Doctoral supervision: From the PhD Panopticon to circle of awesome

Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? ~ Michel Foulcault, Discipline and Punish

chapel by @debsnet

circular chapel with spire

This week, Module 2 of the How to Survive the PhD MOOC asked us to take a photo of something in our daily lives which harks back to the history of the doctorate, and comment on it, perhaps considering the remnants of history on our own doctoral experience.

Although not medieval or at a university, I was immediately drawn to the chapel of the school at which I work. It has two elements which might be seen to allude to the history of the doctorate.

The chapel has a large spire atop it, which appears as a sharp white spike, piercing the blue sky. The spire speaks of the monastic traditions of the PhD, which was originally based on an understanding of the Bible. Whenever I’m sitting in this chapel, I’m aware of the presence of that spire, which looks like a kind of direct line to God, awaiting a lightning bolt of inspiration or knowledge, or carrying prayers to the heavens.

The circular form of the building is the other feature which has me thinking about my experience of the PhD. Could it represent an ideal cycle of PhD completion or be an Orwellian metaphor of authority, surveillance and control?

On the one hand, the symbol of the circle might help us to think of the PhD journey as a complete, unified process. Although most candidates do not experience a seamless journey, they might feel at the end of their doctoral studies that the cycle or circle is complete (not, hopefully, like they have ‘come full circle’, but that they have tied up the ends of a long process).

A circle often also suggests infinity, and certainly the PhD process can feel like it is never-ending. Just as one PhD milestone is completed, there are already more laid out before the candidate.

circle by @debsnet

In a less positive view of the circular building, I am reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Michel Foucault’s Panopticism. The Panopticon was a circular prison building with a central watchman’s tower, perfect for surveillance and control. The prisoners were separated from each other by concrete walls, and yet potentially under constant surveillance from the eye of the watchman. The watchtower emanated bright light, so that at any time each prisoner was unsure if or when they were being watched. Foucault saw the Panopticon as a symbol of power through the knowledge and observation of the watchman, and the disempowerment of the imprisoned and the watched who were robbed of knowledge.

I wonder how traditional vs. non-traditional views of the doctorate might relate to the Panopticon. Often PhD researchers are isolated, like Panopticon prisoners in their cells. They are watched over in varied ways and to differing degrees. Some may feel like they are unaware of the knowledge of the watchman, those in the academy who know what a PhD is, and what a PhD researcher should be doing; the watchtower is knowledge from which the candidate is excluded. Some might feel as though they are working away in their cells beneath the eye of no-one, abandoned by beacons of power to toil alone, un-watched and un-helped. Perhaps some research students would like more constant watching and checking in by their supervisors. Some are watched over generously by kindly supervisors who are far from the invisible authority in the blindingly-lit tower.

Despite Foucault’s observation that the idea of constant surveillance could help with self-governing behaviours – that people who think they are being watched develop agency and self-discipline – I would hope that the modern PhD experience feels very little like being invisibly surveyed by those in authority, where the candidate is power-less and the academe is power-full. PhD candidates should not be seen as a population which needs to be under the control of powers that be. Doctoral researchers should be capable of independent research and provided with supervisory support.

In my own experience of supervision, I have found that the supervisory relationship slides along a continuum as it changes over time. At first I felt very much like the enthusiastic apprentice to the knowledgeable masters. Never was I, however, expected to emulate the masters. The PhD is about creation of new knowledge, not emulation of old knowledge. In my Fine Art study we copied the Old Masters so as to understand how they did their work, but then took this knowledge and bent or broke rules to generate new ways of creating, producing or knowing. Research, like art, is conversation in which layers of meaning are added.

At some point along the way I felt as though I became a peer or collaborator in my supervision meetings, with some of my own expertise to offer, although my supervisors are still the experts in PhD completion and peer review processes. I became the expert on my own work. Finding my own voice and owning my contribution was an important step in developing my researcher identity.

I still feel sometimes as though I am working behind soundproof concrete walls, alone in the PhD studio (it has not been a cell for me). Yet connections with tweeters, bloggers, and now the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC online community, have helped me feel more connected to others experiencing the doctorate from their various vantage points. My circle has become more campfire-Kumbaya and less panoptic Orwellian control.

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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.

Is your PhD a love affair or a war story?

I think I can. I think I can. I know I can. ~ The Little Engine that Could

Are you in a PhD romance or a PhD battle?

Are you in a PhD romance or a PhD battle?

What do we tell ourselves about our lives, work and research? In particular what is the private self talk and dominant public discourse around doctoral study?

Helen Kara points out this week that, while there are some positive stories about the doctoral experience, much of what is ‘out there,’ especially in the blogosphere, has a negative bent. She notes that her own experience was positive, and cause for celebration.

A quick scan of research also shows the doctoral experience as fraught with issues of identity uncertainty, imposter syndrome, dissatisfaction, and a mismatch between understandings of students and the actual experience.

The Thesis Whisperer’s – Inger Mewburn’s – upcoming MOOC on surviving the PhD will explore the emotions of the PhD, including confidence, frustration, fear, confusion, curiosity, loneliness, boredom and love. Helen Kara suggests that it’s possible not just to survive a PhD but to enjoy or even love your PhD.

Certainly, that’s been my experience. I’d go as far as to say that my PhD is a love and a privilege. Last year I wrote a guest post for the PhD Talk blog about how passion and purpose drive my PhD. In it, I wrote that ‘I love my thesis’ and that at times I found it joyful. It felt like ‘me time’ in which I could luxuriate in my intellectual passions and development. It was personalised professional learning.

I’ve wondered, is it ok to share my good PhD experience? Does it upset those who have had a hard time or come up against extra obstacles in the PhDverse? Below, I reflect on why my experience has been a positive one, a love affair rather than a war story. It seems to have been partly due to choices I’ve made, and partly due to luck. For me, reading others’ narratives has helped demystify the PhD, so while mine is only one story, it may useful to others. I encourage those with PhD experiences, good and bad, to share their stories, too.

My supervisory relationships, seemingly the subject of much PhD-candidate teeth gnashing, have been positive and without drama. Before enrolling in my research degree I went ‘supervisor shopping’ via email and phone. When considering the responses of university professors, I avoided those professors who seemed interested in controlling my research or ideas, and those who, while willing to take me on, seemed ambivalent about what I was thinking about doing. I found one supervisor who showed generosity, genuine interest in me and my research idea, and seemed to think I was potentially capable of what the degree entailed. Winner! My primary supervisor then helped me to find a complementary secondary supervisor.

So, I did make clear choices in how I went about finding a supervisor, but I have also been lucky that my supervisors have been consistently and equally involved in my PhD work, that they both always come to meetings unless one is away, and that they have been supportive of my ideas, even when those ideas seem a bit on the side of academic crazy. Rather than telling me I can’t do something, they challenge me to provide a rationale or supporting theory. Rather than criticising my work, they push me into a space of nurtured discomfort in which I can struggle into growth. There’s nothing better than the feeling of a PhD break down which turns into a PhD break through!

Choosing a local university rather than one at long distance has turned out to be a good choice for me. I wasn’t sure when I started my degree if I really needed to be in the same city as my supervisors. In fact, at the beginning we used technology such as Skype to hold some meetings, as at times I struggled to get time out from my very small children to get to uni. I remember at least one supervisory meeting at the university during which I had my two kids in a pram. It has turned out to be in face to face meetings where I have made the most progress and gained the most understanding, so I’m glad I chose a local university.

I’ve also chosen to take responsibility for my study and actively manage my PhD. While my supervisors are there to guide me, I figured out pretty quickly that I was the one who needed to not only do the work, but also suggest or set the deadlines, milestones, meeting times, chase up paperwork, and ask clearly for what I needed.

The other choice I made which seems to have worked for me is the topic of my thesis. I chose something do-able and something about which I was passionate. My sometimes obsessive passion for my topic has meant that I am happy to be immersed in it. The do-ability of my project has meant that it’s been a realistic project within the PhD time frame. I didn’t try to wrestle with too much. I have found interesting tangents and managed to put them to one side. For the most part. I had a clear idea for my project going in, which meant I was able to present my research proposal within two months of enrolling. My progress since then has been pretty linear, although I have had some times of particular personal difficulty across my candidature, and peaks and troughs of productivity.

I agree with Helen Kara that self care is a vital part of the PhD. Sometimes you need to give yourself permission to take a break. Sometimes you need a writing retreat. Sometimes you need to say no to study and yes to you.

I have signed up for the Thesis Whisperer’s EdX MOOC, not because I feel I need it to complete my PhD journey, as I’m looking to submit in October, about three years since I began. Rather, it’s because I see that being part of a MOOC community around the PhD experience is, like engaging on Twitter and social media, an antidote to PhD isolation. (Isolation is certainly something I’ve experienced, as a student who is also working almost full time and parenting two young kids. I’m lucky if I have time to get a takeaway coffee when I duck into uni for a supervisory meeting or a quick trip to the library. I haven’t connected with a single other student at my university due to my work schedule.) I also wonder if I might be able to help others at an earlier stage in their PhD journey by being involved in the MOOC.

While I have found the PhD to be hard work, it has been deliciously, brain-bendingly so. I think it has to be if it is to be something which transforms us and the way we think, read and write. Of course, no PhD is without tough times, difficult problems to solve and moments of being overwhelmed. I have had my identity crises, but I have loved my PhD experience thus far, and now I can taste the end! (If you are at the beginning and want to see my thoughts on what to consider when starting your doctoral journey, they are here.)

I wonder if we can associate the following quote with PhD study as well as travel. For me, the PhD has allowed me to both lose and find myself, to reimagine and reinvigorate my learning, and to contribute to global academic conversations. Is your PhD a love affair or a war story?

We travel [research?], initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the world whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and be taken in, and fall in love once more. ~ Pico Iyer