Why the hell am I doing a PhD?
3 May 2016 37 Comments
Did I mention that I’ve enrolled in a Masters by Research, looking at crowdfunding? No? It must’ve slipped my mind.
Actually, I’m a bit shy about talking about it. I don’t want to jinx it.
I want to upgrade to a PhD, if all goes well. But I’m scared it won’t go well. All my hopes and fears sit within it. I want it to go well, and I believe that I can do it, but I’m still scared.
I’m scared for a lot of reasons. I watched my partner take five years to do her PhD. Five years! She spent a whole year on one chapter. It almost broke her. A lot of my friends have done PhDs and only one of them had a good time. Everybody else hated it, and some of them never finished. So, I swore that I’d never do one.
From past experience, I know that I am, at best, an average student. I love the idea of studying; I just don’t like doing the work. It took me five years to struggle through my undergraduate degree. Too much time playing, not enough time studying! Having no clue why I was there didn’t help either!
My previous efforts to get a PhD didn’t get past the ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I had a PhD?’ burst of enthusiasm.
Oh yes, I’ve been down this road before. More than once, actually. I work in a university. I work with researchers every single day. There seemed to be a million reasons why I should do a PhD.
Nowadays, not so much. There seem to be a million reasons not to do a PhD.
I don’t need it for my job.
I’m an administrator. I work with academics to help them win funding for their research. I get to talk about ideas all the time. It is a job that I love, and a job that I’m good at. I’m relatively senior and have a secure position. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and I get to draw upon that experience to write my Research Whisperer posts. Life is good.
If I wanted a promotion (which I don’t), my next step would probably be to manage a research office. I like to think that I would win that position on the strength of my past experience. While creeping credentialism is a problem in many areas, I’m confident that I could find a promotion without a PhD (in the dark of the night, I might fear otherwise, but who doesn’t?).
I absolutely don’t want to be an academic. I don’t want to be a full time researcher, and I certainly don’t want to be paid by the hour again. I’m comfortable where I am. I’m not doing higher degree(s) for my job.
So, why am I doing it?
In the middle of 2014, I gave a talk about funding research via the crowds. There were several people speaking that had actually run crowdfunding campaigns. I told them that their experience was really valuable. Right now, hardly any academics have done this, so there isn’t much actual experience to draw on.
Later, I realized that I was right. There weren’t many Australian academics who had undertaken crowdfunding for their research. There weren’t many universities that had done it. I knew most of the locals who had done it. I could interview them – all of them. That would be a great little project. It would be a great little PhD project.
It was as simple as that. I had a clear picture of what I wanted to do, and it seemed to be the right scope and scale to be a good higher degree project. I could have done it as a straight research project, but it felt right to do it as a higher degree project. So, I enrolled.
At a deeper level, I find the whole area of research crowdfunding to be enormously exciting. It feels new, and there aren’t too many things that are truly new in the research funding space. I hope that it will change some of the things that I feel need to be changed in academia, like the lack of opportunities for early career researchers, and the difficulties of getting funding for purely curiosity-driven research.
Crowdfunding fundamentally changes the relationships between the researcher, funder, and stakeholder (or end-user) of the research. It allows end-users to directly fund the research, while still allowing the researcher to propose curiosity-driven research. It has a fun, light-hearted quality about it that seems completely at odds with the way that most research funding works.
It has the potential to disrupt the way that research funding currently works. Crowdfunding allows space for researchers with less experience to get started. It provides a mechanism where they can describe their research to the public, and ask them to fund it. It is much faster than most research funding submissions, and it feels like there is a direct relationship between the amount of work done, and the amount of funds raised.
It also provides experiential learning (a crash course, if you will) in a range of new skills: research communication, social media, and developing a pitch and asking for funds. Professor Deb Verhoeven, who set up the crowdfunding program at Deakin University, describes it as a training program in the skills that researchers need for this century.
Crowdfunding researchers can build up a group of stakeholders who are truly interested in their research. They can keep them informed throughout the whole research endeavor, showing them how research really works.
It allows the public to allocate funds to researchers and their research directly. It is a simple way for people to experience the joy and satisfaction that comes from philanthropic giving.
All of this is new, and I find it very exciting.
However, the other possibility is that research crowdfunding will die a death. I have already heard anecdotal reports of junior academics being forbidden from undertaking crowdfunding campaigns.
It might become a niche method of funding, useful only for small projects or top-up funding. Universities may find that the small amounts of the donations are not worth the effort that goes into administering them.
There may be a natural limit to the size of the networks that academics can mobilise, which limits the amount of funds that they can raise. People may experience ‘crowdfunding fatigue’ and stop donating.
Organisational cultures and entrenched systems are extraordinarily hard to change. Crowdfunding might have no transforming effect on the overall state of crowdfunding or institutional research culture. So far, it doesn’t seem to be having much effect on the opportunities for promotion for the researchers involved.
On the other hand, if it is seen to be successful, it might become an unspoken expectation that post-doctoral fellows raise their own funds through crowdfunding, whether they want to or not.
At this very moment, the future of research crowdfunding is uncertain. It is this uncertainty that makes it so interesting. Wish me luck.