This article argues that strong theories of neo-liberalism do not provide an adequate frame for understanding the ways that measurement practices come to be embedded in the life-worlds of those working in higher education. We argue that neo-liberal metrics need to be understood from the viewpoint of their social usage, alongside other practices of qualification and quantification. In particular, this article maps the specific variables attending measurement in higher degree research programmes, as the key sites that familiarize students with measurement practices around research and teaching. With regard to the incremental reframing of doctoral study as a utilitarian pursuit, we suggest a need to better identify the singular and immeasurable features of long-term research projects, and argue for a revitalized notion of failure. In this context, this article suggests that many critiques of neo-liberalism do not sufficiently advance alternative ways to think about the purposes and limitations of higher education.