to work in peace. Research is a personal enterprise, one that needs space, time, and solitude. But it cannot truly thrive without the support of others.

We should be inducting new researchers into a pattern of working which values their autonomy and respects their contributions more than the pure monetary value of their office real estate. PhD students are an investment that universities cannot survive without. They will become the career academics who will need to choose whether or not to invest in others in the future. Do we really want to train a new generation to prefer empty desks over full ones and the "bottom line" over the greatest potential?

My department and my relationships within it have always been, for me, the justification for staying in higher education in the UK. But I am confident that I speak for other research students in saying that we would like to stop being made to feel like wastes of space.


Ryan Anderson said...

Hey Francine,

This is frustrating to read...and although I am in a different place (about one year into my PhD), I can relate on many levels with all that you are writing about. Grad school is frustrating on many levels, and not always as inspiring as it seemed it would be. Those moments of inspiration are pretty sporadic, and it seems like we have to chase them around and keep them in sight. The academic environment is what really matters (I definitely agree with you there), and it seems that so much gets put aside or lost with all of the cost cutting and politics that pervade the university system. Sometimes I find myself wondering if this system is something that I actually want to be a part of. But I also think there always has to be room or the possibility to do something about this, to maybe take part in creating or recreating an educational and research system that retains a semblance of life and humanity.

"PhD students are an investment that universities cannot survive without. They will become the career academics who will need to choose whether or not to invest in others in the future. Do we really want to train a new generation to prefer empty desks over full ones and the "bottom line" over the greatest potential?"

We don't. And if the university system becomes something that is just about the bottom line then hopefully all of the future academics will get tired of it and do something about it. I like to think that some of the worst parts of academia can be altered and challenged.

Anyway, thanks for writing this. It helps to hear what others are going through, and what they think about this grinding system that we all are a part of.

Fran Barone said...

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, it does get disheartening sometimes. I agree that instead of giving in, we should - at least while we're still idealistic! - embrace maintaining some semblance of humanity. Academia is taking cuts across the board in the UK, but I disagree that financial cuts should necessarily mean quality of life and/or work cuts.

I have had several supportive comments and commiserations since posting this and the input has been invaluable. It has been refreshing to learn that I'm definitely not alone in my despair with unjust departmental antics and that others may be inspired to stand up in future. Some people have shared similar personal experiences or anxieties caused by unfair internal policies and a general disrespect directed towards them at work, which, in turn, has affected their well-being and self-esteem.

Given the universal outrage this invokes in academics everywhere, I cannot help but wonder how situations like these are continually allowed to occur. Of course, no one likes complaining about their colleagues and they naturally fear retribution from their superiors, but these are fundamental issues that are actually easy to rectify by recognizing the potential damage being caused.

I'll post an update about my workspace situation shortly. (I have been unable to access the internet for a few days and I'm still catching up.)

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