I accepted with enthusiasm and alacrity – admittedly tempered by creeping exhaustion, deepening sense of worthlessness and bloated weight of obligation to accept – the opportunity to assess the doctoral thesis of a famous musician, an idol of mine since my teen years. I could not believe my luck – I would get to examine the work of a guy I waited for backstage in rainy car parks, who I fought to get seats near the front for at countless gigs around the country, and whose drumming I am still amazed by. He is like a god to me. And now I am Guardian at the gate to his academic future. After months of informal and formal emails I finally get the thesis through in the post – all 280-some pages of it. I figure that that if I work efficiently I might, including a day at the university for the viva (‘defense’ in US-speak) spend 5 days working on this. I don’t want to rush it, and if I am going to be the guy who examined the PhD of this very famous musician, then I’m definitely not doing this half-arsed. And as an early-career scholar, nothing I do can be half-arsed anyway, or I’ll not survive my enduring probation in academia. For my troubles I will receive £175, exactly £35 per day (including expenses). Better than a kick in the teeth (as my father would say), but I find my mind wandering to theme of what else I could do for that money or more (maybe enough, one day, even to save for the deposit on a house!).

As I struggle to surmount a pile of undergraduate marking that reaches deep into the December afternoon and now evening I am spending blogging in a café near my home, I am also intermittently negotiating a price with removals companies so my family can move house next month before our landlord ‘needs’ to sell his property. One company is asking a modest £1400 for the day to transport our stuff four miles across town in two vans with three men. Assuming a three-way split between the removal guys, they will each walk away with £466 (including expenses). If we assume a five-way split with 2/5 going to their manager, they will take home £280 each. While the latter figure is only eight times what I earn as a leading scholar in my field examining doctoral theses, if the first figure were to turn out to be closer, the movers would each make 13 times my fee.

I enjoy examining PhD theses, and recognise the privilege of the role. I love the idea that I’m a gatekeeper for new knowledge, with keys to the door of academia, and I’m dead excited to be reading the writing of a man who I have followed as a musician for decades. But with the timescale and my current workload (my own full-time job, plus the responsibilities of a colleague who recently walked out, that was passed to me as an interim measure), it also fills me with panic that I must do this to the best of my ability at the same time as I’m moving house and completing a second master’s degree (I suddenly cannot recall why I am studying for an MMus). Once the removals guys have departed, leaving things in roughly the right rooms, and have gone home or perhaps down the pub, I will, no doubt, be up late, reading theses and marking and worrying, before a short nap and a pre-dawn anxious awakening in my chair to continue where I left off with work.

As a man who likes reading, writing and teaching, and who distinctly recalls being a drummer, I also like driving vans and carrying stuff (intrinsic to the life of a drummer). So, for the sake of argument, I wonder: is being a removal man as self-congratulatory and as self-fulfilling, as self-flagellating or as self-defeating as being a sociologist of music education?

(In order to find out, I think I’ll ask the movers. I will conduct and video-record semi-structured interviews with each of them, following up a month later with secondary interviews. Then I’ll do focus groups with their colleagues, based on questions derived from the first and second sets of interviews, plus a lengthy and gratuitous, reflexive and excruciating autoethnographic essay. That ought to help establish where I stand. In about three years’ time, once this research has been peer reviewed and published, I’ll know whether or not to retrain as a removal man, or if staying in academia and music is/are likely to work out for the best.)




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