Google maps can’t find ‘My PhD question/argument/plan…’

Some of you may have noticed that I missed a post last week. I was fortunate enough to be in Lancaster last week (not writing a blog post), at the Higher Education Close-Up 7 conference. One of the keynote speakers was Ray Land, one of the authors of the now well-known ‘threshold concepts’ papers (with Jan Meyer). His (and Meyer’s) research on threshold concepts also considers ‘liminality’ and the transformative potential of higher education. The concept of liminality in particular has inspired this post.

Liminal spaces are defined by Land (referencing earlier work by Turner) as precarious spaces, or spaces of uncertainty. You are moving away from one thing and towards another, and the journey is not necessarily always clear. He uses images of tunnels or portals – the former quite an anxious image and the latter a little more hopeful – but both indicating the movement towards the new, be it a new way of thinking, a new horizon, new possibilities.

Meanclochog Tunnel (from

Meanclochog Tunnel (from

Inner Fort at Krak des Chevaliers (from

Inner Fort at Krak des Chevaliers (from

The key thing, connected to work on threshold concepts, is that once you have undertaken the journey and gone down the tunnel or through the portal, you cannot really go back and see what you left behind in the same way again. Once you know something, it is almost impossible to not know again. You are changed – the liminal space and the journeys you take within it changes, transforms you.

The thing about the journey, when one is talking about higher education and in the case of this post, the doctorate, is that it is often a difficult one to make. The liminal space of the PhD, moving in circles and lines and all kinds of directions it seems at times, from not being a doctor to being one, and from not knowing to knowing and so on, demands both ontological and epistemological shifts and these are often challenging, uncomfortable, tricky. But, I think we have to see, even in our most uncomfortable moments, that the very purpose of a doctorate is transformation. You don’t do a PhD to stay the same and just gain a title (well, at least I hope you don’t). You undertake this rigorous, demanding, challenging process to be transformed into a different kind of thinker, writer, academic researcher and/or teacher-practitioner. Change is desirable, but it’s not easy.

The other image Land used in his keynote as a metaphor for a liminal space was a labyrinth or a maze.

The maze at Longleat in the UK - from

The maze at Longleat in the UK (from

I was struck by this in particular, as oftentimes this is what my own PhD journey felt like, especially starting out. There was no clear map, and I so wanted one. My supervisor clearly held herself up as a guide and someone who would help me think and write and read, but who would not tell me what to do. This was often great, but sometimes really frustrating as all I wanted was for her to just tell me what to write so I could write it and know it was right! The thing is, though, certainly when you are doing a full research doctorate, that the struggles to get to the ‘right’ kinds of thinking, reading and writing that will be most productive and generative for your study is where the learning happens. That is the liminal space and that holds the potential for the transformation, growth and change you seek. To be lost in the maze (within reasonable limits, I think) is to be doing the work of transformation.

The thing about mazes or labyrinths is that there is a way out. Often you find it by trial and error, sometimes you have a map of sorts. Most often you find your way out by paying attention to the missteps and the steps in the right directions, so that you can more consciously track your journey and your way out to the other side – to the doctorate being written and awarded, in the case of a PhD student. The thing about liminal spaces, though, is that academia, but its nature, requires you to exchange one maze (for me the PhD) for a new maze (postdoc research and publishing) and then another and another as your career grows. It requires us to stay in liminal spaces where we are never fully settled on an idea or a theory or a problem, but where we are constantly questioning and challenging ourselves, our colleagues, our students, to keep thinking, reading, writing, talking and in the process to to keep harnessing and using the transformative power and potential of what counts for us as powerful knowledge and knowing.

So, even though you may long for a Google Maps kind of supervision/doctoral process where you can plug in your title and get a clear route or two or three to your final destination, that kind of PhD is less likely to bring about the kinds of transformation in your scholarship and in your self that will count not just in academia, but in other parts of your life as well.

Google map (from

Google map (from

Embrace the journey, embrace the liminal spaces – they can often offer far more than they demand from you if you are willing to go there.

What happens when you know your study better than your supervisor does?

This is a tricky post for me to write – it feels risky in a way. I know my supervisor reads this blog, and I don’t want to offend her in any way. But I’m going to take this risk (and I think she would probably agree) because this is an issue that I don’t think we talk about enough, and that can be really challenging for PhD students to deal with when it happens. The issue is what happens when you realise, usually towards the end of the PhD process, that you know your work/study/theory better than your supervisor does. How do you navigate that, and deal with it constructively?

I confronted this challenge when I was working with my supervisor through my first full draft, and then some of the further revisions. Reading through my analysis chapters again, I noticed a few serious errors I had made that she had not picked up. Now, this may be because she skimmed some parts of the chapters and missed the errors (and I picked them up so all was well in the end), but that experience made me wonder: did I know better than she did what I was talking about? Had we reached a point where I needed to rely less on her advice and more on my own knowledge of my study and its parts, like the theory and data? I was not the most confident PhD student – I was plagued, really, by neurotic doubts and panic about my ability to produce a great piece of work. So, getting to a point where I had to rely more on me than on her, a scholar I truly respect and admire, was a bit terrifying. What if I was really wrong? But what if she was also wrong, or didn’t see what I saw because I had read more of the theory or seen more of the data than she had and so had a different and more intimate relationship with my study (which, of course, I did)? This was a serious quandary. Largely as a result of my own scaredy-cat, non-confrontational personality it was a real dilemma because I found that I did not know how to actually talk to my supervisor about this. I was scared of offending her, and I was not yet confident enough to really claim my own strengthening sense of my study and what I was writing about.

I don’t think I would have offended her – I recall her saying at a Doc week seminar around the time I started my doctorate that as student-researchers working on our own research we should get to a point where we know more about it than our supervisors do, and that this is a good thing because it means we are becoming more confident and able researchers, thinkers and writers who will eventually be able to supervise others, write books and papers, etc. I remember thinking that this was a really encouraging thing to say to us, because my vicarious experience of supervision, listening to many of the student-tutors I have worked with in the last few years who have been writing their own doctorates, was quite different. In many of these other supervision relationships (and to be fair I only know the tutors’ side of them), the supervisor seemed less than willing to hand over the power in terms of the knowledge and who holds it. Many of the students I have worked with have found working with their supervisors frustrating, largely because their supervisors don’t seem completely willing to allow the student space to take on the role of more confident knower, or the power in the relationship in terms of making decisions about what to write and what not to and how to present the final argument. In these situations, I wonder if the student finishes the doctorate feeling confident enough to go on and publish, present and build on their work.

In converse situations, I have worked with a few PhD students whose supervisors, like mine, actively encouraged them to own their work, and claim that researcher/knower role. These students presented their work-in-progress at conferences before the end of their PhDs, and co-wrote papers with their supervisors during and after the doctorate. They had a very different experience of their PhDs, and have gone on to have quite successful post-PhD careers thus far, largely because (I think) of the enabling and confidence-building supervisory relationships they were part of. They were encouraged to know their studies as well as, or even better than, their supervisors. They became researchers in their own right towards the end of their PhDs especially, and were not just apprentice students in a lower position to the supervisor in an unequal power relationship.

I am not sure that all students can take ownership of their PhD studies and their new roles as researchers and knowers in their field without encouragement and guidance. Those students who need very little supervision and pretty much do the doctorate regardless may well be able to claim these spaces more easily; but those of us who need the guidance and the advice, who need the feedback and support, also need to be told that it’s okay to know more than our supervisors do about our research by the end. We need to be told that it’s okay and even a good thing, because it means we are ready for the next step where we move out of the student-researcher role into the academic researcher role many of us do the PhD for, and where we can begin to share our research through publishing, presenting and building on what we have discovered. It’s a bit scary to realise that your supervisor has missed things you think they should not have. But rather than freaking out, try to realise that you saw those things and corrected them. You know your work that well. This should be an encouraging, exciting stage to reach, rather than a scary, doubt-full one – and I hope your supervisor will agree. I’m sure mine will :-).

Formal and informal ‘supervision’

I have put supervision in the title of this post in scare-quotes with deliberate caution. I am not implying that supervision during a PhD is not something to be taken seriously, or a questionable part of the process; rather I am signalling that we receive different kinds of help from a range of people during our PhD that I think could count as a kind of supervision – the informal part of the title, and the focus of this post.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to define my own understanding as well as other understandings of research supervision in order to create a reasonable working definition. David Delany, in a very interesting literature review on research supervision, cites many different understandings of how supervision can be understood or defined. Two key themes emerge, though: one is that the field of research supervision is a contested and much-debated discourse; the other is that supervision is definitely about pedagogy, with some writers defining it as a very sophisticated form of teaching, and an excellent space in which to bring teaching or pedagogy and research together. To be sure, research supervision is about building a new generation of young researchers who will push boundaries in their fields and do hopefully excellent research during but most especially beyond their PhDs. But how does a PhD student learn how to be an excellent researcher? And who should/could they be learning from?

Supervision can happen in a range of ways: through written and verbal feedback; through supervisors writing papers with their students; through providing students with illustrative examples of exemplary researchers’ work; through supervisors assisting students to develop conference or seminar presentations at various points of the PhD, showing their students ways in which to talk about their work; through supervisors being tacit examples of ethical and critical research behaviour…. Without going into all the ways in which supervision can work well or not, let’s focus on this working definition, then: research supervision brings together research, teaching and learning through a pedagogic relationship between a student and one or more experienced researchers/teachers who can learn from one another, and where opportunities are created for conversation, guidance,  and growth in especially the student’s capacity for research, writing, thinking and being in their field. I think this probably needs some tweaking, but if we accept that this is a decent-enough way of characterising what supervision could and should be during a PhD, we can see that there are others, apart from our formal and assigned university supervisors, who can offer us forms of informal supervision. My point here is that as PhD students we can draw on a range of these kinds of people and resources, and should, in order to help us progress more successfully and less alone-ly through our studies.

I, for example, was fortunate enough to be part of a research group, and spoke about my research to colleagues abroad and in my PhD programme locally. They were asking similar kinds of questions and using similar conceptual tools, so they were able to be critical friends, and offered me some very helpful advice, pointers and suggestions for ways in which I could think or write differently about parts of my thesis. I spent a lot of time to and from work in the car (about 40 minutes each way) talking to my husband, also an academic, about what I was thinking and writing about, and although he is in a different field entirely, he was able to listen, distill, summarise and feed back to me what I was saying in ways that helped me clarify or further develop and question my thinking. I also chatted a lot to a close friend on Skype during my PhD (also a PhD scholar) who offered both intellectual and emotional support (and eventually proofread my thesis). I read blogs like Patter and The Thesis Whisperer and got a lot of very helpful advice and support from these, especially from Pat Thomson’s posts on Patter. In addition to all of this – which I most definitely characterise as supervision, albeit informal and often ad-hoc – I had a very accessible, helpful formal supervisor, with whom I am hoping to continue working into my post-doc research.

I think I have been both fortunate in the availability and clever in my use of the supervision opportunities I have had. Where you may not have luck on your side in being assigned a good supervisor who understands supervision as a form of pedagogy, you may have to be more clever and resourceful in using other opportunities to get the help, support, guidance that you need. There are so many resources – kinds of informal and ad-hoc ‘supervision’ out there now: blogs by students and supervisors; friends; colleagues; partners; books and journal articles… In the end what I am arguing for you not to confine your definition of supervision to just the relationship, even if very functional and happy, with your formal supervisor/s. Drawing on other valuable, informal kinds of supervision which act as pedagogy and from which you can learn does not undermine that formal relationship; rather, it enhances your whole PhD experience and can make the process less lonely, less fraught and much more about learning, growth and your own scholarly and personal development.

What kinds of informal supervision do you make use of?