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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The wrong reasons for doing a PhD

Late last year The Economist published an article titled ‘The disposable academic – why doing a PhD is often a waste of time’. This was much discussed among colleagues and students at the time, including on our UCL Engineering Sciences Linked In Group (which is open for anyone to join). Many of my academic colleagues reacted strongly to the idea that a PhD is a waste of time given the large number of doctoral graduates each year compared with academic posts available. The PhD is the pre-requisite qualification for an academic career, but that is not its only purpose. People with PhDs go on to make strong contributions in many fields, outside universities and research institutions, and the higher skills in analysis and critical thinking that are an outcome of the intensity of the PhD process are invaluable on their own terms, not simply as entry requirements for academia. I agree that the PhD is a unique and important qualification. However, I think the article raised some important points about the relative costs and benefits to people who are brave enough to embark on doctoral studies.

The article also raises important questions about the reasons why people choose to do a PhD. People do PhDs for many reasons, mostly the wrong ones. My three favourite wrong reasons are: avoiding the job market, aspiring to social prestige, and wanting to be an academic.

Avoiding the job market is a bad reason to do a PhD. We like to assume that people doing PhDs are the best and brightest graduates. Most people doing PhDs are in fact very bright, especially those who have been successful in securing funding. However, particularly in engineering, our top graduates are competing for the best posts in industry. It is a sad fact of capitalism that most of the smartest people in society today are running the biggest corporations, not beavering away in research laboratories. For some people a PhD might be a fall back to a prestigious graduate post, or it may be a default position for students who are academically bright but lack the ‘get-up-and-go’ that graduate recruiters are looking for. Far easier to ‘stay-in-and-take-studentship-with-friendly-professor’ than iron a shirt and face the scrutiny of an interview panel. There are many good reasons to opt out of the corporate career ladder and there are many options for people who wish to do so. Falling back on a PhD as a way to prolong the supposedly care-free student life and avoid making grown up decisions about your career path is only likely to make things more complicated in the long run. As The Economist points out, a PhD adds very little to your future earnings or career prospects and can actually hinder entry into some fields. Finding a job that suits your qualifications, interests, lifestyle and values gets more, not less, complicated with a PhD.

Coming from a somewhat anti-intellectual background it has taken me a long while to realise that some people actually do a PhD for the prestige or to make their families proud. When I told my Grandma I was leaving my engineering job to do a PhD she said ‘What? Are you going to be at university forever?’, to which I sheepishly replied ‘maybe?’. As a young Australian I was more than familiar with motto ‘those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach’ and so following an academic career path meant coming to terms with being deemed useless in most social circles. Thankfully, this inured me against the delusion that doing a PhD is somehow glamorous or a shortcut to higher social standing or respect, and it has come as a surprise to discover that for many people, especially young men from hierarchical cultures, the PhD is just that. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to high social standing, but a PhD is a very weird way to go about it.

Returning to the The Economist article, wanting to be an academic is not a strong enough reason on its own to do a PhD. The main point of the article is that academic jobs are scarce and PhD graduates are plentiful. For many people the path from PhD to academic post involves a long series of short-term research contracts, often moving between universities and countries, taking big personal risks for very uncertain returns. If your only objective in doing a PhD is an academic post then you are likely to be frustrated and disappointed, even if you are ultimately successful. For such a sought after career, university academics actually moan about their jobs an awful lot. The reality of day-to-day work, dealing with difficult colleagues and students, doing the boring admin, always worrying about funding and resources, responding to changing political landscapes, coping with the rejection and humiliation that are part of peer-review processes, justifying your esoteric research interests in terms of its social and economic impacts, all mean that life in the ivory tower is just as grubby as any other workplace. There are some wonderful benefits, like academic freedom, flexible conditions, and the joy of creating and sharing knowledge, but in the end it’s a job. Putting yourself through the intensity of a PhD for the slim chance of becoming a university lecturer is insane.

The only good reason to do a PhD is a driving urge to find the answer to a complex problem and to find out how far you can push yourself in the search for knowledge. For this you must be prepared to put aside any other extrinsic outcome you might hope for. The PhD is hard. If it wasn’t there would be no point. It requires a level of determination and self-discipline that few people possess. As The Economist points out, it can involve significant sacrifices in terms of earning and career prospects. The PhD changes you. It changes the way you see the world, and in the process it can disrupt personal relationships and your sense of self. Many of my students and friends have suffered fairly serious anxiety or depression at some point during and after their PhD. Doing a PhD is harder than holding down a job, you will rarely receive the recognition you deserve, it can strain personal relationships, and it is no guarantee of entry to academia. The only things that make it worthwhile are: knowing that you have made some small contribution to knowledge; and discovering the full extent of your own intellectual capability. These are high rewards indeed, more significant but more elusive than the prospect of sleeping until noon, the thrill of being ‘Doctor’, and scrambling onto the bottom rung of the academic career ladder.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Women and the New Machine

The Soul of the New Machine by Tracy Kidder is a classic popular account of engineering design, telling the story of the development of a 32-bit computer at Data General in the late 1970s. First published in 1981 it passed me by until colleagues enthusiastically recommended it as one the ‘best ever’, ‘most inspiring’ books written about engineering. The re-release of the book in 1997 in Random House’s Modern Library of the World’s Best Books is testament to the quality of Kidder’s writing and the cultural significance of computer science and engineering. It is a good book – fast paced narrative, strong characters and culturally relevant. As an engineer I identified with the characters and have lived through different versions of the story. As feminist I was deeply confronted by the masculinity of engineering culture that Kidder captured 30 years ago, and it has led me to worry about how little things have changed.

The Soul of the New Machine reflects the intensity, joys and frustrations of engineering design. Whilst emphasising the role of particular individuals, notably group leader Tom West, the book shows engineering as an intensely collaborative, and often fun, undertaking. The story deals with the excitement of being at the leading edge of technology and the hard work and sheer bloody mindedness required in getting through all the mundane details of making a design work. It is a good reflection of engineering method bringing together science, creativity and experience to devise a novel solution to a problem, within the constraints of budget, incomplete data, organisational politics and the messy world as it already exists.

Kidder goes out of his way to point out the one woman engineer in the team of thirty, to draw attention to the importance of group secretary Rosemarie Seale, and note the impact of long working hours on families, but there aren’t many women in this story. More than simply reflecting the blind statistics of engineering as a male dominated profession Kidder’s account brings out the misogyny that is too often taken for granted in everyday engineering practice, as well as a particular construction of masculinity that is associated with technical design and professional engineering work.

The very undertaking of the project and the company are described in strongly masculine terms, as 'Data General was the son, emphatically the son, of DEC' (1997 p. 19) and ‘engineering is a man’s world’ (1997, p.51). The metaphors and stories that the engineers’ tell Kidder and each other are at times shocking:

the fable of an engineer, who, upon being informed that his plans for a new machine had been scrapped by the managers of his company, got a gun and murdered a colleague whose design had been accepted. Alsing said he thought that such a murder really happened but that a woman was probably involved - yet it came, he said, to much the same thing (1997, p.36)

"We're trying to maximize the win, and make Eagle go as fast as a raped ape" (1997, p.42)

"FHP was the one thing in the world they wanted to do most, the biggest-thing-the-world's-ever-seen kind of thing. Somebody told those guys that they would have seventy-two uninterrupted hours with the girl of their dreams. The thing they most wanted to do was dangled before them and then pulled away. And some people were pissed" (1997, p.47)

One of the senior engineers in the team candidly admits to relaxing by reading the stories in Playboy magazine and justifies this as an intellectual exercise.

The most confronting of these instances are perhaps a sign of the times in which the book was written. It is now difficult to imagine an engineer discussing their soft-porn preferences on the record with a journalist in an interview relating to their work. Likewise using rape as a metaphor for computing power is now, I hope, unacceptable in most engineering offices. However, the stark misogyny of the discourse is a warning of deeper constructions of gender in engineering which to a large extent remain intact.

Many, though by no means all, of the engineers profiled fit the classic stereotype of the nerd – boys who were uninterested or inept at sports, tinkered with household electronic gadgets and appliances, had mixed academic success, did not socialise with their peers, and spent entire nights programming or playing computer games for fun. I know and love many engineers who fit this profile. I myself claim the title ‘nerd’ (even though I was a fairly successful basketballer, never took apart a TV, did well across the board at school, went to some fairly dodgy teenage parties, and suffer a form of motion sickness if I play computer games for more than five minutes). Engineering culture is very accepting of behaviours and values that are shunned by wider society and provides a haven for many young men who are marginalised by ‘jock’ or ‘bloke’ culture. However, rather than undermining dominant forms of masculinity, the nerdy engineer in the basement of Data General represents an alternative masculine identity from which women remain largely excluded. It is a masculinity that deepens the classic dualism of the dominance of mind over body, leading feminists such as Judy Wajcman to characterise engineering as ‘archetypically masculine’ (Wajcman 1991 p.48).

In Western culture the mind and reason are classically associated with the masculine, and the body and emotion are associated with the feminine. The story goes that women are ruled by biology and are subject to wild emotions, while men are reasonable and rational and consequently better suited to public and professional life. Kidder’s story shows the emotional intensity of the process of design and his description of the work itself gives no indication of any particular biophysical requirement that it be done by men. And yet you can almost smell the testosterone (or maybe just the cheap aftershave) in Kidder’s description of the basement. The engineers leave their wives in the domestic sphere taking care of their children and each day they enter the manly world of engineering work.

With women still drastically underrepresented in engineering and computer science thirty years after the publication of The Soul of a New Machine it is worth considering what we might learn from this story and what it tells us about masculinity and engineering. Some thoughts for possible strategies for change:

  • Zero tolerance of misogyny in all its forms in engineering teams and discourse. No sexist jokes, no posters or images objectifying women, no unwelcome comments on women’s appearances or sexuality. This might sometimes feel like ‘political correctness gone mad’, but to be fair, the gender politics of engineering is in need of some serious correction.
  • Establishing good conditions for ‘work-life-balance’ and a culture that supports this. Engineering is much better than many professions at this, and a culture where both men and women are able and expected to maintain caring and other duties outside paid work is essential to achieving gender equality.
  • Drawing attention to the social, emotional and bodily elements of engineering, to break its association with classic constructions of masculinity and open it up to values and attributes more typically associated with femininity. This should include drawing attention to the cultural relevance of engineering and technology, which are essential to modern society and sustainable development, rather than appealing to basement tinkerers and all night gamers.
Much has changed since Data General released the Eclipse MV800, but many things have stayed the same. Computers are everywhere. Women engineers are not.