Thursday, 9 July 2015

Passing the PhD

I recently gave a talk at a conference called The Politics of Passing, and I opened the talk with the following description of my first PhD supervision:

On the first day of my PhD, my supervisor said to me,

‘There might come a time in this project when we’re faced with a decision between doing the PhD that you want to do, and doing the PhD that passes.

And my job will be to encourage you to do the PhD that passes.

That will be my job. And I need you to know that.

But that won’t necessarily be the right choice.’

I keep coming back to thinking about this. The fact that the role of a supervisor is to help a person ‘pass’. And how important it feels to think about this alongside other types of passing – racial passing, passing as able or disabled, passing as one gender or another. Passing and its relationship to success. Because to be successful in a PhD is to pass the PhD. And yet to pass the PhD often involves quoting the “right” names, showing that you are able to follow a particular trajectory, one that has been defined in advance. It is not necessarily about ‘original thinking’ since the trajectory of passing is by definition one that relates to what has gone before or already exists.

My experience of doing a PhD has not been about passing. But to a great extent this is because prior to embarking on the PhD I very consciously lay aside notions of ‘success’ and ‘career’ and I was very clear that in taking on this new project I was not prepared to simply adopt those notions again in another context.

Immediately after my talk (which was concerned with the act of holding open as opposed to the act of passing in relation to a variety of contexts) there was time for one quick question, and someone asked, “Did you pass the PhD?” I laughed, then I answered hurriedly that I hadn’t yet completed it.

But I’ve kept coming back to that question, as one that I didn’t answer seriously. I mean, it was kind of funny, the question, it kind of felt like a joke. ‘So… did you pass?’ I enjoyed it in that way. But I kept thinking about it later not as a joke but as a serious question.

Because this is the only question that remains at the end of a PhD.

And the choice not to do it solely in order to pass feels important and difficult. Difficult in the context of a society that values passing to such a great extent. My experience of life has been this one. If you can pass, if you can pull it off, if you can convince others that you are successful, or white, or educated, or straight, then you can proceed. I have operated quite successfully within this system. But it’s a troubling system.

This doesn’t feel like a particularly novel realisation, I’m sure I’m not the first to write about it. I suppose I just wanted to answer seriously a question (asked after my talk at the conference) that I didn’t answer seriously at the time. And to acknowledge that it was a serious question, and that it’s a serious topic. And to say that I wish there was more time at conferences to sit with a question, to hold it between us, to be in the room with what has been said, before the need for answers enters the space.


  1. Interesting thoughts. Academia is a weird system, within that troubling system, though. Passing your PhD means you complete a series of tasks, and at the end, present them as evidence, and on that, you're judged: pass or fail. But in other areas, you can pass at one time, but not at another -- even if you feel as if you're giving all the same information. It depends on the other as much as it depends on us. In that sense, there's always going to be the facade we choose to provide those answers, before the question is even asked.

    I sometimes wonder about the way we present ourselves to others... what we're passing for, or as. Maybe sometimes others see us for who we are, better than we see ourselves.

  2. Such an important question. Wether to use 'passing' to receive the validation that provides a platform to be heard, even if that platform is built on principles that mean their may not be real listening there. Or to risk not 'passing' and trust there are ways of operate outside the system or 'under the radar' that can still be impactful. You make me want to be more courageous.