The neverending story of the PhD

Rhymes that keep their secrets / Will unfold behind the clouds / And there upon the rainbow / Is the answer to a neverending story ~ Lyrics to ‘Neverending Story’ by Limahl. Watch the song here:

Bastian atop Falkor; just like PhD-finishing triumph Source:

Bastian atop Falkor the luckdragon in the film; just like PhD-finishing triumph

Children of the 80s like myself will remember The Neverending Story, a quest narrative in which the protagonist escapes into a fantastical world through the pages of a magical book. What started as a 1979 German fantasy novel by Michael Ende became a 1984 film directed by Wolfgang Peterson with a deliciously-80s theme song by Limahl. When I’ve been asked what the song of my PhD would be, I often answer ‘The Neverending Story’ as it just goes on and on!

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the seeming neverendingness of the PhD. I’ve had people in life and on Twitter congratulating me on the completion of my PhD … despite the fact I have not submitted! I think it is because I announced with glee that I had finished my full thesis draft in July. People seem to think that I surely MUST be done by now.

But no.

While the first full draft means that all the chapters are written, it does not mean that the document is (anywhere near) finished. There are some great online resources to help doctoral students with long and laborious revision and editing. Pat Thomson talks about the process of revision, as opposed to editing. Rachel Cayley’s great piece outlines the stages and layers of editing. Katherine Firth’s post on editing gives thorough and accessible strategies. And Tara Brabazon penned this Times Higher Education article which includes ten editing cycles, including ‘read every sentence underlined with a ruler’ (I have tried this). A finished first draft is 3-6 months from a finished final draft.

I kicked off my full-draft revision with a writing retreat, in which I spent about two full days and nights on the first 40 pages. This wasn’t editing. It was Frankensteinesque dismemberment and radical textual surgery, as Pat Thomson puts it. After making it through my first lot of revisions, I talked about my willingness to chop chop chop, to improve the text’s argument by streamlining it closer to its essence. I have now managed to cut what was a 110,000 word draft to 95,000 words. And the text is stronger for it, reflecting Katherine Firth’s comments on the pruning required of verbose texts:

Like a haircut when your tresses are damaged, or like a diseased rose bush, cutting a lot of stuff off can give the rest of your work a space to breathe, and promote healthy growth for that last little bit.

But still, I didn’t think that I’d be making such big changes this close to the end of the game. Just when I think I’m an Oxford comma away from being done, a new ‘a-ha’ moment or a feedback curveball comes my way.

Last week I met with my secondary supervisor who posed a question about a ten-page section of my literature review: How did it fit with the threads of argument in my thesis? On reflection, I realised that this ten pages was relevant but not central. It was something I had been strongly driven by at the beginning of my PhD, but which had become a distraction from my main argument. I was so close to the document that I hadn’t been able to question it in this way. I was attached to something that had been in my thesis from the beginning, but which no longer fit. Luckily, I was attached but not precious about this section, so when its inclusion was interrogated, I was able to say, “Ok, maybe this doesn’t fit. I’ll try lifting it out and see how it works.” I’ve cut the offending section and pasted it into another document, with the intention of reworking the material into a paper. A little of the material I’ve added into my rationale and context sections, in very small bits. The literature review now feels stronger, punchier, less bogged down, leaving the main threads of my argument to breathe.

With less than a month to go, on and on I go. Read, revise, edit, proof, receive feedback, add literature (I can’t stop myself from reading!), apply feedback, read again.

Yet despite what can feel like the dizzying highs, terrifying lows, almost-finisheds and never-finisheds of the PhD, the doctoral experience is a great example of what good learning can look like. The candidate gets to work on a project of personal passion and importance. They are invested in the work and own its purpose. They work over a long period of time, getting (hopefully) regular feedback from their Falkor-luckdragonesque supervisors which (hopefully) helps them to develop their research and writing into the best it can be within PhD parameters.

Even at submission my PhD story won’t end. Then it will be waiting for three examiners’ reports, making corrections, resubmitting. It’s a long road to ‘Dr Deb’. It’s “the neverending storrrrr-yyyyyyy! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahhhhhh!” It’s not over yet!

Recipe of a good reference list: Ingredients for PhD success

The doctoral researcher invites to the table the scholars she would like to join her for a conversation over the evening meal. … As host to this party, she makes space for the guests to talk about their work, but in relation to her own work. ~ Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision

Who's coming to dinner? by @debsnet

Who’s coming to dinner?

The reference list of a doctoral thesis is the summary of years of reading and developing ways to critically and respectfully talk about reading in an academic voice. It’s also a list of the ingredients of the thesis, of what was collected and selected from which to create our work.

With over 300 references, my PhD thesis reference list runs to 19 pages and almost 8000 words. As I (check and check and check and) consider that list, I ponder what makes a ‘good’ reference list.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, in their book Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision, talk about using literatures to ‘establish the territory’ or ‘assemble the dinner party guests’. In their dinner party metaphor, which they attribute originally to John Smyth, they discuss the choosing of what literature to include as hosting a dinner party, in which the thesis writer invites to the table those scholars with which their work engages. This gets the candidate to think about what academic conversation/s their thesis inserts itself into, and with which scholarly groups they belong.

I have also read and heard that examiners sometimes read the thesis from the back (urban PhD legend or real deal?). That is, they flick straight to the references, then perhaps to the introduction, the conclusion, then … the findings? Who knows?

Tara Brabazon, for instance, in her 2010 article in the Times, writes:

Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.

The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located. …

If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.

If my reference list was the first thing my examiners looked at I wonder what they would be looking for or what they might think. If I’m being judged on the calibre of my sources, I wonder how my reference list reflects the quality of my scholarship.

I wonder about the ratio of old and new references. My list includes some of the godfathers and matriarchs of the areas of my research; the early works. But when it comes to texts cited from the 1990s, will the reader be wondering why I’m citing not-foundational-but-not-recent texts? Do these texts help to show that I know the field or do they call the relevancy of my list into question? I have also included recent references, including a number published this year. I’m hoping that this shows that my work draws on the very newest thinking in my field. So, I’m hopeful that this combination of old/foundational, middle (some of which are seminal texts for their field), and brand-spanking-new will create a portrait of literatures well canvassed. As Pat Thomson notes in this blog post, examiners know the field, and so will know ‘the originals’. It’s the doctoral candidate’s job to show that they know where their field came from, as well as where it is now.

I have also been thinking about the kinds of texts expected to make up the doctoral reference list. My Voxer doctoral group has thrown up the question about whether blogs and social media can be included in the reference list of a dissertation. My own understanding is that they can be – each style has guidelines for how to cite blog posts and tweets – but that the accepted norm is that a reference list is made up of academic texts, articles from peer-reviewed journals, a few doctoral dissertations and some reports from large organisations. The doctoral dissertations give me hope that mine may get cited on day too! While I’ve seen blogs and tweets used as data, I don’t see them as being considered appropriate references in most PhD theses, unless that medium is central to the field. I haven’t cited any in my own thesis.

Both Pat Thomson and Tara Brabazon mentioned the perils of sloppy or lazy scholarship, which can be revealed through an inaccurate or incomplete (according to the reader) reference list. How is the candidate to know what is enough and when is enough? I am in my final revisions, planning to submit within a month, and still I am reading and inserting citations and references! A recent post on the Thesis Whisperer blog talked about academic FOMO (fear of missing out). I have reading FOMO: the overwhelming fear that if I don’t keep reading, I will miss a seminal paper or a text of importance to my work. And as my thesis uses a bricolaged methodology (different traditions woven together), as well as three phenomena, plus some important contextual factors, there’s plenty to know and plenty to read.

So how, to use Kamler and Thomson’s metaphor, do I know when I’ve invited enough people to my dinner party? Or if they are the right guests?

I found that I started relaxing about the scope of my reference list when I began seeing the same names appearing and reappearing in the texts I was reading. ‘Oh yes,’ I could finally say, ‘I’m familiar with the key names cited here; reading this hasn’t led me to hunt down ten new references.’ But I’m pretty sure I’ll know that the reference-list-litmus-test will only be finished when I press ‘print’ on the final copy.

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

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