Thinking about doctoral study? How to get started.

The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ~ Anaïs Nin

thinking of opening the PhD door? ~ Oia, Santorini

thinking of opening the doctoral door? ~ Oia, Santorini

In response to a number of questions from friends and colleagues about how to get started on a doctorate, I’ve written this blog post. It deals with what to consider when starting on your doctoral journey, and a bit about my story and how I went about it.

Remember that each person who is doing or has done a doctorate (including your supervisors!) has only done one. We will each base our recommendations on our singular experience, although supervisors have the additional experiences of guiding and examining doctoral students. My experience is not your experience, but it has been positive, and I would wish that for anyone taking on the doctoral thesis beast.

PhD or EdD?

The boundaries between doctoral degrees seem blurry to me, but my understanding is that the PhD is seen as the more academic qualification and the EdD is seen as the more professional qualification. The EdD is apparently about knowledge for and in practice, of more relevance to practitioners in the world of schools, whereas the PhD is seen as focused on the theoretical, of more relevance to those in the academe.

It seems, though, in Education, that many PhDs are undertaken by practitioners, around their own practice, and with practical implications. And I can’t imagine a school leadership appointment being affected by the Ed/Ph difference. So I’m not entirely sure why the distinction is necessary (apart from that Harvard started the professional doctorate trend and everyone else got on board). Please, someone, enlighten me!

From a course-content viewpoint, in universities local to me, the EdD has both coursework and (smaller than PhD) dissertation, while the PhD is a pure research degree with no coursework components. This means that an EdD candidate is required to turn up at courses, intended to help them prepare for the scholarly work of the dissertation, while a PhD candidate is not. In this way, the EdD candidate is provided with more formal support, as their coursework is usually done in preparation for their research project/s.

When I enrolled in my degree, I had a 6 month old and a 2 year old, and shortly after enrolling I went back to work, so coursework for which I needed to be in a particular place at a particular time did not work for me. My circumstances were more suited to doing my research in flexi times, often late at night or while children slept. While I was an educator not thinking about a job in the academy, as a book-and-writing-loving nerd I happily committed to the Doctor of Philosophy.

From a financial perspective, Australian citizens or permanent residents studying their doctorate (professional or PhD) in Australia are currently not required to pay fees (except the usual university student fees). These higher degrees are subsidised by the Research Training Scheme (RTS), although this may change from 2016. A funded RTS place is granted for four years’ full-time study equivalent, so it doesn’t go on forever!

The Doctor of Philosophy / Doctor of Education choice is worth thinking about from your own perspective. Where are you coming from? What are your circumstances? Where do you want your study to take you? Would you benefit from some coursework to kick start your degree, and a smaller thesis to manage?

Talk to people who’ve done both options. Talk to academics and university offices. Talk to school leaders. Talk to potential supervisors. Ask the Twitterverse or the blogosphere. Figure out your best option.

PhD by ‘big book’ or ‘publication’

If undertaking a PhD, it is worth thinking from the outset about whether you want to prepare a ‘big book’ thesis, or take the option of ‘thesis by publication’ in which your thesis includes a series of papers, some of which are published and which can be co-authored. These papers would stand alone, but also be tied together in the thesis by an introduction and conclusion in which you explain how they work together for your research purposes.

While the ‘by paper’ option is increasingly popular, I chose the big book variety as I conceptualised my study as a whole narrative. While I have been writing conference papers and journal articles from my thesis material, I did not want my thesis to be a collection of papers, which felt disjointed to me. I envisaged (I had a dream!) my thesis as a holistic magnum opus which would bend my mind and test the limits of my researcherly readerly writerly thinkerly muscles. A little theatrical, but it was my choice, and it has suited me. I’m sure it would be some people’s idea of a nightmare!

To help you make your decision about the big book vs. the publications, you might find these blog posts useful:

How to get started? Local university or the perfect supervisor at a remote campus?

Apart from you, I think the most important thing to help you complete your doctorate is a good supervisory relationship. It’s worth thinking about who and where your supervisors might be. My university required me to have two supervisors before I enrolled so this was an early decision; you forge this relationship before you begin.

You might know some academics who can steer you towards appropriate supervisors. I didn’t, so performed a combination of cyber stalking and cold calling. I looked at academics’ profiles and publications at local universities, and sent emails to the Deans of Education and HDR officers, and/or to individual professors. My email included an introduction and a brief outline of my idea for my study, as well as an attached curriculum vitae.

After receiving a number of positive replies, I ended up going with the person who showed the most genuine interest and excitement in me and my project. That supervisor then helped to find a second supervisor who was complementary. These two individuals have been wonderful for me. I have no dramatic personal stories of supervisory angst or neglect. My supervisors have provided me with a thoughtful combination of encouragement and critique, comfort and discomfort. They have allowed me to walk my own path and shape my research into something in which I believe. When I have suggested left-of-field ideas they have provided challenge, but also the space for me to argue my case and provide a rationale that will stand up to the academy, and then cheered as I carved out my space as a researcher.

Amber Davis has recently penned some good tips for being supervised. I agree with her that supervisors are very busy academics, often under many pressures. As a PhD candidate I see the responsibility for managing my project as up to me. They help me through it as advisors, mentors and colleagues (there is a point in the PhD when supervision starts to feel more like a peer-to-peer process), but I need to have ownership and drive my own study as researcher.

My experience of supervision at a local university is that the face-to-face meetings have been an important aspect of my PhD experience and have often propelled me forward. While we have used Skype, Google Docs, Dropbox and email to supplement face to face interaction, I am glad I chose to be supervised at a university in my own city, as the person-to-person interaction has borne the most powerful feedback and progress.

Choose your path

So I chose to study a PhD via a big book thesis at a local university. Mine is one set of choices and experiences. I would love to hear other stories and other perspectives.

Good luck with your doctoral travels, however they may begin and wherever they may lead you!

traversing the PhD road? ~ London in the snow

traversing the doctoral road? ~ London in the snow


3 thoughts on “Thinking about doctoral study? How to get started.

  1. Pingback: Is your PhD a love affair or a war story? | the édu flâneuse

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