Mind the gap: the dichotomy of being a postgrad student

June 26, 2012

Consider the following two people, for argument’s sake we’ll call the first one Richard and the second one Dick.


I’m a PhD researcher at a leading UK university working in a world-leading research department in a group of dedicated, talented students. As well as my research, which I’ve presented in the UK and abroad, so far during my postgraduate degree (which is on deadline) I’ve spent time working for the government in Whitehall, worked on-site at the most advanced industry-led project in my area in the UK, and completed a fellowship teaching and promoting science to school children.


I’m a student. I’m currently eating half-priced food, wearing tracksuit trousers, a hoodie and no shoes. I’ve got my headphones on and I’m whiling away my Monday afternoon on something that’s not really related to my work.

I imagine you can guess where I’m going with this – they’re the same person; me.

The thing is, I’m happy with that. Within university walls I’m Dick, I’m relaxed and able to get on with my work in a way that’s convenient to me. Outside university, I’m Richard: I’m a professional and I largely conform to the accepted business norms. So, what’s the problem? It’s all to do with how students are treated within university, not out of it. Consider this: one of the taglines for my course is ‘to train the leaders of tomorrow’. Now, I also reckon that’s a pretty big ask, but I think it’s great that there is so much push for postgrads to be as effective as possible once they’ve graduated. Equally, the number of development courses offered by the university and affiliates is brilliant: all the time I’m at university doing my research I’m also getting trained for the world after PhD-life and not falling behind my industrial colleagues. Driven by the research councils, the ultimate hope is that fusing a strong academic record with this training will lead to the creation of dynamic leaders capable of bringing about changes that are desperately needed.

Noting that within my department I’d say I’m fairly average, and could name more talented and dedicated colleagues among my peers, if you were a university with so much potential on your doorstep wouldn’t you make every effort to use it? Wouldn’t you want to get the most from these catalysts of change whom your best staff are developing into the leaders of tomorrow? Some parts of the establishment have demonstrably taken that approach and those committed to involving and supporting students should be applauded. But despite recognition at Rio20+ that youth leadership will likely be the powerhouse of green change, student engagement is not ubiquitous in university matters. And as a recent situation showed, the popular voice is no match for the established view.

As I write, edit and rewrite this I think I’ve managed to pin my dissatisfaction as a crystallisation of two issues. The first point is about parts of the university not walking the talk. This may get a more thorough treatment in a future post but put briefly, changing behaviour to reflect sustainability is lacking in parts of my technology-driven department (see my tweet for an example: https://twitter.com/Sam__Pickard/status/215383706364424192). Basically, my fear is that traditional views resonating from some of the old guard will increasingly permeate through their progenies making the already tricky business of cultural change ever more difficult as the status quo remains entrenched.

The second point is that within university there are still pockets where the word hasn’t quite got around that postgraduate students are responsible adults. Peering from the chasm of my split-personality it is apparent that while the university’s majority are talking to the outside world all about Richard, the internal view of a minority only sees Dick. When it occurs, the dichotomy is strangely well-defined. For any academic work, extra-curricular engagement or development of novel ideas to deploy outside the university walls Richard is the only man to consider. But if the topic turns to something inside university there seems to be a real concern that Dick may get a look in and perhaps that’s why postgrads, only around for a flicker in the eons of university decision making, aren’t usually much involved with non-academic university affairs.

Perhaps through simplifying or exaggerating the issue I’m making it sound petty but the point I’m getting at is that depending on whom you talk to – and particularly what about – PhD students can be seen as extremely valuable human capital or juveniles that need to be told what’s best for them and as a student it’s easy to fail to mind the gap.

I suppose you could be reading this thinking that students don’t deserve responsibility if they act like Dick, but then you’d be missing the point. University must continue to be where Dick and Richard are seen as one and the same. Where acting like Dick doesn’t affect your view of Richard. The essence of being a postgrad is the freedom to choose between who you are depending on your situation but on campus we don’t always have that choice: we’re always sold as Richard but sometimes treated as Dick.

A final note:

The saddest part of the situation that jumpstarted this blog is that the complaining Dicks aren’t just fighting the system for the sake of it; they passionately want to embody the change they seek to bring to the world. In that situation the message seemed clear: the Richards can just put all those skills they’ve been taught to use, but only when they’ve left.


2 Responses to “Mind the gap: the dichotomy of being a postgrad student”

  1. […] the realm where the business suit is king (a classic bit of Dicking about with Richard – see this post if you’re […]

  2. […] through no fault of the train – the beard is bad enough (Richard personality – see here for disambiguation with Dick). So, I had no option really but to buy a shirt from reception […]

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