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, 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.

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.

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