reflecting on your PhD: understanding the disorientating dilemma

A couple of weeks ago I designed and delivered a workshop for University of Birmingham first year doctoral researchers, as part of an excellent event run by the College of Arts & Law Graduate School called Reflecting on your PhD progress. Not all the Birmingham researchers were able to join us in person, so this blog is designed to help anyone doing their thinking in their own time to benefit from the workshop and the discussions it generated.

I jumped at the chance to work with Birmingham on this project because I really feel that encouraging PhD researchers to stop and take stock of how things are going at the 4-month point is a great way to make sense of the early transition process. It’s also a great chance to reiterate messages that were offered to you as new researchers at the point of induction — but at such an early stage were very theoretical. Now you have some sense of PhD life, these ideas will be more useful to you.

My session was designed as a discussion-based workshop —using peer conversations as ‘Reflective Discourse’ to enable researchers to compare their early experiences and make sense of the ‘Disorientating Dilemma’ that is entering into doctoral study. My role was to bring some of the literature on doctoral progress into the classroom, enabling a more ‘Critical Reflection’. For an explanation of these terms in a learning context, please see Jack Mezirow’s work on Transformative Learning which helps me frame my approach to researcher education.

An important part of transformative learning is that individuals should be supported to change their existing frames of reference on how they learn best, and how the world works, by critically reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs and consciously making and implementing plans that bring about new ways of defining their worlds. It’s not just about learning how to do the academic work, and the right cognitive thought processes. We need to acknowledge that PhD learning is also determined by expectations for and attitudes to learning, and the relationships that support this re-thinking. To translate — we need to help our researchers to figure things out by talking to each other. For more on how peer-conversations can support transformative learning see e.g. Preston et al, 2014.

The modern doctorate can be phenomenally disorientating. We are seeing a rise in student uncertainty about the demands and requirement for a successful PhD, and more widespread student anxiety, stress, and exhaustion (see this blog post by Soren Bengtsen for more on this).  Within the jigsaw of tensions you as new researchers face (see image below), two things that need figuring out as a matter of urgency for every student are: how/when to approach writing toward the thesis; and, how to understand and utilise the supervisory relationship to good effect. These are two weighty parts of the PhD experience, and important priorities that should be paid attention to.

I have written here on proactive thesis writing. And here on the same topic for PhD supervisors. Jerry Wellington and I also published this book in 2017, dedicated to helping you navigating your way through thesis writing. Here is a set of planning tools for coaching (and coaxing) yourself through this planning.

Figure 1.png

We got started in our discussions by comparing real experiences in the room, to the headlines from the literature-base on doctoral development and the role of the supervisor.  I encourage you take a few minutes over your coffee break today, or while travelling home, to think about the key messages from these scholarly headlines, and think through the four questions for yourself:

Figure 2.png

The PhD researchers in the room shared their thoughts in small group discussions, the themes of which I have collated below — shared with their consent. First the things that new PhD researchers were finding enjoyable at the 4-month stage:

  • Getting deeply involved in a topic you really care about.
  • Your research question is a question you’re excited to know the answer to.
  • Engaging as a researcher in the research community, mixing with scholarly others.
  • The flexibility in the working patterns.
  • No exams!
  • Being asked for writing on certain topics to help develop writing and find your own style and voice.
  • The thrill of turning abstract information in to knowledge that you can utilise.
  • The opportunity to meet lots of new people from all over the world.
  • The privilege of time to read deeply and integrate different ideas and opinions.

And then the (much longer and more emotionally driven) discussion, the things new PhD researchers were finding hard or disappointing. I am sure, from my experiences working with PhD researchers, that these will seem familiar to students across the globe, not just in Birmingham.

  • Getting a sense of how to do realistic long term planning, managing time and juggling tasks.
  • Moving topic areas for the PhD, getting to grips with new theories and literatures.
  • Expecting some signposts or starting points for reading, but being told to ‘find out for yourself’. The perception that supervisors are withholding information, rather than treating you as a colleague.
  • Adequate quiet work space, large shared offices and feeling that university shared study spaces are very ‘undergrad orientated’.
  • Isolation, not really met many people in the dept. — have not been introduced to other people by supervisors.
  • Low numbers of other PhD students in the dept.
  • No induction into departmental life.
  • Lack of support for moving to the UK with a family.
  • Understanding the big goals — how do I know I’m being ‘original’? How much data is needed for a PhD? What are the marking criteria a thesis will be subjected to? What does a ‘good’ thesis look like? What are the parameters for Critical Thinking?

So what approaches can you take to navigate your way though these questions and challenges? Prof. Lynne McAlpine and colleagues have written extensively on the benefits to PhD (and post-doc) researchers to proactively and intentionally seek to gain awareness of the systems and processes that govern their research work. Doing this, being ‘agentive’ (having agency), and seeking to gather information and take up opportunities, is how we develop our researcher identity. The essential point of doing this exercise was to help those in the workshop (and you reading at your computers) to figure out ways to make those unknowns known — maybe there are conversations you need to have with supervisors? With your PhD peers? With wider colleagues and supporters? In workshops or other PhD training? With university administrators?

Some ideas from the workshop on how to be agentive in your PhD, are below.

Figure 3.png

Some more ideas from my experience of working with PhD researchers who are further into their studies are below. When I ask researchers near the end of their PhD what they wish they’d know at the start — this is what they tend to say. In the workshop we discussed these in pairs — each person deciding which was most relevant to them. Perhaps you have other PhD students in your department you can have this discussion with, evaluating what you know, and what you need to find out?

Figure 4.png

I hope this post has given you a chance to pause and think about how things are going for you. As always, your feedback and suggestions are welcome in the comments.

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