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Is University Still Worth It?

How to Study for Knowledge When the World Wants You to Study for Money

Some tips from an academic on how to pursue knowledge when your university wants you to chase a job.

by Matt Cole
Sep 30 2016, 1:52pm

(Photo by Dana Merrick)

Happy fresher's week and welcome to academia! It's an intimidating time to start. University doesn't mean the same thing as it used to since the coalition government smashed it up. Standards have lowered so much that there are now private profit-making educational institutions in the UK owned by hedge funds. And even worse, there's a continuing war against academia, with universities feeling the need to maintain their reputations with fewer resources. Even the concept of education has been degraded to mean "a route to getting a job", rather than "a way to create critical minds".

So what if, in this harsh environment, you really want to be an academic and pursue obscure knowledge of dubious practical use, rather than tick boxes in a course because it will lead to a job?

Academia is enormously stressful, is a social and political minefield, and might be the most expensive mistake you'll ever make. If you cock it up, there's no refund. If you do well, but your "distinction" doesn't translate to that lush 9 to 5 salary and fertile pension, you just have to suck it up. Uni can't unhappen. These are times to be wary. Is academia worth pursuing? Anyone with easy answers is full of shit, but below are a few guidelines to avoid a potential disaster.

DON'T WORRY ABOUT YOUR 'USELESS' DEGREE

One terrible myth of higher education is that useful degrees = things that get you a job, while useless degrees = things that don't get you a job. This is a false dichotomy. Don't let some bloated city boy in a cheap suit tell you you'll never get a job because you studied Arabic philosophy.

Vocational degrees often sell you a linear path from passing exams to pay cheque. Non-vocational ones sell you nothing but perhaps the ability to interact with other people who know what Judith Butler or Michel Foucault said. But guess what? There are loads of industries populated by pointy-headed pseudo-philosophers who want to spend their days with likeminded people with a 2:2 in Politics from Newcastle.

DON'T LET THE BREAD HEADS GRIND YOU DOWN

Despite what I just said, academic degrees are taught by people who have never made the transition away from university, thus have no fucking idea how a Humanities degree could be used to get you a job that's not in some awful bar or coffee shop.

But don't let that stop you from doing what you love. All university paths are ultimately controlled by people who have a Masters in Business Administration and think that knowledge is a commodity like any other – mass-produced and shrink wrapped with built-in obsolescence. If that makes you want to give up then the philistines have already won. Despite a depressing outlook, there's still some space between the Business Studies degrees to get some real learning done. Don't let those fuckers get you down.

HARD WORK #1

What every single person must remember both during and after university is to actually do some work. With few exceptions, higher education is the only time of your life that you'll able to read all day about something you really love – or at least you can on the days you're not hungover. So don't just spend it watching Countdown – at least, that is, on the days you're not hungover.

HARD WORK #2

Unless you have parents willing to give you some money you will have to work crap jobs all the way through university. I know Urban Geography, Colonial History, Modernist Poetry and Critical Theory Masters students who've worked 20 hours a week as baristas. I've worked in a café where three of us with Masters degrees and two pursuing them were all working on the same shift.

Even people who get their academic work fully funded often have to top it up with tutoring undergrads or some other mindless job. I know many PhD students who've worked in bars, cafes, restaurants and kitchens all the way through their degree. And some are still there, alternating between temporary contract lectureships during the week and cocktail making on the weekends. And unless you want to work in hospitality or public services, the further you study through higher education, the more likely that an academic path is your only career prospect. It's very hard to start over once you have a PhD in some obscure topic.

A picture of all the people who will care that you know absolutely loads about the history of Ireland in the 12th Century (Photo by Matt Brown)

SELF-MOTIVATION

If you do work hard, you will know a ton more than most people about something most people don't even know exists. Why would you not want that? Well, funnily enough, being an expert at something that elicits a massive shrug from everyone you know can be kind of isolating. Make sure you really want to learn before you go down the path of actually pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

If you are going to pursue more than a bachelor's degree, you'll need to be doing it for more than just a career. You'll need to love ancient Norse, renaissance art, Finnegans Wake, Djuna Barnes, Frantz Fanon or Rosa Luxemburg more than anyone else. And you'll have to compete with hundreds of other people who also want a job where they can indulge their interest.

DON'T BLAME YOUR LECTURERS ABOUT "CONTACT HOURS"

Because students are basically customers these days, you're going to start hearing a lot of complaints that you're paying nine grand for three lectures and two seminars a week. Don't join in. Tuition fees are bollocks, obviously, but don't blame the PhD student taking your seminar. They're pulling regular 70-hour weeks trying to squeeze in enough time to read, research, write, prepare lectures, prepares seminars, organise conferences, organise departmental events, allocate administrative tasks, complete administrative tasks and finally teach you and then grade your shitty paper that you wrote in four hours the night before it was due.

And, importantly, bear this in mind: if you're going to be an academic, that could soon be you.

BE NICE TO PEOPLE

This brings us to our last point. Be nice to people. Be nicer than nice. Be friendly. Be the person everyone wants to have review their book, participate in their panel and host their event.

Enemies can ruin careers. If you think someone is shit, avoid having to say it until you have secured your career. Everyone around you could potentially be your future colleagues and competition. Do not give them reasons to fuck you over. What goes around comes around, and you don't need a PhD in Marxist Dialectics to understand how this works.

The "job market" is essentially a misnomer in academia. Prepare yourself for total irrationality and the most obvious nepotism. By the way, it is much harder to get a job in English, history, philosophy, politics or sociology than if you'd studied at, say, a law or business school because of the social construction of value and how to monetise it.

All of this must sound pretty harrowing, but it's better to start with no illusions. Good luck.

@NoFutureFuture

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