Risky business: Living on the PhD edge

The doctoral requirement for the candidate to produce a significant and original piece of work … indicates that the most significant and original ideas can be those that are most likely to challenge the status quo or the scholarly paradigm within which they are examined. … the ‘best’ doctoral research is likely to be much riskier than modest research. ~ Professor Terry Evans

WRONG WAY GO BACK

WRONG WAY GO BACK

As I inch towards the thesis submission finish line, I have been pointed towards Terry Evans’ 2004 AARE paper, ‘Risky doctorates: Managing doctoral studies in Australia as managing risk’ by the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC. The above quote is from this paper and surfaces the interesting point that the pursuit of knowledge and science is perhaps better served by research which is willing to take risks and challenge accepted knowledge and paradigms. Yet Evans goes on to note that the performative measures imposed on academics and universities encourage modest paradigm-following research, rather than that which is risky, status-quo-challenging and paradigm-bending. That is, PhD researchers are most likely to play within the established rules of the game, in order to complete within time and assure a pass. Evans argues that this results in the loss of “unknown and incalculable benefits” to science and scholarship.

This makes me feel better and worse about the PhD thesis which I’m hoping to submit in the next few weeks. Better, because I think my research is risky; at least the bricolaged – that is, bespoke and woven-together from a number of traditions – paradigm and the way I’ve chosen to communicate my findings. I haven’t totally smashed through academic norms; my thesis is still recognisable as such. But I have pushed at the edges of what is accepted. I’ve been ok with embracing my discomfort and doing things that seem, within the traditional schema of the academe, ‘out there’. My work proposes slightly new ways to go about protecting participant anonymity and communicating participant stories. It is these things about which I am presenting at the AARE conference in November.

While I am feeling proud of my research and my writing (despite having chosen not to employ a professional editor), Evans’ paper also makes me feel nervous because I am getting ready to send my thesis off to three external experts who are to examine my thesis. In the USA and the UK PhD examination usually involves a viva voce, or oral defense, of the thesis, followed by questions. Examiners are then able to deliberate before deciding on the result. In the USA the committee is made up primarily of professors from the candidate’s university, including their supervisor (who hopefully supports the work). Under the Australian system, my thesis will be sent off to three different individuals, including one external Australian examiner and two international examiners, who don’t know me or the work at all. These three people will read my thesis and send in their (potentially conflicting reports), without any discussion between them. At least if examiners’ reports disagree about the quality of thesis, there is a majority one way or another.

While I hope that my thesis is one in which the examiners think the work is interesting an original, and the text worth reading, there’s a lot riding on the opinions of three people, coming from different places, different perspectives and different paradigms. That’s part of the challenge of a bricolaged thesis which weaves together multiple phenomena and methodological threads; there isn’t a clear box in which it fits. Risky.

writing retreat collage, by @debsnet

Having just come back from a mini revision retreat in Sydney (read: 2 nights solo, away from work and family commitments – a PhD-working-parent’s dream), I am so deep ‘in’ my text that I can’t see the wood from the trees. As I have worked at the various levels of editing, I’ve been in the forest, sometimes looking at the whole lot together, sometimes at patches in between and sometimes at teeny micro details. Undergrowth. Canopy. Bark. Branches. Veins of leaves. Reflections in dewdrops. The feel of earth and sound of sticks underfoot. Birdsong. I’m so immersed at this point that I’ve lost direction. Time to take a brief step back to regain perspective. A helicopter ride to survey the scene wouldn’t go astray.

A couple of iterations ago, my primary supervisor said, ‘You could hand it in like this,’ which gives me hope that if the text is better now, it can only be more submittable. I’ll have to see what my supervisors say tomorrow about the most recent version of my thesis. Is it good? Is it good enough? Is it risky? Is it finished? Is it finished enough? Are there mistakes? Will the examiners be sympathetic to my approach? It’s so hard to know because, while I can read other dissertations, the PhD process for me has been in isolation from other students; I don’t know where my work sits on a continuum of doctoral standards.

I guess at some point, it’s time to trust, print, send, and see.

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8 thoughts on “Risky business: Living on the PhD edge

  1. You’ve made me so nervous Deb for you first and also for me! I was just about to read another article posted in resources for MOOC this week – Dick’s (1994) Is action research too risky?…oh boy! This module has certainly and aptly sent some fears around.

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    • Jo, I guess we can only do our best, and do authentic work that feels right to us. I can only control myself, not the reactions of others, right? I’ve done work that I’m proud of, that I think is valuable (even original), and that I think I’ve communicated effectively. But at some point it has to be finished enough to be sent out into the ether for judgment.

      I’d rather be taking risks and doing research I believe in, than dragging myself through a PhD of compliance and hoop-jumping.

      Make you feel any better? 🙂

      Deb

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      • Yes I’m with you Deb. I believe I am going to be one who breaks the rules -some going to like it others will hate it, but it’s about my research and what I want, although I understand there will be some things that will just have to be. I’m sure my supervisors will guide me in the right direction if I get too far off track.
        Thanks 👌

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