What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness

I was delighted to be invited to present on my research (which is, in part, around coaching in a school context) at yesterday’s inaugural Australian Coaching in Education Research Seminar. My presentation – to a room of academics, educators, doctoral candidates and prospective doctoral candidates – looked at sharing both my own study and my post-submission understanding of doctoral research. In this post I use some of the slides from that presentation to look at the latter part: what I now know about the PhD.

the outline of my #EdCoachRES presentation

the outline of my #EdCoachRES presentation

I saw the PhD, some times and in some ways, as a long dark tunnel or rabbit burrow. That is, when we are standing at the mouth of the tunnel it is dark and unilluminated. And sometimes we have to dig. As I had never been a doctoral researcher, I didn’t know what doctoral research looked like. I didn’t know what a good PhD looked like. I didn’t know what the process looked like. These are things we can’t really know until the end.

That said, while my supervisors were not experts in my particular fields or methodology, they were experts in the doctoral process and in supervision. This is reminiscent of my work in coaching at my school. There, coaches aren’t experts in all pedagogy in all areas; they are teachers who are experts in being coaches, in having professional conversations in which the coachee’s thinking is teased out and shifted to different levels of abstraction, in ways to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching to refine teachers’ reflections on their practice. My supervisors were a lot like coaches, in that they facilitated my thinking about my research and writing, and helped me grow into a less-neophyte more-autonomous researcher. But they were also experts and mentors who sometimes chose to give me directive advice, or asked me to develop a clearer rationale for something I wanted to try (like using illustrations in the PhD thesis – who does that?). They helped me to keep focused, especially when I got excited about alternate pathways or theories.

Put your PhD blinkers on

Put your PhD blinkers on

The PhD is a tightly focused study. No matter how curious or impassioned we are, a single three-year-equivalent study can’t be all encompassing. We can’t cover everything that interests us or explore every avenue which takes our fancy. Like the racehorse, we need to put our blinkers on in order to make it to the finish line. Those really intriguing tangential ideas and large chunks of deleted text (for instance, I axed 20,000 words between the first full draft and the final draft) can be put into a folder for another time, another project, another paper. Of course, research studies are iterative, so we need to be flexible and open to changing course, but as Tara Brabazon says in this 2010 Times article:

the best doctorates are small. They are tightly constituted and justify students’ choice of one community of scholars over others while demonstrating that they have read enough to make the decision on academic rather than time-management grounds.

by @debsnet

Bearing in mind that PhDs are tightly focused and that all research has limitations, these were the questions I thought were most important for any doctoral researcher to ask themselves:

  • How will my research add to scholarly conversations?
  • What question/s or problem/s of theory or practice might I hope to answer?
  • What will my method offer? What might it eclipse (limitations)?

That is, what can or will this research do? What can’t or won’t it do? We need to be ok with what a particular study, from a particular worldview, using a particular method, can do. And what it can’t. We need to own the limitations of our work.

my go-to online advisors

my go-to online advisors

I shared some of those academics-who-blog who have been particularly influential for me in my PhD writing and understanding. These are those whose generosity of knowledge helped me to understand the process of knowing the PhD, doing the PhD and being the PhD. Their work helped to illuminate the PhDarkness for me. An example was Pat Thomson’s help in the writing of my discussion chapter at a time when I was asking myself what a discussion chapter was, and trying to figure out how to best approach and develop mine. The academic bloggers named in this slide have reams of useful posts about endless aspects of the PhD, academic writing and getting published. Additionally, Helen Kara is writing short eBooks for doctoral students, while Pat Thomson and Babara Kamler have the super-useful book, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision.

I have found the reflections of others useful and so I share some of my own story on this blog because perhaps my words will shine a light into the shadows for someone else looking for help in a time of doctoral uncertainty. My working-through-writing-frustrations blog posts might help others when they come to that point in their journey, by which time I may have happily forgotten about how hard it was for me at the time!  As sometimes the curse of expertise – thank you, How to Survive Your PhD MOOC for pointing me towards Pamela Hinds’ 1999 work on this – means that once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. While I don’t think I’ve been in the game long enough to automate too much, blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self, before certain things become ‘black boxed’.

putting the PhD in perspective

putting the PhD in perspective

Finally, (my own version of) the PhD is only something I understand (sort of) now that I am at its end. It is unknowable before then. Each step of the way felt like a step into the darkness. Sometimes I felt like I had a flashlight to light the immediate way or a lightsaber to slice confidently into the tunnel. Sometimes I felt that I was fumbling around in the dark and feeling my way. Sometimes I went the wrong way and had to go back. But as Matt Might shows in his illustrated guide to the PhD, and as Mullins and Kiley (2002) show in their paper ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize,’ the tightly-focused you-can’t-do-it-all parameters of a PhD mean that a PhD needs ‘only’ to add a miniscule aspect to the world’s knowledge; it’s a small blip in a larger conversation. Let yours be like a tiny jewel: small, intense, luminous.


8 thoughts on “What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness

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