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.

Doctoral examination limbo: Frozen in PhD carbonite

So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ~ Stephen King, On writing: A memoir of the craft

The irony isn’t lost on me that, the same month I set a blog writing challenge for PhD and other research students (and others in the academic pre- and post- doctoral world), I am struggling to find content for a PhD-related blog post. So, following Stephen King’s above-quoted advice from his excellent On writing: A memoir of the craft, I’ll write about ‘anything I damn well want’; or perhaps just anything that comes into my head as I type. This follows Pat Thomson’s technique (which she also attributes to Ray Bradbury) of writing with a blank screen and a few selected words which spark associations. Pat says it’s ‘writing fast’ or ‘running writing’ rather than ‘free writing’, but I’ll call my approach free writing here, because that’s what it feels like to me. Screen. Keypad. Words. Let them form as they will, then revisit and see what’s been made.

Part of the reason I’m finding a PhD-related post difficult is that I am currently in examination limbo. I’ve submitted the thesis and it’s been posted to three examiners, so now comes a wait of two to six months.

In this limbo period, I’ve got some papers to revise and to write, and I have work, parenting and life which go on. And thank goodness! Inger Mewburn, Thesis Whisperer, has likened completing the doctorate to running off a cliff. I can certainly relate to that, in a Road Runner cartoon kind of a way. My little animated PhD legs are still sprinting even though the thesis is submitted and I’ve run off the edge. Suspended in mid-air, legs madly cycling, I’m grateful to have work to keep me busy, purposeful and grounded.

selfie scribble

selfie scribble

Meanwhile, today as part of the #aussieED Twitter chat, we were asked to ‘sketch note’ an introduction to ourselves. I have declared my love of notebooks in previous posts about my flânerial packing list and on my pre-professional-fellowship art journalling. So I sat with my kids and scribbled some bits and pieces, watching them join together. The interesting thing about the process of thinking-while-scribbling is that thoughts and ideas emerge, seemingly through the very process of the pen scratching across the paper. Before beginning, I hadn’t mapped out what I was going to include. Much like this blog post, which is free-written, I was free-drawing. I surrendered to the moment and watched what emerged. If I did the same exercise tomorrow, or in a week, or a year, I’m sure the result would be very different (there’s a time-lapse video idea!).

And how about free-talking? I am connected with educators and doctoral students on Voxer, and I sometimes find myself using that walkie-talkie app as a useful ‘think aloud’ tool. I find that if I press the ‘transmit’ button and start talking, I don’t know what I’ll say until I’m saying it (sorry VoxSquad for the occasional ramblings). The act of talking aloud helps me to surface my thinking.

What can we learn about ourselves, what internal thoughts can we surface or capture, through the acts of writing, drawing, or talking aloud?

Here I am, in limbo between PhD submission and PhD completion, frozen in carbonite as an almost-Dr (yes – I’m anticipating The Force Awakens and am reminiscing about my favourite Star Wars moments, like Han Solo being unfrozen from carbonite). I’m wondering what might come next. Continuing to work in my current job, at my current school, business as usual? Considering what kind of role might be possible in my present context? Starting at the bottom of the pile, after a 15 year career as teacher and school leader, by dipping my toe in the academe? Heading down a consulting or alternate/indie academic pathway?

I know my current thinking, but I’m open to being carried in other directions. Free-writing, free-drawing and free-talking open up possibilities, so why not free-professional-decision-making? Lay out the materials and see what surfaces.

* This post is for the #HDRblog15 challenge. Join me to blog all things higher-degree-by-research this November!

my PhD notebook stack <3

my PhD notebook stack ❤

The Research Student Blog Challenge – #HDRblog15 – November 2015

Get involved! Let's learn together with #HDRblog15

Get involved! Let’s learn together with #HDRblog15.

Writing begets writing. Somehow, the more I write the more I write. The more I think about writing, write about thinking about writing, and write about writing, the more I write. For me, tweeting, blogging and academic writing are all writing practices, ways of thinking and writing my way to understanding. They are also ways of connecting with others. Being part of research conversation and blog conversation and Twitter conversation. Telling stories. Sharing stories. Learning from others’ stories.

There are blogs which host posts by research students such as the Thesis Whisperer and PhD Talk. There are active and dormant blogs by research students which can be hard to find in the heaving mass of the blogosphere. And some research students might wonder about what blogging could offer them, but not have the impetus to start.

I’m currently taking part in the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC (massive online course) which has expanded my network of scholars, fellow researchers and fellow writers. The course, especially through its discussion forums, #survivephd15 Twitter hashtag and Periscope live chats, has shown how much a community of past and present research students, and supervisors, can gain from engaging with each other.

I am keen to build on the momentum of this course, and on the wonderful and generous scholarly Twitteratti, with an initiative that will share the stories of research students who are juggling life and supervision with writing dissertations, theses and journal articles. My answer? The #HDRblog15 blogging challenge. I’ve called it the HDR (higher degree by research) challenge as I’d like any research students (PhD, professional doctorate, Masters), and those involved with research students, to feel welcome to join in.

The challenge will be held during the month of November 2015. Its purpose is to encourage past or present higher degree by research students, supervisors, or those interested in pursuing a higher degree by research, to connect, communicate and share resources and experiences.

The challenge involves writing at least one blog post (you might write more!) and commenting on at least one other blog post in order to develop conversation and community.

If you are new to blogging, the first step would be to set up a blog. I use wordpress.com, which is very user friendly, quick to set up and easy to manage.

Ideas for your blog post/s might include the following.

  • Sharing a celebration from or positive spin on your experience of being a research student.
  • Exploring a question you have.
  • Illuminating a challenge you have faced in your HDR journey, and how you approached or conquered it.
  • Sharing a tip or technology.
  • Exploring a metaphor for where you are in your HDR/PhD/Masters journey.
  • Explaining a strategy you have for coping with the demands of a research degree.
  • Using an image, animated gif or video as inspiration. Just make sure that, if it’s not one of your own, you attribute it to the site or person from which you got it.

So, the steps for participating in this challenge are as follows.

Step 1: Fill in your name and blog url here in this Google doc.

Step 2: Write and publish your blog post.

Step 3: Share your post in the Google doc and on the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC discussion board, if you are enrolled (but any research students, past research students, or supervisors of research students, or people interested in becoming a research student, are more than welcome!). Tweet your blog out using the #HDRblog15 hashtag. To extend your reach, you might also like to use other hashtags like #survivephd15, #phdchat, #acwri (academic writing), and #ecrchat (early career researcher chat).

Step 4: Keep an eye on the #HDRblog15 hashtag on Twitter and the Google doc to read others’ contributions as they arise.

Step 5: Comment on at least one other post.

If you’re new to blogging, remember that reading on the web, including on a mobile device, necessitates information being presented in a way that is engaging and easy to process. This means a ‘hook’ to draw your reader in, a catchy beginning to grab the reader’s attention and short paragraphs readable on small screens and on the go.

I find 800ish words is best; it’s meaty enough to explore a topic, but short enough to be readable in one sitting. I find if a blog post pushes over 1000 words, it’s getting too long and I try to think about how I can parameterise it to reign it in, or split it up.

Visualise your audience when you are writing, to help you personalise the content and lead decisions about language, style, voice and approach. Are you writing for others in your industry? Other research students? Future employers? As a record of your own thinking for yourself?

Blogging allows us to connect with others and develop ourselves. Your blog can be a free writing space where your persona can be unrestrained and experimental. I look forward to reading your contributions!


* This post is in response to the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC 2015 ‘final activity’.

* If you are a PhD student who blogs, take the time to complete this research survey for Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson on why and how you blog.