The tyranny of training PhD students.

22 Apr

I have been at quite a few conferences and workshops recently in which I have heard people say things like ‘As a trained political scientist’ or ‘ When I was trained in political science …’. My heart sinks.

I should be clear. I have nothing against training in particular research methodologies. If standard regression or qualitative interviews are to be used as part of a research project, then it is sensible to know how to carry them out. My objection is to the systematic training of PhD students to turn them into disciples of a particular discipline. The training machine is firmly entrenched in the United States, much of continental Europe and much of Asia. It has more than a foothold in the United Kingdom. In the US, the PhD dissertation is a relatively short document that comes at the end of long process of classes and examinations focused on research methodology. (I mean, seriously, people who have an undergraduate degree and usually a Masters are then to undertake further examinations!). In the UK, training in research methods is a mandatory part of all PhD programmes.

The danger is that we are producing disciplinary drones, schooled in the science of methods, of followership and conformity. Such training does not occur in isolation. It is part of a wider political economy of how scholarship and education are organized. Running through this are the elements of power and hierarchy and the perpetuation of that power and hierarchy. Research methods are often taught via a top-down form of pedagogy in which there are, apparently, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing things. Or, to be more precise, some approaches to research are ‘approved’ and others are frowned upon or seen as somehow less valuable. Disciplinary boundaries are policed by ‘leaders in the field’, professional associations, the tenure system and what can be called ‘the rules’: a series of career instructions that are unwritten but commonly known. ‘The rules’ are shared during ‘mentorship’ conversations between senior and junior faculty, or passed on from senior PhD students to their more junior colleagues. The main rule is that you must follow the rules.  

Training is a tyranny because it institutes a system of control. Each generation of scholars becomes entwined with the system. The initiates become gatekeepers and co-constitutive of a system based on replication and order. Dangerously, the drive towards conformity does not reward innovation, creativity and alternatives. It does not reward the quirky, the long-shot and the hunch. It drives personality and emotion out of our studies of phenomena that are packed with personality and emotion. It is difficult to write humanity out of revolutions, coups, and social movements (basically the most exciting events of our times) but many political scientists can do this with aplomb. Their journal articles are doubtless methodologically correct, but they are far removed from humanity red and raw that we see on streets of Kiev, Damascus or Washington.

Clearly scholars need to be understood by one another. And we need to be intelligible to our students. Moreover, we need a transferability of ideas so that graduates of one institution can be understood in another. But there is a world of difference between exposure to ideas and methods, and training in those ideas and methods. I am very much in favour of the former but feel that the latter is too constraining. It condemns the latest generation to perpetuate the methodological conventional wisdom of the last.

So, when I hear someone in a workshop meeting say ‘As a trained political scientist …’ my internal monologue starts up: ‘Oh God. This is going to be dull. This person will not say anything in the slightest new or interesting.’ The policing of disciplinary boundaries means that there are costs attached to becoming ‘untrained’. To turn one’s back on training is more than just shunning a particular method. It is means exclusion from the ‘club’.

We should train dolphins, not PhD students.


4 Responses to “The tyranny of training PhD students.”

  1. alanbullion 22/04/2014 at 9:23 am #

    Right on! ________________________________

  2. Harvey 22/04/2014 at 11:16 pm #

    Speaking as someone who would like at some point to take that path… very good point made!

  3. Kevin Avruch 14/10/2019 at 4:53 pm #

    Enjoying your blog posts, Roger.

    Kevin Avruch

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