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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


The Value of an English PhD

Abstract

This essay interrogates the economic and social value of having a PhD in English Literature (but also in the Arts and Humanities generally). It proposes that questions about the value of an English PhD can be deflected by making PhD research more accessible through posters and blogs.

Essay

The Value Question

When settling in to their new universities and studies, PhD students in English literature soon learn that the most challenging research question is the one routinely asked at the parties heralding the start of a new academic year: "What is your PhD about?" New students should quickly learn a stock response, the optimum one being simple enough to be understood without patronising the questioner, and elevated enough so that the interrogator is not tempted to engage in a long dialogue about it. With the exception of conferences, parties are for escaping research, not discussing it. However, if one socialises outside of the academic context armed with that stock response, a follow up question may be asked, to which an answer is even more difficult: "Why is it relevant?" This is particularly acute if one is lucky enough to receive funding for research, since the party-going taxpayer who ultimately supports the Arts and Humanities Research Council is entirely justified in asking it and expecting a reasonable answer. In some ways, being funded answers the question, or at least redirects it: if research is not relevant, then the administrative bodies in education would not have sent down their nuggets of gold from the heavens. Nevertheless, higher education can be accused of being a virtuous circle in which traditional university scholarship is felt to be worthwhile because the people at the top in government, themselves products of that system, feel it to have been of value to them. The question of relevance, then, is tied up with the value of the PhD in social, intellectual, or economic terms outside the academy.

It is in relation to economics that the Oxford English Dictionary defines "value" in the first sense: "That amount of some commodity, medium of exchange, etc., which is considered to be an equivalent for something else."1 According to this definition, the value of a PhD in English is not too difficult to work out quantitatively, if one incorporates English subjects within the PhD statistics for Arts and Humanities more generally (though there are ample statistics broken down by individual subjects at first degree level, to date statistics have been amalgamated into broad faculties for PhD graduates). The English Subject Centre's new "Why Study English?" website claims that potential employers are looking for "someone with motivation, intelligence, and proven ability to work."2 Aimed at A-level students considering an English degree, the website's advertisement is surely even more valid for an English PhD student, who spends self-motivated weeks in solitary study. However, is the value of an English degree really that significant? The gross additional lifetime earnings for an Arts and Humanities graduate with a first degree over a person leaving school at G.C.S.E. stage are £34, 000 (although this hardly compares well against the additional earnings, £243, 730, of an engineering graduate).3 Indeed, economist Anna Vignoles of the Institute of Education has hinted that there will soon be a surplus of Arts and Humanities graduates, and the value of their degrees is likely to fall below the cost of the tuition fees paid to obtain them; she recommended fees be varied depending on the needs of the UK economy, and that degrees most in demand should charge the lowest fees.4 At postgraduate level, too, the benefits seem far from clear-cut. With around 6 percent of PhDs in Arts and Humanities unemployed a year after completing their thesis,5 postgraduates in English will be more likely to obtain a job than if they had left with just one degree, since 8.2 percent of BAs were unemployed at the equivalent period after graduating.6 Nevertheless, it is a narrow margin, the employment rate for Arts and Humanities PhDs is falling, and in 2005 was 5 percent lower than in all other subject groups.7 Across the board of subjects the additional benefits of a postgraduate degree are up to £80, 000, and although unlike for first degree graduates there is no data on how this varies by subject at PhD level, it seems reasonable to assume that there will be comparably lower returns for PhDs in the Arts and Humanities as opposed to science, technology or engineering subjects. Additionally, in 2003 the percentage of doctoral graduates on permanent contracts was significantly lower for those in careers in the Arts and Humanities than for those with PhDs in the physical Sciences or Engineering, at 38 percent and 50 percent respectively.8 This probably reflects the way in which arts projects are funded for briefer time periods, whether this is university scholarship (such as through Fulbright or British Academy grants) or in the public sector (such as through the Heritage Lottery Fund).

Using the blunt tool of statistics, then, the case for having a PhD in Arts and Humanities as opposed to a BA does not speak for itself. Whilst of course many people will be researching simply because of their holistic interest in the subject, rather than for financial and careerist ambitions, in the current climate of Higher Education the unwelcome spectre of the second meaning of the word "value" cannot help but be raised: "The relative status of a thing, or the estimate in which it is held, according to its real or supposed worth, usefulness, or importance." By what measure is it a good thing that an English student with three years of Arts and Humanities Research Council funding will receive around £50 000 to study literature? Would that money not be better spent on an engineer? Of course, this comparison dips into a larger, ongoing debate in relation to the "two cultures." That novelist V.S. Naipaul could recently suggest that universities should "deal in measurable truth" and teach only science, and that all English departments should close and staff could "go and work on the buses," indicates that far from reaching finality or moderation, the debate still lingers in the background of intellectual life.9 Whilst English departments naturally responded vehemently to Naipaul's comments, the clichéd response that one can do research simply for the joyful sake of it will satisfy neither taxpayers, nor Naipaul, nor the Blairite politician (it being quite hard to tabulate joy).

There are certainly more qualitative and sympathetic arguments about the value of the Arts and Humanities - and particularly English literary studies - in education and society to be made than I have attempted to put forward here, concepts Naipaul overlooked. Likewise, contrary to Naipaul's caricature there is no such thing as the monolithic practice known as science, which inevitably leads to social benefits and which therefore should be copiously funded without question, in all cases, and to the detriment of all other subjects. It would be wrong to become too coldly economical judging a discipline which deals in passions and emotion. Nevertheless, given the inevitable absence of a definitive solution to the question of the qualitative value of English studies, the problem of value in quantitative terms exists with greater intensity and infects the former, qualitative contest. This is more than just a vague epistemological issue. During research, on the personal level, most students in the Arts and Humanities will feel anxieties of this sort at some point. According to a Higher Education Funding Council for England report, completion rates in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities tend to be lower than in science subjects precisely because of the "value" issue:

Sometimes it may be difficult to identify topics which can yield substantial results through a PhD research programme [in Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities]. Completion rates for students on programmes in these subjects are not universally low, but when we take account of other factors we see that the 'subject effect' is negative compared to the natural sciences and related subjects.10

Although it is not really necessary fully to enter the "two cultures" fray as a PhD student in Arts and Humanities subjects, that is not to say that students will not benefit by learning ways to circumvent or delay a head-on confrontation with the value question at a PhD level. This can be thought of as putting the value of an arts' PhD on the credit card, rather than paying for it directly (as any student who buys books from a popular online retailer knows, this is far less painful!).

In the wake of the 2006 Leitch Report into skills, the buzzword in the corridors of university offices and of the government's new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is "knowledge transfer."11 In its simplest terms, this means making knowledge available and accessible to those outside of the confines of the academic community, whilst bringing ideas and needs of business and industry into universities. There seems to be much hesitation about what this means in practice. Should it mean making journal publications of publically-funded research free to the public, in which case the model of peer-review might be at risk? Does it simply mean choosing and developing courses which provide employers with graduates with the skills they need at a