Prof Kumar’s M.Litt. preceded his PhD in 1983; mine is going to be preceded by an M.Phil. The only difference between mine and Prof Kumar’s credentials is the format of our degrees: while the M.Litt. juxtaposes the conventions of a taught and research program; an M.Phil. is exclusively research-based. It’s funny to think that a globally-acknowledged degree, of respected stature and ancient origins, does not find a place in the popular imagination, with many struggling to understand how this degree ‘operates’. While my time at Swansea University was rewarding, it was marked by an angry frustration – perhaps, becoming the root of this composition – and the recognition of peoples’ naive ignorance, poisoned by a harsh reluctance to understand what an M.Phil. was. Two years since my enrolment in 2019, and I’m still questioned about the nature of my academic program. It’s disturbing, saddening … for the ‘Master of Philosophy,’ I knew was a haunted castle, people neither wanted to know nor wanted to enter. Its bridging structure – between a ‘Taught’ Masters and PhD – has made it suffer ghastly fortunes. The full-form adds to its fallen disrepute, and this is from where most of my anxieties grew at Swansea which were shredded to pieces when India called the M.Phil. ‘invalid.’ On what pretexts and contexts, may I ask? And I don’t ask because of insecurity, or due to the sympathies I hold for the M.Phil. because I have, myself, pursued this for two years. I ask because I understand what the M.Phil. could offer to young minds, and these discrepancies in the Indian educational system are muted to knowledge, and to anything that is foundational.
The corporatisation of the PhD is the reason here. Unlike the times when Prof Kumar reigned, when the PhD was placed in the highest esteem and revered as ‘the ultimate degree’ (as I recall Prof Kumar’s fond words), we, unfortunately, persevere during the age of business-culture, where everything could be bought – and sold – and this has dramatically impacted the status of once-revered traditionally-academic programs like M.Phil. and M.Litt. Our ascent into postmodernism has irrevocably caused our descent towards a void in productive research, and I strongly speak, here, as a scholar of literature and humanities, and my opinions should not be callously applied to other discourses and schools that I hold no novicean/scientific expertise in. The shorthand culture has instigated the rise of quicker PhDs while relegating the necessary foundations – like the M.Phil. – to the background, leading to their unthoughtful abandonment.
‘Who needs an MLitt when a PhD does not demand that!’
‘A PhD brings better prospects – an MPhil is just a filter.’
It’s all about personal gain, after all. A PhD, of course, brings ‘better prospects,’ but at what costs? Zero scholarship on contemporary knowledge. No government funding available for Humanities, and, particularly, Literature Studies. A cyclic return to almost-eaten, medieval, texts, disguised in fake inquisitiveness, with no sign for fresh perspectives. No knowledge about the basics and the ethics of research. No engagement with beyond-the-identified-academia. Lop-sided criticisms. Excuses. This is why I believe that foundational programs are indispensable for closing these windows, for opening an eye-view to the world beyond our pools of surfacing knowledge; and this is why I was surprised when people exclaimed their unawareness about a degree I was taking pride in. ‘You sure it’s a Majors, Ash?,’ a South-Indian once laughingly commented. This was the last straw, and I no longer determined myself to explain my degree to anybody else until tonight … one year after that obnoxious statement. However, when I brood over it, I tend to imagine that, perhaps, these misunderstandings were caused by a coincidental – sad- juxtaposition of my physical location and the nature of the M.Phil.
I was staying at Langland, one of the university’s student halls, with students enrolled in taught master’s programs. Their scenarios were exclusively distinct from what I experienced. Against my independent, 60,000-worded dissertation (which was all!), theirs included 9 – 5 lectures, seminars, assignments (examinations, for some cases), and a conclusive dissertation of between 15,000 – 20,000 words. I never said a Taught Master’s was easy; I have been in their shoes during my M.A. at the University of Lucknow between 2016 – 18, and I kept on repeating myself that I’d already walked along those roads, albeit painstakingly. We couldn’t enjoy the privileges of a British university, and yet we never whined about it. It was joyful to study in India, keeping aside a hundred cons that often tested our patience, but altogether it was fascinating. All our little conversations with professors – our 9 to 3 lectures, mid-term tests, semester examinations, the problematic paraphernalia of administration, violence-obsessive student leaders, and so on – it was magical, in pleasant and awful ways. Yet, we didn’t whine. Every Friday night, several Lords of Langland used to gather for their weekly summit of collective suffering, an interesting gathering of cigarettes, alcohol, and tears . . . and misery. Of how valiantly they are trying to battle assignments and academia! Of course, this procession involved hardcore applauds as well … come on, let this alcohol speak, and they deserved that. I had no tear to share, sadly, which appalled them. I was synchronized with my dissertation, and the most ‘miserable.’ I must have gone to what was, maybe, an unfruitful supervisory meeting? I have no clue. But my casual outlook – paired with a disinterest in whining – intimidated them:
‘So, no lectures, Ash?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘and you just watch animations?’
‘well, it’s not what you think. It’s -’
‘no assignments? What sort of a master’s is that?’
‘It’s not just another master’s.’
‘then why is it a Master of Philosophy? You study Philosophy?’
‘No, it’s the Philosophy of Literature. It’s a research degree, like a PhD.’
‘I don’t get this degree, it’s funny!’
‘I wish I was doing this!’
‘Oh, yes, then be my guest. Go back to your country, draft a proposal and send it over to unknown professors across the world, and await their response. Once 2/50 would respond, discuss your research project – it’s intricacies – and challenge your research abilities, re- draft, revise, update your literature, and send it again. This time those two would not even respond back. Start over. Waste some months in uncertainty. Discuss again, wait – revise. Skype once – or twice if the professor liked you. Revise. Be rejected 50 times. Change your research. Draft, Revise, Revise, Revise. Loopholes. Accepted. Acknowledge. Apply.’
Too much for a Master’s, right? Sadly, it’s a research Master’s, and researchers are not privileged enough to ‘directly apply.’ This is a purely-academic process, and we appreciate it. This should be the norm. We cannot just ‘pick’ a university. There’s a lot that goes beyond and before the making of an M.Phil., an M.Litt., or a PhD. The prizes, however, make all worth it. The happiness of a researcher knows no bounds when their research is read, acknowledged, applauded, and preserved in their university’s repository. What better way to honour them! Do you appreciate it, by the way? The pains, the monotony, the chaos, all those times when we are asked to rewrite full chapters, further re-revise our dissertations after our oral examinations? Before you jump to conclusions about what a degree ‘does,’ reflect over your question, and the disrespect you caused to a researcher and the research community. The choice of the degree rests upon the individual, and if you witness an M.Phil., don’t get confused; most importantly, don’t undermine this degree and the person who pursues(ed) it. There’s a solid misconception – and so I don’t blame the ignorance of non-academics altogether – about the terminology we use to denote the M.Phil. In conventional academia, degrees follow a structured chronology: a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) is followed by a Master of Arts (M.A.); a Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com.) upgrades to an M.Com. It’s very straightforward, if you want to know it.
Therefore, an M.Phil. is followed by a PhD, making a concretised plan for a structured system of research. In recent days, Oxford University, to initiate these clarifications, addresses its PhDs as ‘D.Phils.,’ which grows up to imply a ‘Doctor of Philosophy.’ It explains that an M.Phil. scholar does not study the subject of Philosophy – as the term ‘Master of Philosophy’ may imply – but the ways through which his/her concerned subject area could be philosophised. We study these degrees to not be graded or compared, but to contribute something fresh, something ‘contemporary’ to ever widening dimensions of knowledge. These degrees may be graded, in some Canadian or American universities, for there they involve the candidate to pursue some modules – and study some areas of research relevant to one’s research project – before starting their independent research. The bottom line stays the same: their dissertation is never graded. It adds respect to their individual contributions and looks out to address this issue of zero-grading by suggesting that the former cannot be compared to one another; there’s nothing to compare, and so it’s pointless to grade.
Each contribution/dissertation adds a new dimension to knowledge, and because researchers independently work during their program(s) without any potential batchmates (remember research degrees are not lectured), I anticipate an awkward silence whenever references are made to questions about why MPhil/PhD dissertations are not graded. They are quite different from the dissertations produced during a Taught Master’s. They are fantastic contributions to knowledge, too, but they are graded. The answer to this is two-fold: because they are a component of an exclusively-taught program, their word-counts are also stunted. Many Master’s degrees do not even have a “dissertation”; they ask from the students to compose research/term papers instead. It’s relative, these degrees, but they never qualify as ‘research degrees’ because they have to constantly maintain the traditional structure of a purely-taught degree. Potentially, this explains why their dissertations are graded, unlike MPhil or PhDs.’ One may publish their dissertation/papers in the future because I don’t doubt the level of originality many postgraduate scholars possess. I have had the chance to be friends with many, and their thought-processes are captivating. I have motivated some to enter higher research avenues … though I am still waiting on a ‘yes.’ I hope one day, they would join my league.
Yet again, there could be personal reasons to skip an M.Phil. I have to ensure you that I am not speaking as an angry M.Phil. propagandist. My opinions are from the point-of-view of an academic. I don’t want your next step, after reading me, should be to seek M.Phil. prospects – that would be awful. You can do that after dinner. Just kidding! Anyway, what my authorial position demanded was a transparent vindication of what an M.Phil. could ‘do’ and absolve it of some misconceptions that had been plaguing its reputation for a while. As an academic, I think one should pursue an M.Phil. after some years of hardcore learning if (1) one still feels that they are not ready for a PhD; (2) one’s foundational knowledge of higher research (required for a PhD) is vague, limited, or delusional; (3) one’s research project is not too broad for a PhD, but one still ‘wishes’ to pursue that interest for, perhaps, relational interests; (4) one wants to follow a traditional chronology of conventional education; (5) one wants to stand-out; or (6) one reflects a curious interest in disconnected avenues of research, but displays the possibility of threading them together in the future, perhaps after a doctorate/second master’s.
My situation was a complex mix of the six. I was dilemmatic. I was flummoxed. I was sapped. And then, I recalled my passing father’s words – ‘never imagine a Ph.D. without an M.Phil.’ – which wiped out some layers of histrionic conundrum, but overwhelmed me towards the end:
‘Dual research, but for what? I can barely ‘talk’ research. I cannot do this.’
‘Plus, it’s a waste of time, and money! It’s not a good idea.’
Of course, it was a great idea! I drafted a whole book about animations and their purported role(s) in children’s socialisations; a patchwork quilt, I call it, for I studied completely unrelated concepts and associated them together as possible, productive themes for the future development of children’s animations and popular entertainment. I improved my academic strengths that had been left lurking in darkness even after an M.A., which included a braver grasp over what scholars call ‘academic language,’ a finer understanding of the relationship between theory and criticism, an articulated knowledge about the interpersonal skills of rhetoric, a terrific network of scholars and publishers alike, a modestly better personality – all of which I aspire to take forward in my academic, professional, and personal future. What was I thinking when I was crying about ‘dual research’? Fear, sloth, or maybe a lack of confidence? The inability to believe in oneself; a symptom of self-doubt. I ask you to get rid of that soon. Believe me, nobody would believe in you as much as you could. You are your own hero! So, take a leap of faith. Just don’t fool yourself – you would know, one day, what I mean by this.
Because if Prof Kumar had stopped there, he would not have become a renowned scholar of Linguistics and English Language Teaching. His ‘Master of Letters’ was a phenomenon. It paved the way to not only his introduction into a doctorate in 1984 but also activated his interest in what he would become an expert of. He would not have become one of the first persons to open a ‘language laboratory,’ dedicated to the scientific study of language, in India. That laboratory died with him, sadly, but his philosophy stayed: if you feel you need it, ‘do’ it. The M.Phil. did wonders for me, and I thank Prof Kumar for his mighty words that changed my life that fateful winter of 2012. He passed away a year later. I kept my promise and dedicated my M.Phil. dissertation to my parents. I was recently awarded the degree, much to my mother’s delight, and I am glad I listened. Prof Kumar always asked me to listen to my voice. I still do. It helps me talk to myself. I ask you, too, to listen to Prof Kumar, and if you’re still wondering: Prof Kumar and my father are one person.
The above artwork is by Maksim Smychagin – born in 1999, in Russia. In 2011, he moved to the Republic of Cyprus with his family where he graduated from his school in 2018. Currently, he studies Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Swansea, UK.