I Dreamed Of Being An Academic. It Turned Into A Nightmare.

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Immanuel Kant, academic failure?

West Churchman wrote: “The modern PhD is an example of one of the disasters created by disciplinary science. An alert and competent PhD candidate often has a very broad question in mind which he is eager to investigate. His professors simply will not let him do it. He is told he has to narrow the topic to ‘manageable dimensions. I like to imagine what a modern dean would have said to Kant in the 1760’s when Kant explained to him that he was about to embark on a voyage to create the necessary conditions for any future metaphysics. Such a dean would surely point out that Kant’s ambitions were much too broad”.

About 30 years ago, I was one of 120 medical specialists working in a metro-pole of around 1 million people. At the time, we were confronted with a changing work and social environment that would significantly impact on us. Some of us felt it makes sense to proactively participate in the conversation and debate, which could give us at least some input in our futures. I made a well-attended presentation about the issues facing us, and, from feedback, gathered everyone understood the threats and agreed we should do something it, but that’s where things derailed. As it turned out, it was impossible to get agreement between the different specialty groups, and the initiative petered out. In the end, we all suffered from what we knew ahead of time was coming. I felt defeated, deflated, and stupid for being unable to do something about it.

To remedy that, I embarked on an academic journey to make sense of my failure, figure out what went wrong, and what I could have done differently. In short, I wanted to solve the implementation problem. Most plans, projects, etc., like the one I was involved in, fail, but no-one seems to wonder why that is, or what can be done differently to improve the odds.

I first turned to systems thinking, which changed my perspective from the belief there is a formula of some sort I could have used to control the outcome, to one of an awareness of the interconnectedness and complexity of the situation, but it didn’t provide me with an answer to my question. I then went the MBA route to try on the cloak of invincibility and certainty with enough effort anything is possible that comes with it. I was taught the world is a place in which anything can be made to fit on a 2×2 or 4×4 and all problems solved easily. It provided me with a clear set of instructions for implementation, which did not acknowledge the implementation problem and didn’t work. In that world, implementation failure is not a reality, just a problem to be overcome by a formula of simple steps. If you repeat it enough times, by some miracle it may just work.

Some years later I started on a program about social complexity, but two horses of the apocalypse prevented me from completing it. The first, a black horse, was the management horse. The CEO of the health region in which I worked at the time took offense at the thought of a PhD in her organization, and created pressure in my work environment to dissuade me, which eventually affected my health. The second was a red horse, academics. During my studies, I began to detect a problem with the theory we were studying, and when raising it, was advised to just finish the degree according to the dogma; you can go your own way after that. The problem with that is a degree is a social recognition of expertise in a specific specialty area, and you don’t get hired, particularly academically, by switching loyalties. Overcoming one of the horses would be difficult, trying to ride both was impossible.

As part of my recovery, I started working on the theory on my own and explored where it could go if the contradictions in it were eliminated, which became a manuscript and solution to the implementation problem I was working on. I now know what I should have done, and why things went wrong 20 years before.

I thought this would be sufficient for another kick at the can, but I thought wrong. When presenting my dissertation proposal at a different institution, one professor remarked: “everything that can be said about social complexity has been said”, and the others nodded their heads in agreement. I was staggered. Did they realize what they just said? That complexity really is that simple? Besides, they said, writing about complexity is too complex for a PhD; I should pick one of their favorite theories, simplify things, and write about that instead. Churchman was right, it had to be a narrow topic or nothing. The fact I solved a significant problem in management science was irrelevant.

As Jeff Schmidt pointed out, a professional degree today is not the road to nirvana. During his PhD studies, he saw a lot of good people dropping out or kicked out, and found the system turns independent thinkers into clones of their teachers. It makes universities and work more rigid and ideological, and eliminates people likely to rock the boat by sacrilegiously thinking differently. For students to succeed, they must play the game according to strict and narrow rules, or face the consequences.

I grew up in a family of academics, and with hindsight, with their input, developed the wrong expectations about the academic world. My fantasy was that one day, like them, I would teach and do research. I thought, based on my experience with them, the purpose of an undergraduate degree was to provide me with basic skills, a masters’ degree with advanced skills, and for a PhD I would have to show creativity and innovation in the field. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

So, what is the purpose of a postgraduate degree today? When you look at the glossy brochures of postgraduate degrees, they tell you how wonderful the program is, how skilled and qualified the faculty, and how many students they qualified. I’ve never seen one telling me how successful their students, and their theories, are in the real world in the long term, which ought to be the only measure of performance and proof of success of their education.

That is not a trivial issue. One master’s program I looked at recently requires a CA$50,000 investment by the student over 18 months. As a consumer and client, what do a university provide me in return for that, and what are their contractual obligations to ensure a reasonable return on my investment? The answers are very little, and none. Finishing a program with a degree by itself is not a reasonable return on investment, engaging with the workplace with valuable practical knowledge is.

What universities are really interested in today is a steady income stream, and the status to maintain that stream, and academics, in tenure track and status. Their obligation to their students features nowhere in what they advertise. A common refrain is graduates entering the work force have no skills, and must be trained from the ground up to become competent employees, for many, their degrees are useless.

I closely interacted with young undergraduate students the past few years, and what I saw shocked me. A lot of the time, there is no teaching and no education, and often courses are about a lecturer’s interest or hobby, not what students need. When almost half of a nursing student class, carefully selected for the program, fail a clinical course, they are the problem, not the teaching, and that failure breaks the spirit of many and becomes a wasted investment for the parents who funded them. All that in a country crying out for more nurses.

Universities, to the best of knowledge, do not keep records of students who drop out, quit, or why. Like I was, we are gaslit: you are the failure, we didn’t fail you. Life is hard, suck up to it.

Trying to do a high-level degree taught me a lot about our social world, and the academic game, which, in a practical way, confirmed the argument in my manuscript was accurate. I learned more from failing the academic game and going it alone than from the institutions I attended, and that’s a shame. I confess I know many academics try hard to do the right thing, but I also know they are the exception, not the rule, and by doing so, they don’t make their lives easier.

The data of hermeneutics is personal experience. Some who read this will have had similar experiences and will relate to my story, others won’t. There are no right or wrong answers to it, but, based on where my exploration of the theory I worked with took me, modern academics is a social game, and what matters is the game, not the outcome, which is a travesty. Young people are the future, and the ethical question is: what skills and resources do we provide them with to meet that future, or are they just pawns to be moved around and sacrificed in our games?

We talk all lot about a shortage of health workers, but not about the pipeline delivering them, of which the tap is opened just enough to let a dribble through. We don’t talk about schools feeding tertiary institutions, and whether both competently do their jobs. If you go into battle with an under resourced poorly trained army and expect to win, you are in for an unpleasant surprise, and yet, that’s what we are doing in healthcare and other industries. We can’t keep doing that.