What your research says about you? Or the problem of perception within and without academic research


I love my research. I do. It combines so many issues and aspects: social history, politics, women’s issues, literature, gender, sexuality, representation, recovery of memory, embodiment, the body, post-structuralism, and, my favourite, Judith Butler. I’m mad about all of these things and more. And I truly believe the myriad issues within my PhD are all socially and politically relevant in so many contexts, for so many reasons. Embodiment, sexuality, gender, representation, subjectivity, ‘identity’: These are issues we encounter on a daily basis. And they’re so important. It’s clear to me that research should be going on into these matters.


But sometimes, when I hear about the PhD projects other people are carrying out I get research envy. Sexual fluidity in popular culture, subversive gender roles in science fiction, vampire trends in teen-fiction: they all sound pretty cool, huh? It’s not that I don’t love my research, nor that I don’t recognize the value of it. I really do. But sometimes, it just sounds not fun.


Here are some reactions I’ve had over recent months about my work


When replying to ‘she/I does gender’:

Rolls eyes

Giggle: why, can’t you tell the difference between a man and a woman?

Are you gay?


When replying to ‘I look at autobiographical texts by female political prisoners under the Francoist regime in Spain’ / research presentation:



That was harrowing

Sounds very….. high brow


Admittedly these are some of the more extreme examples; generally, I get a pause, followed by ‘that sounds interesting’. It’s better than nothing. But for once I’d like someone to respond to my research with a ‘wow’. I know it’s weird, it’s harrowing, it’s disturbing, it’s quite horrific at times, but it’s socially important, it’s contextually specific and relevant within a wider context, it’s serious and it’s important, damnit! And I begin to lament the fact that I’m not doing about lesbian visibility on TV shows, representation of feminism in media, or female embodiment. There’s a part of me questioning whether it’s because I’m boring and serious and dull and ‘square’. But thinking about it more, my research covers all of those things. Yes, within an Hispanic Francoist context, but still, the subject matter is there. And it’s applicable to other situations. That’s the beauty of research – it’s readily applicable to other contexts, situations, issues, and notions. It’s there for everybody. The problem isn’t my research, it’s attitudes towards research and academia.


There’s a widespread lack of recognition of the value of academic research. With government cuts attacking the education sector, the rising cost of tuition fees due to a privatization of higher education, and the publication of articles arguing that academia is the ‘easiest job’ out there, it’s no wonder that no one ‘gets it’. And with funding demolished for taught post graduate (PG) courses and heavily diminished for post grad research, with PG teaching resulting in an almost slave labour pact with their departments, and with the attached student stigma of not being able to get finance, or rent a house without a guarantor, post grads are at the bottom of the pile. In the 21st century there should be an emphasis on the value of education and research to inspire minds, build economies/nations/etc, not an all-round devaluation of research.


But I can’t just sit a grumble. I’m as guilty as the government and the media. When asked what I do I belittle myself – I’m just a student. Oh I’m doing a PhD. It’s not important. I don’t talk about my gender research, for fear of ridicule (see comments above). I just make a few little comments about books, prisoners, Francoism. I laugh it off. But value, worth, and recognition comes from within. As academics we do a bloody hard, diverse, demanding, but rewarding, fulfilling, scary, amazing job. We need to recognize this in ourselves and in our peers and colleagues. Especially given the current climate of cutthroat competition for the depleted job market and research demands of the REF. Recognition from within: that’s the starting point for changing the misguided perception of research as devalued. And whilst we’re at it, let’s invite everyone else in to share the joys and excitement. Because, after all, research matters.


So the next time someone asks me what I do, I’m going to proudly state that I am doing a PhD into embodiment and subjectivity of female political prisoners from under Spain’s Francoist regime. And even if I don’t get a wow, I’ll ‘wow’ myself.






This post is in part influenced by this erroneous, misguided, and widely-commented article proclaiming academia as the easiest job: http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/01/03/the-least-stressful-jobs-of-2013/


This is the best response I have seen to date:


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