Degrees of separation

My academic background is in modern literature and many of the authors I studied were often the first members of their families to get a degree at university level. These were generally people born in the era 1910-1940 and they were invariably exceptions to the rule. However when I began my BA in English Literature in the mid-2000s I was told that I was part of a mass migration into university education, that there were more of my peers in university than not. As I came to the end of my first degree I realised that employment options for someone doing a literature based BA and who stubbornly wanted to do something cultural were very restricted, I decided to do an MLitt. As I began my MLitt I was told that there were record numbers of people doing Master degrees. Still, I stuck at it and got a Distinction. By this point I was so smitten with my subject that I decided to apply for funding to do a PhD. I was told by my ‘alma mater’ that I wouldn’t get funding, that the competition was just too strong, but somehow I did get it. As soon as I started my PhD I was told that there were unprecedented levels of people doing or trying to do PhDs. Intrinsically at all three levels of my higher education, I was told not really to apply, that they were already oversubscribed. This was the welcome to the world I had as a young adult with certain academic passions.

My wife likes to watch Gogglebox and while I find it funny at times, I worry that it tacitly (sometimes overtly) tries to uphold a rather right-wing, pro-monarchy and Tory agenda. I was a bit miffed recently to hear one of the younger talking heads on the show say that she had lost count of the number of people working in cafes with PhDs. The emphasis of her comment was on the preconceived folly of the idea of seeking a PhD, as if it is a classical act of hubris, doomed to fail. I only ever did a PhD to prove to myself that I had the sticking power to do so. I did a PhD in the spirit in which other people (nouveau riche, uncriticised and unchallenged) learn how to fly planes for their own enjoyment. I did it out of passion for my subject, not about embroidering a CV. What I have achieved has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not lots of other people are seeking the same (or similar) thing. The fact that we have immensely over-educated people in our country in clearly uncongenial employment is an indictment of the country and government itself, it has nothing to do with the supposed failings of the generation or individuals in question. At times it seems like ours is a largely philistine nation that is more interested in Homes Under the Hammer and Poujadist/Thatcherite profiteering than anything emanating from a university.

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