Just after 9:30pm last Wednesday I read an email from the Dean and Director of the ANU College of Business and Economics congratulating me on the fact that my thesis had been accepted without revision by the examiners and the institution. Needless to say that it was good news.
Celebrations, however, were somewhat muted and restricted to the above tweet and a couple of drinks the following night. Celebrations, like blogging, had become victim of circumstance. Circumstances that included: being a student teacher placed at a local high school 4 days a week and having to prepare and deliver an increasing number of lessons, at the same time having to complete University assignments, spend time with my family, and most recently recover from the flu.
Most of these are on-going tasks, but I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect. After all it is Friday and I currently feel like I’m getting a little ahead on tasks, which I fear is more a false dawn.
The value of a thesis
Over recent years, especially the last couple, I’ve seen quite a bit written about the value of a PhD thesis. Leigh Blackall has embarked on a PhD his way after identifying several limitations with more traditional practice. Sarah Thorneycroft has been doing work around traditional academic publishing and then there’s the more recent news (mostly out of the US) about there being an over-supply of PhD graduates. And that’s just the few that I’ve gleaned while I’ve been doing an ostrich impression and focusing on getting the thesis done and thinking about teaching. I really should make the time at some stage to follow what these and other folk are doing.
So, while it’s finished, is there still value in a PhD? Especially since I’m moving away from academia into high school teaching?
This was a question that struck me really quite hard early in my high school prac teaching experience. During the first mathematics class I’d taught with one group of students who are largely disengaged. One of the students said, “I’ve never passed a math class.” She then proceeded to quite comfortably complete a set of fairly abstract algebra exercises with a minimum of assistance. It became obvious that there was a lot of room for value generation in this class. Value that could have some significant impact on the lives of students.
What value is there in a PhD? Certainly I don’t see mine ever having the same sort of impact as a good high school teacher. And that’s with a thesis that generated a journal paper that has a Google Scholar citation count of 197 and over 2000 visits to the thesis page on my blog.
The common refrain I hear in Academia is that the PhD is just the entry ticket into Academia. That it’s your on-going work that will make the contribution and have the impact. But frankly, my experiences and observations of academia and its recent trends are such that it is becoming harder and harder to have an impact beyond the pointless ticking of boxes, meeting of targets, mouthing of slogans, and the mounting of projects that are meant to look good at the time (i.e. in terms of fulfilling all of the previous important tasks of academia) while failing to have any lasting impact.
Add to this the observation that my thesis is within the Information Systems discipline which appears to me to be a dying discipline. A discipline suffering from the growing persuasiveness of information technology in turn reducing the importance and relevance of specialist IS researchers. A disease that seems to be infecting many IT specialist disciplines, but is especially difficulty for IS and its attempt to distinguish itself from other business disciplines and also the IT discipline. That said, being actively engaged with attempts to increase the relevance of the Information Systems/Technology disciplines would be an interesting and challenging project.
In the end, the value of my PhD comes down to a purely personal value. After taking so long to complete the thesis, I have indeed completed it. I’ve proven that I could finish it.
High school teaching
While, as described above, I can see the great impact a quality high school teacher can make, I can also see how difficult it might be. I wonder about whether or not I have the energy required to make the impact. Even though my experience is limited, I can already see the mismatch between the nature of schools, their curriculum and the needs of the students. NAPLAN and QCS testing is driving an increased focus on intellectual pursuits, somewhat like the point Sir Ken makes in the well known video below. Interestingly, this video was shown at the weekly staff meeting at the school I’m currently placed at.
Yes, there is some moves to broadening school with the offering of vocational education as part of high school. But the pressure of NAPLAN seems to be particularly limiting on mathematics. Especially within the constraints of existing curriculum and resources such as textbooks. The kids that are prepared to fit within the expectations of school are a joy to work with and get a lot out of this approach. But there are other kids who, for a variety of reasons, don’t fit and subsequently are ill-served by the system. Trying to help those students within the constraints of the system sounds like a recipe for frustration and burn out.
Seems like I’ve found the challenge for what’s next.