Undoctored

This is an old photo – thanks to Pete Stokes for it.

I have never completed a PhD.

It is a mark of the way in which we think about knowledge that I am usually addressed as Doctor (except by correspondents from the USA who call me Professor). My initial contact with people therefore often consists of me trying to ‘downgrade’ my qualifications. As I do not actually work for a university, I also find that I usually need to expend some effort on my lack of affiliation. That has got easier in recent years as I now have honorary research status at two institutions (The University of Aberdeen and the Institute for Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands).

My lack of a doctorate has never bothered me – if it did, I would have pulled my socks up and put something together long ago. I did start one immediately after graduation, but it was largely because ‘that was what you did’, and the topic was amazingly badly chosen. I gave it up as soon as the first excuse presented itself (an opportunity to run a big excavation), and it was the best career choice I ever made.

What does bother me is other people’s attitude to it.

There is a tacit assumption that you cannot be anything in archaeology (academia?) without a PhD. Now, I fully accept that it is very difficult to get a job in any sort of research or academic archaeology today without the qualification. I am one of the last dinosaurs who has managed to steer my way through a successful (to me), career without completing a thesis. It is not a career choice I would recommend to the graduates of today. But I did manage it. If you look at my publication list, you will see that I have many papers and quite a few books. Some are academic, others more popular. I’ve been helped by not having a day job to take up my time. When I came home from fieldwork my day job was to write it up, unlike many of my colleagues who had to spend their time teaching, or curating, or administrating. I may have lacked the security of a job but being self-employed has allowed me to pursue the career I wished and make a real contribution to my area of interest. I’ve been extremely lucky. Most of my output is peer reviewed, and though I know I have not always been in total agreement with my colleagues, I also believe that ideas are there to challenge. My work would not be worth anything if it did not make people think.

I have also been able to access some useful research funding – from private, NGO, and academic foundations. Now, I do admit that gets more difficult with every year that passes. But I am not sure whether it is because of the current financial climate (even pre-covid), or whether it is because the completion of a thesis acts as a guarantee that one is capable of undertaking work of a certain standard. Hopefully, my publication record also confirms that.

I do not think that I am less without a doctorate. In fact, I’d turn one down if offered an honorary doctorate (a discussion I have had more than once). It would feel like an admission that I was somehow incomplete without Dr in front of my name. And I do not think I am.

I’m flattered that people seek to give me what is, after all, a mark of respect. And I really don’t mean to denigrate the hard work that those who do complete PhDs have put in to researching and producing their doctorate. It just seems strange that there is an (incereasing – it seems to me) assumption that if you have published the odd paper, or given the odd lecture, then you must have a doctorate.

It came as a surprise when people first labelled me as ‘academic’ – I’d always regarded myself as someone who just played around with the interesting ideas and puzzles that archaeology throws at us. I did go on to work for a major university for a few years (thank you Aberdeen for giving me that opportunity), but I have to say that, if you can wangle it, the life of the self-employed consultant is so much better. Committees, forms to fill in, bureaucracy – you need only take on those that really grab you and for the rest of the time you get to focus on the problems that you love. If you find yourself stuck in a rut you have only yourself to blame and you can make sure it does not happen again.

I may well be a throwback to some earlier time. But I’d like to feel that I am also a reminder that you do not always need to jump through the hoops to succeed. Those of us without a PhD also have a useful contribution to make. We might not be professors; we might not gear our lives towards the academic Research Excellence Framework system by which UK universities are assessed (or equivalent in other countries). But our lectures can be worth listening to, our work can be worth reading. We work hard, many of us are consummate communicators, and we can make useful contributions to conferences and other symposia.

Even more – we have fun!

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