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Wrestling With the Post-Ph.D. Blues

Our writer finishes his dissertation and can't seem to shake the guilt and fear.

Among the most bizarre—if pleasant—aspects of doing a Ph.D. in Australia nowadays is the entire therapeutic-industrial complex which has emerged to wait upon oneself. This complex has as its apparent mission the soothing of each doctorate candidate (however advanced in age this candidate is) with a woke assiduity that would make Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez look like Ayn Rand.

Naturally, where wokeness is, there shall The Guardian be. According to that source, “post-Ph.D. blues” constitute another epidemic over which we should agonize. The news outlet’s “Academics Anonymous” column has been warning us against this mental disorder since at least September 2018. Goodbye coronavirus. Hello collegiavirus.

Even the September 2018 column’s title is a giveaway. “I’ve just finished my Ph.D.,” it laments, “and now I feel lost without academia.” This dirge I found impossible to read without vividly recollecting a magnificently non-P.C. 1977 cartoon from Britain’s Punch magazine, where a Sinn Fein terrorist left newly unemployed by (hypothetical) peace in Northern Ireland is seen complaining to reporters: “I just beat up my mother and I’m still depressed.”

It so happens that recently I finished writing my own Ph.D. dissertation, a document of the standard 85,000-word length. It deals with organ compositions by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and do please try to stay awake when you’re reading this sentence.

Have I, since I added “The End” to the dissertation’s last chapter, experienced even the slightest twinge of post-Ph.D. blues? No, Virginia, I have not. Indeed, I fail to remember a time when I have been more occupied than I am amid the COVID shutdown, if only to compensate for the shutdown-generated staunching of my usual income streams. Rather, the emotion which I do harbor is a vastly different one.


Groucho Marx famously rejected any club willing to have him as a member. On the Groucho principle of non-affiliation, I hold the grimmest doubts about the sustainability—and the basic sanity—of any land with a central government which can give me a scholarship for years on end, for no higher civic purpose than that I can research Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ compositions.

In terms of suitable national greatness projects, being paid to research Stanford’s organ compositions probably ranks with being paid to sell snowmobiles and pork sausages in Saudi Arabia. Or indeed being paid to burn the hairs out of your nostrils with a lit match. Every dollar assigned to me is a dollar that cannot be assigned to supplying, um, ventilators, face masks, and extra pay for overtired nurses.

Did I virtuously refuse, on grounds of Hayekian or Rothbardian principle, the scholarship which the authorities awarded me (specifically to complete my doctorate) in mid-2018? Of course not.

Quite the reverse: I am profoundly thankful each morning for having received the scholarship since then. And all the more thankful after recent American news networks’ coverage of ever-worsening college student debts. These debts appear to saddle the average U.S. undergraduate until around his 128th birthday.

By the Australian bourgeoisie’s criteria, my scholarship-boosted revenue remains modest enough. But after years during which I was—to adopt J.K. Rowling’s self-description—“as poor as it is possible to be in modern Australia without being homeless,” even very modest comfort quickly resembles prodigious wealth. As a hippie novel’s title observed 54 years ago: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

Two other factors, nevertheless, contribute to my spasms of guilt. One is familial. The other is religious.

In the May 1986 issue of Sydney’s monthly Quadrant, my father, David Charles Stove, created a spectacular if ephemeral stir with an essay called “A Farewell to Arts,” excoriating every form of Marxism, semiotic postmodernism, and feminism to which he objected. Whether he hoped thereby to threaten retirement from his professorship—so that a posse of like-minded Quadrant readers would sweep him into the academic equivalent of the supreme power which the similarly retirement-threatening De Gaulle had once enjoyed—I never knew. I doubt it.

Predictably, the philippic’s effect in 1986, far from helping Dad, harmed him. Irate questioning ensued in the Canberra parliament, hastening instead of delaying Dad’s exit from the paid workforce. Early retirees (especially when free from monetary troubles) are notorious for soon outliving the adrenaline rushes of relief that the actual departure process generates. Dad proved no exception.

Yet that essay is still read, and, in my experience, invoked with approval by those favoring the current federal education minister’s measures against the humanities. My father graduated during the cornucopian post-1945 welfare-state years, where so few Australians finished high school that the mere acquisition of a B.A. stamped you as a veritable Leibniz.

Nobody expected my father—or any other student from Sydney University’s class of 1950—to obtain a single postgraduate qualification. In the Australia of 1950, seeking postgraduate tuition usually appeared both incomprehensible (the Great Depression being little more than a decade in the past) and, truth to tell, downright vulgar.

Most Australians regarded graduate school as perhaps tolerable for the USA, where, they fixedly assumed, the entire populace consisted of billionaires and Freudian analysts. (Someone should write the chronicle of antipodean Americophobia, much of it of Anglophile-conservative origin.) But that the sharp edge of Australian pragmatism should be systematically blunted by the depraved practice of continuing to read books after your graduation day pictures had safely arrived from the photographic processor’s…well, I reckon that in 1950, the average Australian’s response to such a suggestion would have been “Stop it or you’ll go blind.”

For that or for whatever other reason, my father never did go to graduate school. I do worry that if the author of “A Farewell to Arts” witnessed me obtaining a doctorate, he would accuse me of going over to The Enemy Camp.

Then there is the religious factor. I am a Catholic. Increasingly I mistrust the prudential wisdom of us lay Australian Catholics (priests are different) undertaking higher education at all.

Our Mass attendance is already, by global yardsticks, shockingly low. According to the most recent figures I have located, which come from 2011—in other words, from before most of the country’s worst sacerdotal scandals—on Sundays, a scarcely credible 87% of Australian Catholics, even pre-pandemic, could not be bothered turning up to church. The causal relationship in Australian Catholicism between near-universal higher education and near-universal apostasy is as direct as the causal relationship between drinking weed killer and exuding projectile vomit.

Moreover, and leaving Australia aside for a moment: no other religion than Christianity (and Catholicism above all) puts such a premium on children, as children, inheriting the kingdom of heaven. In no other religion has any evangelist ever said, as St. Paul informed the Corinthians, that God employs the foolish to confound the wise. To an observant Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Marcus Aurelius-type Stoic, or for that matter Muslim, these notions presumably seem absurd if not pernicious.

Observe how often the leading conservative authors argue that the most cognitively brilliant secular sages tend to be the vilest, most ethnically bankrupt human beings. Any five paragraphs of Burke, Chesterton, Waugh, Solzhenitsyn, C.S. Lewis, or Russell Kirk will prompt the conclusion that real wisdom is incomparably likelier to inhabit a window cleaner or garbage collector or hobo or barmaid than the collected works of Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Bertrand Russell. Should you seek Christian conservative insight within two lapidary sentences, you cannot better Lord Salisbury’s: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.”

Well, now I find myself—thanks to writing my Ph.D. thesis—an accredited expert. Far from experiencing Impostor Syndrome, I would view Impostor Syndrome as a blessed relief.

It is the sheer genuineness, not the spuriousness, of my expertise that leaves me frightened. If acquiring extra erudition in a narrow subject were not so apt to involve acquiring extra folly in all other subjects, then the last hundred years would have been spared their dismal procession of first-rate scientists (often Nobel laureates) drooling over Stalinism and Maoism with a brainless passion that would have disgraced the most hormonal sophomores.

In this context I derive comfort from Orwell’s epigram: “Everybody in this world has someone else whom he can look down on.” And given the prodigious taxpayer funding which Australia’s sporting sector receives per annum ($385 million as of 2019), justifying my existence by researching Stanford’s organ compositions seems almost sensible. Then again, so does burning the hairs out of my nostrils with a lit match. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some nasal passages to attend to.

 R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne and assumed, until yesterday, that the “Green New Deal” referred to FDR’s Irish fan club.

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