Pleasure, Pain, and PhDs

From the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine:

It should be a time of pleasure gained from feeling one’s knowledge expand and the anticipation of a fulfilling academic career. But instead, most accounts of doctoral study are typified by a “passion for despair”, with the PhD cast as a period of gloom, loneliness and uncertainty.

This assessment is made by Christina Hughes, professor of gender studies at the University of Warwick, in a paper that calls for the academy to change its ways and embrace the pleasure inherent in becoming an academic.

“Pleasure, if it is considered at all, carries with it concerns that it leaves the individual unchanged,” Professor Hughes writes. “It is predominantly understood as an emotional moment that occurs when desire is met.”

Despite this, she writes, rare moments of intense “orgasmic” pleasure in intellectual achievement are possible, for example when the PhD student realises that becoming a fully fledged academic is an achievable goal.

Professor Hughes suggests that these moments of jouissance explain why doctoral students persist with their work.

I’m not sure I believe in this “runner’s high” view of academic fulfillment. Don’t most doctoral students, as frazzled and stressed out as they are, derive a steady stream of pleasure from the work they are doing and the academic milieu in which they are immersed?

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Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.