PhD: The gift that keeps on giving

my bespoke graduation shoes

my bespoke graduation shoes

I submitted the PhD last October. I finished my corrections in March. My doctorate was conferred in April. I wrote blog posts about completion: how it felt, struggling with my doctorness, what happens in Australian PhD examination.

So it should feel long ago done-and-dusted by now, right? I should have nothing left to say about the PhD.

Yet I still have PhD reflections and I feel as thought I am still having PhD experiences. I’ve remained in a doctoral Voxer group because the after-the-PhD bit still feels like part of the PhD journey. I continue to blog about the PhD as I am still reflecting on its processes, products and outcomes, some of which emerge overtime.

Here are some of the ways that the PhD keeps on giving …

Academic writing

The wonderful thing about completing the thesis and having it passed is that it frees you up to write more tightly-woven pieces from your PhD literature, method, data and findings. Pat Thomson has recently written a very useful post on how to find journal articles in and from the doctoral thesis. You can look for interesting pieces relevant to particular journals, new ways of looking at your data, specific fields in which your work has something to add. This bit—in which you realise that your work has something to offer scholarly conversations and that you can create new offshoots of writing so that it to be heard in appropriate fields—is empowering and even fun. I’m even becoming better at seeing peer review as a growth process in which I am privileged to participate, rather than an ordeal to be endured.

The three solo-authored peer-reviewed journal articles I’ve had published (or accepted for publication) so far include one on coaching as a professional learning intervention, one around the use of literary metaphor as method in academic writing and one on my findings around professional learning (in press). I have a co-authored paper on method that is under review. I have an ethics paper I’m working on with my supervisors. I have a book chapter in preparation which re-considers my school leader data through a new lens, in a previously unfamiliar field. I have more ideas about what bits and pieces of my thesis might have to offer before I retire it. The more I read and write, the more possibilities I see for reporting on or re-seeing my PhD work.

Acknowledgements

I’ve been told that my PhD adds credibility to my voice when I present and to the work that I do. My thesis has been downloaded from the university website over 250 times since it was uploaded in March. I’m not sure where this number sits in terms of metrics for dissertations, but it does suggest that my thesis is being read (or at least filed away with the intention of reading it).

I’ve been acknowledged via the 2016 ACEL New Voice in educational Research scholarship, which I’ll be receiving in Melbourne in September. My thesis has also been nominated for the Outstanding Research Award in Cognitive Coaching.

Formal recognition of the completed work of the PhD remind me of its worth. Informal feedback, too, in which scholars or PhD candidates get in touch with me to let me know how my work has been influential for them, is also thrilling.

Graduation and the floppy hat

While I’ve been conferred my doctorate and therefore can call myself ‘doctor’, my actual graduation ceremony isn’t until next month.

This is when I get to go up on stage to receive my printed degree. I didn’t attend graduation for my undergraduate degree, but for the PhD I feel like I need this rite of passage, this moment of celebration. To embrace the pomp and find closure in the ceremony. It’s somehow not enough to get the piece of paper delivered to my letterbox.

Unlike Finnish Doctors of Philosphy, who get to wear a top hat and sword as part of their regalia, I get to don a gown, a red-satin-lined hood and the black velvet Tudor bonnet (aka the floppy hat). While I joke that I’ll be wearing my doctoral headgear to the Spring Racing Carnival (Melbourne Cup Day, here I come!), it’s likely that I’ll get more wear out of my graduation shoes, which I designed for the occasion (via Shoes of Prey). After tweeting the above photograph of my shoes, Hilary Davidson pointed me towards her great article on shoes as magical objects, the perfect symbol of PhD power, transformation and completion.

Continuing my research

While my choice has been to continue to work in my school (rather than, for instance, pursuing an alternate career in academia), I’ve also been recently appointed into an honorary research associate role at my university, which allows me to continue to read, research and write in academia after graduation. So I continue to bestride the worlds of practitioner and scholar. Each world, each role and each project informs the others and shapes me.

*                                  *                                  *

So the PhD is done-but-ongoing.

I’m still pursuing doing good work with good people. I’m still thinking, writing and researching around my PhD, although in many ways I can feel myself moving on from it and away from it. The bound thesis is like a frozen snapshot, capturing a moment in time. So, too, each academic paper. As I grow as a scholar, an educator and a writer, I feel freed to frame my PhD data in new ways and to apply alternate theoretical lenses.

Like a pair of shiny red shoes, the finishing of a PhD is both end and beginning. Designed, created and seductively new. Ready to be enjoyed until worn-out, grown-out-of or kicked to the back of the wardrobe. While in many ways I feel that I’m moving away from the PhD, it also continues beyond its end, a shoe that continues to fit and bring joy. For now.

Ecosystems of work, study and relationships

Eduardo Kobra's Chelsea mural, photographed from the High Line in NYC in 2014

Eduardo Kobra’s Chelsea mural, photographed from the High Line in NYC in 2014. Because: relationships. And New York.

How do you do all the things?

I’ve made the conscious decision to be there for my kids while they’re little.

My husband is actually great. He makes the kids’ lunches on Fridays.

I can’t go for that promotion. I’m planning to get pregnant / I’d have to put my kids in after school and vacation care / My husband works full time.

I wish I had the support you do.

How does your husband cope when you’re away? Poor guy!

It’s not the role I wanted but I’m so lucky my work has allowed me to come back part-time after having children.

Wow, you’re amazing!

These are some of the comments that I’ve heard said to myself, to other women or by other women. Meanwhile, my husband has had comments directed his way such as:

How do you cope when your wife is away?

How did you manage while your wife did her PhD?

I bet you haven’t eaten a good meal in months.

Do you get your wife back now?

So it’s Daddy Daycare today?

Wow, you’re amazing!

There seem to be assumptions at work about both the nature of the PhD and the gendered nature of work, study and home. In this recent vlog, Professors Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead talk about the relational aspects of the PhD experience. Tara talks about the online blogerature that links doing a PhD to divorce or relationship problems. I wonder why that is.

Maybe it’s because the PhD can feel like a lonely experience. It is a hard but wonderful slog that happens inside the head and on the keyboard of the candidate. It must be difficult for a partner or family member to understand what is actually happening for the person conducting research. Conversely, the PhD takes the candidate away from their partner or family or friends while they thrash about with their research and their thesis beast. I imagine that relationships can suffer and people in the candidate’s life can feel abandoned, left to their own brand of loneliness while the candidate furrows their brow in seemingly indulgent internal struggle, disappearing into inner worlds, or like I did, off to cafes to think and write.

The PhD also happens over a long time. Years. Sometimes three years and often longer. Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years in some cases. And one thing that is guaranteed across such a project is that life will happen. And get in the way. Inevitably, challenges will arise outside of the PhD, whether that be around health or finances or children or career or loss. In my three year candidature, I had some very tough personal times that had an impact on work and study, and on me personally. Life events can put a strain on our delicate ecosystems in which all our commitments interact.

I like Tara and Steve’s approach of supervising the PhD candidate’s whole life, including their web of relationships like partners and children. It takes a holistic view of the PhD, framing it as a collaborative work, rather than a lone journey.

Gender also seems to play a part in common comments about study, work, and their impacts on relationships. Why the frequent assumption that when a husband goes away, wheeling his case out the door with reckless abandon, all is as it should be, while when a wife goes away, she must fill the fridge and freezer with nutritious groceries and organic meals, pre-organise all child care arrangements and tape her itinerary and a list of important phone numbers to her husband’s forehead? Why the oft-joked-about assumption that a husband would struggle to run his own household or look after his own children? My husband and kids have a great time whenever I travel. Granted, they eat more chips and play more iPad than when I’m at home, but I am waved off and welcomed back by smiling faces, just the same as my husband when he goes away.

There are some who have fun with gender assumptions. On Twitter, the @manwhohasitall account makes fun of gendered comments often directed at women, by re-framing them for a male audience. This article on how to avoid a ‘manel’ (all male panel) gives some of the excuses used to exclude women from presenting and paneling.

Jacqueline Lunn here talks about the culture of women feeling grateful for part time work. I can certainly relate to the notion of being appreciative of being allowed flexibility in my workplace, rather than advocating for my bigger dreams, especially when I first returned to work from each of my maternity leaves. 

But I also acknowledge that working part time was a choice. I deliberately sought the time and flexibility that would allow me to do good work while being a good parent. I couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, have accepted an amazing full time position while my children were pre-school age as I wanted to avoid using before, after school and vacation care if possible. I’m also well aware that my choices are highly personal and privileged. They have only been possible because of the support available to me, in the form of my mum, my husband, friends and bosses. That my husband runs his own business has meant that he has the kind of flexibility not often offered to men in the workplace. Why so few cries for men to ‘Lean out!’ of the workplace for a more balanced life and enriched relationships with partners, family and children?

The choices my husband and I have made are far from perfect; that is, they’ve involved compromise and prioritising. But they are what has worked for us at various times. They have been fluid and shifting choices, as situations evolved. 

Our individual and collective ecosystems of relationships, work and study are delicate and mercurial. My hope is that individuals, partners and families are increasingly able to make the choices that work for them at any given time, without being bombarded with judgement or assumptions from others or media.