The PhD as collaborative work not lone journey

light at the end of the tunnel

light at the end of the tunnel (taken with an iPhone & Olloclip in an old train tunnel)

though the road is rocky / sure feels good to me ~ Bob Marley

Sometimes my PhD has felt like a solitary slog, with long isolated times deep in the subterranean thesis cave. At times of intellectual and emotional struggle, the embers of self-belief and persistence can seem to be dying in the darkness and enormity of the work at hand. The sounds of keystrokes and the scratching of pen on paper echo through seemingly empty caverns. Hands knead and brows furrow in the silence. Fist-pump moments of success swirl in a vortex of separateness. The occasional tweet is sent out as a kind of SOS, with hashtags punctuating the despair or grim solitude; #amwriting #sendhelp #needcoffee #phdchat.

The feeling of isolation is partly why I am so grateful when anyone asks about my PhD. I know that others don’t like being asked about their progress on what is a long process seemingly without an end. But for me, “How’s it going?” becomes an invitation to bring my experiences out from inside my head and make them real through talk. Sharing with someone who seems interested is a relief. I am awash with gratefulness for those who have been willing to hear about my PhD work.

In fact the PhD is not a solo effort, but collaborative, work. It is shaped by personal and supervisory relationships, by reading, by feedback, and by the examination process. As I do my post-examination thesis revisions, I’m aware that the final document, while stamped with my name, only exists in its final form because of the fluid interactions, over years, with others.

I have been influenced by the words and work of scholars (there are 376 references in my reference list at last count). In this way, my work emerges out of, situates itself alongside, or reacts against, the work of others. Research is academic conversation.

I have read the blogged experiences of others and the advice of online academics, which have shaped my understanding of my own experiences. People I know through social media have shown support and engaged me in conversation.

My supervisors have read my work, given feedback, and coached me through challenges. My mum read my work, especially early on, and helped me to talk about and think through my ideas. My research proposal panel provided advice and feedback on the direction I intended to take. Editors and peer reviewers, from journals and conferences, have commented on the ways in which I have shared my doctoral work through the writing of academic papers. Conference goers have listened to me present and engaged me in conversation about my work, or asked questions which have helped me think it through. My examiners have provided feedback to which I am currently responding.

So whose work is the PhD? Mine, all mine? Not really. The words are those I have written but on which others have made comment. The sweat and tears on the page are mine, but informed and supported by the words and actions of others. A PhD thesis is indelibly shaped by webs of influence. As Pat Thomson points out, the PhD is not a wholly individualistic journey, but a social and relational one. Even a political one. Whose is the responsibility for a candidate’s progress, success or failure, and the quality of the final thesis?

As I finish up my post-examination amendments, I’m aware that the text I’m presenting to the world is what it is because of the messy web of influences on me, my work and my writing. The one page of acknowledgements seems to be hardly enough to communicate the social networked nature of a dissertation.