Andrew McRae is Professor of Renaissance Studies in the Department of English; and Dean of Postgraduate Research and the Exeter Doctoral College.
One hundred years of solitude ….?
Those students beginning their journeys towards a PhD this year are doing so precisely one hundred years after the first students enrolled for this degree (or, specifically, the ‘DPhil’) at the University of Oxford. Britain was late to the PhD: Germany had already been offering these higher research degrees since the early nineteenth century, and the United States since the 1860s.
The lack of this degree had not necessarily stunted the pursuit of knowledge in Britain. Charles Darwin, for one, never wrote a PhD dissertation. But perhaps for every Darwin there was an Edward Casaubon: the character in George Eliot’s magnificent Victorian novel, Middlemarch, who ruins not only his own life but years of his young wife’s through his unfinishable study of a key to all mythologies.
It seems to me that Casaubon should have done a PhD. That man needed the PhD: not as an excuse for his pomposity and overblown ambition, but as a way of directing and organizing the pursuit of knowledge. For the PhD, at its best, teaches researchers how to construct research projects that are at once ambitious yet realistic, pushing at the bounds of knowledge yet situated in the context of existing fields of research.
We have also got much better, especially in recent years, at thinking about a PhD as a piece of research that can be completed within a discrete period of time. It is never ‘perfect’, rarely ‘complete’, but always makes a contribution to its field. For the doctoral student, the PhD is an opportunity to pursue a passion while developing high-level skills that may prove valuable across a wide range of possible careers.
In the University of Exeter Doctoral College, we’re proud to be supporting over 1500 students on their paths towards a number of different research degrees, as well as early career researchers (ECRs) making subsequent, post-doctoral steps in their careers. And I’m delighted to have taken over as Dean this academic year from Professor Michelle Ryan, who did so much to establish the Doctoral College. I think we’re improving our provision of supervision, training and support all the time, but we’re always keen to hear suggestions for what we might do next. Please do contact us with any thoughts.
And when you take a break from your research – as you must – there is no better novel for any researcher to read than Middlemarch.
Written by: Professor Andrew McRae