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.

The 3MT as a lens into concision, productivity and creativity in PhD research

Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Last week I spoke at my university’s Three Minute Thesis competition, which challenges doctoral candidates to explain their research in under 180 seconds, to a non-specialist audience.

Other PhD students in the competition had been attending multiple workshops, practising for weeks in front of experts, and being given feedback from professors and each other. I wrote my speech the week before, and then attempted to memorise it while teaching, marking essays, parenting, and revising my whole thesis (again), this time for the eyes of my second supervisor. In amongst that week, the universe decided to add night after sleepless night with sick children, and sickness for me, too. Such is the world of the working, parenting PhD candidate!

I found ways to fit 3MT prep into the cracks in my week. I recorded my speech on my dictaphone and played it in the car on the way to and from work, and before I went to bed. At night after my kids were in bed, I ran through the speech. By the time 3MT day came around, I was still full of cold and bleary eyed, but I figured I only needed to be ‘on’ for three minutes. That, I could do. I presented the speech before its first ever audience on the day. I managed to remember my entire speech from start to finish, did it under time (which is crucial) and got some nice feedback afterwards. (Thank you to those in the audience who nodded vigorously, and the two girls at the cafeteria afterwards who told me they think I should have won!)

The most useful part of the 3MT for the PhD researcher is the decision making that goes into writing the speech. At around 500 words the speaker has to make tough decisions about what to put in (in my case, from research which has resulted in a 100,000 word thesis) and what to leave out. About how much to popularise and entertain, and how much serious research detail to foreground. I think my balance was a little off, but the experience of writing it – like writing abstracts or short papers – was a worthwhile thinking exercise in distilling my PhD down into its essence. It forced me to ask: What is the crux of what I am doing? Why should anyone care? How might I encourage them to want to know more?

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

Above is the image I used for the static slide which projected behind me as I gave my 3MT competition speech. It gives an idea of the way in which I’ve conceptualised my research about professional identity, professional learning and school change. It’s an approach which might be perceived as a bit whacky and non-traditional by some.

I’ve used narrative method, but taken the notion of story further, including using a well-known literary novel as conceptual frame and even providing illustrations in my thesis. These decisions emerged from systematic working through of research problems such as the ethical issue of protecting anonymity, as well as the storytelling challenge of making meaning for readers. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Australian Association of Research in Education conference about the use of extended literary metaphor and known literary characters as analytical and conceptual tools.

In reflecting upon this slide and my 3MT speech, I was heartened by Helen Kara’s new book, Creative Research Methods, and by this recent podcast from Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead. Helen, in her book, does not encourage researchers to be creative for the sake of creativity, rather she notes that being open to creative solutions to research problems acknowledges and respects the complexity of research work.

Tara and Steve, in their discussion of interdisciplinary PhDs, make a point about doctoral (and other) research that resonates for me; select a university, supervisors and examiners who will protect your journey and respect your work. This has been so important for me. My supervisors, neither of whose own work is in my specific area, have been supportive of my ideas and my journey. That is not to say they have not challenged me! Quite the opposite. When I first floated the idea of creating illustrations for my participant stories, for example, they were sceptical, but not dismissive. I worked on the theoretical rationale for using illustrations in my thesis and once I had articulated my argument convincingly, my supervisors told me that I’d effectively made the case. This is one example of a number of moments in my PhD journey in which my work has been respected and my journey supported, rather than controlled.

So as I presented my 3MT speech, before my idiosyncratic slide, I felt that I was presenting research in which my journey, my voice and my work has been – challenged, certainly – but also respected.

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