Making it in academia: holding the tension between vulnerability and imperviousness

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.*

I was reading a piece on Medium last week about the mysteries of packaging and writing academic job applications, especially for scholars from contexts very different from those they are applying into. In amongst all of the very true and useful points in the piece, I was struck by one sentence that has stayed with me: “Making yourself vulnerable to critique is a central part of academic life”. Vulnerable. That’s a scary word for many people. Especially, if you have had experiences of making yourself so and feeling trampled on by harsh feedback, neglect or even overt unkindness. Academia is not the same boat for everyone; it may be the same sea but there are many different boats and also different kinds and sizes of crews that we are sailing with. For some, being vulnerable is much more scary than it is for others and I think that needs to be recognised and talked about. In many cases, we may feel that we need to rather be impervious, invest our energies in developing that thick skin people are always telling us is vital to survive in an academic career.

This has got me thinking about all the ways in which academics are made vulnerable or have to make themselves vulnerable and what happens when they do. What do we do about the tensions and contradictions inherent in all these processes and acts that ask us to be vulnerable but at the same time tell us to pull it together, be tough, be impervious to the feelings of hurt, frustration and sadness that the different forms of feedback can cause? Can we make this act of making ourselves vulnerable less scary for those already in more precarious positions, like early career researchers, casual staff, women, scholars in minority groups on campus?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the main ways we are asked to, and have to make ourselves vulnerable is through asking for and getting critique, as suggested in the quotation. We write thesis chapters for supervisors and a final thesis for examiners, we write papers for journal editors and reviewers, we stand up in front of peers at conferences (or sit down at our screens in front of peers, these days). We also, if we are teaching academics, have to ask students and sometimes peers to evaluate our teaching, our course materials, our knowledge of what we are teaching. We may also write funding applications for committees internal and external to the university. We apply for jobs and submit ourselves to committees of strangers for evaluation. There are many ways, then, in which we are made to be vulnerable, open to rejection, to criticism and judgement, to both kind and unkind feedback responses.

But, we are also told that, at the same time as we have to make ourselves vulnerable and open in so many ways and to people we know and do not know – often people relatively more powerful than we are – we must be tough, impervious to being hurt and feeling rejected and sad. We need to have a thick skin and be resilient, make peace with rejection and head back out again to ask for more critique, feedback and possibly more rejection. Over and over this seems to be the cycle. I ask for feedback, it’s not good, the paper needs more work, the grant or the job is going to someone else, the opportunity is lost. And instead of wallowing and feeling sad and sorry for myself, I have to pick myself up, be philosophical about the whole thing (Ah, academia, such is the life), and move forward as if I’m not all that bothered. This imperviousness makes me seem successful and strong; it may even be admired, especially if I don’t share my failures or feelings openly.

But I am bothered, and not just for myself. I am bothered for the casual staff for whom one bad course evaluation or loudly unhappy student can mean no more contracts. I am bothered for the early career scholar for whom one harsh and unhelpful peer review can mean giving up on a paper that could be useful for readers in their field. I am bothered for all the postgraduate students studying outside of their more familiar ‘home’ contexts and feeling misunderstood, misheard, misrecognised by homogenous systems that reward conformity in various ways. I am bothered for non-mother tongue writers of English for whom not-so-subtle comments about needing to have an English speaker ‘fix’ their paper may mean feeling pushed aside or put down by an institution that finds many ways to create us and them groups, insiders and outsiders. I am bothered for every academic who is asked, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to conform to an elusive way of being, speaking, reading, writing, dressing that somehow marks out belonging and not-belonging in academia. And more and more in this cycle it is the individuals doing this difficult emotional labour who are asked to shoulder the responsibility for responding “appropriately” to this system. Individuals who have relatively less power to set the rules or change the state of play. Don’t cry when your supervisor is unnecessarily cutting in a meeting or in their written feedback. Crying is not appropriate. Don’t talk back to peer reviewers or journal editors who use their power to break down instead of building up or helping. That’s disrespectful. The unequal ways in which the system itself works thereby become normalised and when individuals or groups break with this system to try and push back, ask for more or different or better, they are the ones who are the problem, rather than this system itself.

Photo by Gladson Xavier on Pexels.com

I think this makes for a pretty unfair and biased game, myself. It’s becomes quite clear, over time, that academia is not a game created by everyone, for everyone. It’s a game that a few people created for themselves and a few select others a long time ago, and while they have over the years allowed others to join in, they have been pretty slow in sharing all the rules and sharing the field. Even more so in being open to making real and meaningful changes to the rules so that the game isn’t quite so uneven, opaque and frustrating for so many people to play.

There are very big changes that need to be made – many of these beyond ordinary people like you and me, perhaps – at the levels of funding policy and allocations, challenging biased ranking systems, creating more just policy and governance environments and practices. But there are smaller, meaningful changes we can start making, us ordinary folk. One clear change is in how and how often we give feedback and to whom we offer it. I have seen several Twitter threads about grant applications that take so much time and work and when they are rejected have no feedback attached that can help applicants be more successful next time. Perhaps that’s a starting point: offer some feedback on unsuccessful grant and job applications on issues that can be worked on, like how the project is framed, the extent to which the criteria were and were not met, writing style & jargon use, etc. Even a few clear lines can make a big difference to the applicant and their chances (and confidence) on the next try. Another change is peer review and how editors manage this process. I see far too many threads on social media about unkind peer review and editors just letting the unkindness happen. As an editor myself I know we have the agency and the knowledge to both encourage and guide better peer review and to mediate (or even choose not to share) poor, unhelpful and even spiteful reviews.

These may seem like too-small changes, but they may begin to make a meaningful impact if we commit, more collectively, to two things, at least. The first is to commit to creating openings for new voices, new scholars, different knowledges, different bodies, rather than making efforts to diversify seem more cosmetic than truly transformative. But to do this, we need to make a second simultaneous commitment: we need to look long and hard at what we make legitimate and reward or reproduce – what knowledges, what ways of being, speaking, writing and acting, what bodies and histories, whose stories. And then we need to start thinking about how we use critique to punish some forms of vulnerability and reward others, and in so doing, continue to set up the game to favour those who already know how to play it or have the means to somehow figure it out. We continue to make vulnerability core to academic life, but this act is not rewarded for everyone who undertakes it. That’s a problem we need to address, together. And we can. This is not utopian thinking. I think that undertaking the kinds of work, individually and collectively, that make genuine steps towards transformed ways of being an academic and working in this space is crucial to keeping university connected and relevant to the communities and societies it is part of, and to taking the academic project forward with and for the many, rather than the few.

Talking yourself up: Being bold in sharing your work (and self) with the world

I am launching my first sole-authored book online tomorrow. I am half excited and half terrified. What if people don’t like it? (Read, what if they don’t like me – my ideas, my arguments). What if they just don’t come at all? I have been promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, I have been writing to journal editors, I have created a ‘Featured Authors’ profile on the publisher’s website and even made a YouTube video about the book. I do want people to read it and get out of it something of what I tried to put into it for them. But all this publicity stuff and talking up the book and the contribution I think it could make is not something that comes easily. It does require a conscious boldness on my part and some stern self-talk; I suspect that I am not alone in this.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Many people struggle to talk up their achievements in public spaces. This is gendered, with women struggling more than men, on average, to ‘blow their own trumpets’. Certainly, this is also affected by ‘race’ and position in the academy; spend any time on academic Twitter and you will see that early career and postdoc scholars and Black scholars and women don’t feel quite as comfortable sharing their achievements as widely as men (especially men in positions of power/influence) do. There’s a whole book or more about why this is so, but for me it goes back to being told when I was little and then at school and then at university, that sharing my achievements was ‘bragging’ and that this was not what polite women did. There was something a bit ugly and unbecoming about telling people about things you had done well, or achieved something great: these ‘gifts’ should be received with modesty and humility, rather than ‘boastful pride’. Don’t take up too much space or be too loud or too full of yourself and people may let you stay. This has to do with belonging: if you are trying to get access to a space you have not historically ‘belonged to’, if being there is seen by those who have always belonged as some kind of transgression or aberration, it is even harder to take up that space, claim it, be in it as fully and comfortably as those who are already there.

This is, of course, a problem in higher education environments and spaces, and also wider social environments and spaces, because it creates limitations: limited diversity of voices, knowledge, ways of being in the world, limited representation of those who are women and/or Black and/or early career and/or disabled and/or LGBTQ+ and/or not what counts as the ‘status quo’ or a member of the dominant group in that education and/or social space. These limitations and silences protect, rather than challenge, unequal statuses quo that value some knowledges and voices and ways of being more than others. If we don’t work actively and consciously to change that, these inequities and silences are likely to continue. One of the ways we can do this is by telling people about who we are and what we do and why it matters, especially if we are part of one or more of the groups that is not the dominant one. We can also follow, connect with and amplify the work and contributions and people who are reshaping, challenging and changing the dominant ‘way things are and have always been’ in our contexts. In academia, we can start changing the way we organise events and conferences, consciously choosing speakers and panelists who represent a greater diversity of listeners and knowers in that context. We can seek out, read and cite the work of women scholars, Black scholars, scholars from the Global South, scholars who help us widen our understandings of the world and challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions and ways of being or knowing.

This work requires emotional labour and emotion work though, so it is not easy. Emotional labour, in a sound bite, is explained by Arlie Russell-Hochschild as the work we do with and for others – putting on a brave face when we don’t feel brave, arranging ourselves to take up less space when we sense that we need to be smaller, being polite in the face of rudeness so as to keep the peace or not be seen as ‘difficult’. Emotion work is the work that we do with ourselves, self-talk about our work or our relationships or ourselves – positive and negative and everything in between. These two forms of labour are connected because what we tell ourselves (you can’t brag too much about this book, just be modest, you’re being too ‘big’ and ‘loud’ about this) will affect how we relate to others (I wrote this book but you don’t have to read it, it’s not that great, just leave it, forget I said anything, I’ll be quiet now). One of things I have been working on is changing my self-talk: telling people that I wrote something or did something or achieved something that I am proud of, that represents hard work and effort, that I believe in is not ‘being too big for my boots’ or any such nonsense. Telling myself that I can just be me and that is more than enough and I don’t need to bend and break myself to fit other people’s shapes and ideas of who I should be. I am allowed to be (proud of) myself; I am allowed to share that and revel in this achievement for a while.

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

But, I am constantly mindful, in becoming more conscious of these shifts in both my own inward-facing emotion work and my outward facing emotional labour, that I need to be part of creating and widening spaces for others who struggle as much as or more than I do to belong and to shift the status quo because of contemporary and/or historical inequalities and discriminations. I need to make sure that my own colleagues and students don’t have to do unfair and unnecessary emotional labour and emotion work in relation to me and my reactions to their work. I need to be mindful of creating more consciously equitable supervision spaces for and with my students and collaborative spaces for and with my colleagues. It is important to amplify the work and the voices of other women, Black colleagues, Queer colleagues and more, but it is not enough to do that as performance of creating more equitable environments in which we can all work and live. We have to move further to actually change the spaces in which we live and work so that, down time, we don’t have to work as consciously to amplify these voices and the knowledges and ways of knowing they represent and share. Many different people, knowledges and voices will belong and be visible and valued. I am starting to really think about this in relation to new research I am trying to embark on.

For the time being, I am going to keep working on me: on becoming more conscious of the spaces I create for myself and also for students, peers, colleagues I work with to take up more space, to be loud and proud about our work and ourselves and our contributions; on actively seeking out and sharing the work of those who challenge me and encourage or exhort me to critique myself and the world around me; on learning as I go and being open to that, even as it poses emotional challenges and new labours and work.

Overcoming or rather managing my imposter syndrome

This semester I taught a research methodology module for Master’s students and one of their assignments was to ‘blog’ about an aspect of their experience of the course, their writing or their learning. Over the next couple of months, I have the honour of sharing their writing with you. This first post is by Amina Hamidou, who is researching the politicization of black hair in South African schools.

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

In the process of preparing for my written October exam, I started to second guess myself and feel a certain way. This feeling is a mix of excitement and longing for the year to end and crippling panic and self-doubt. I experienced this same self-doubt before when I was accepting my undergraduate degree. I did not feel like I had earned my degree, especially in regards to my grade, and my accomplishments felt like nothing in comparison to those of my peers. I felt like a fraud.

I came into my undergraduate already somewhat knowledgeable of what was to come and expected of me, as my mother is a senior lecturer; she gave my sister and I helpful ‘insider’ information and guidance to thrive at university. The first few months I felt lonely in the area of friends, as my twin sister and I were in different courses and only saw each other at the end of our days, but I felt confident in my work. However, this confidence came crashing down when the first test and assignment results came out. I felt like I should have done better than others because I have a parent who is an academic. So, I deduced that it was clearly me: I had all the advantages but still did not get the results I thought I would or should get. I felt like I was not good enough or smart enough and this feeling has come rushing back since I started my master’s program this year.

Is this feeling familiar? This demobilising fear of being unmasked as a fraud, filled with self-doubt, I have come to know is imposter syndrome and its quite common in postgraduate students and academics, especially women. So much so that there are counsellors that you can talk to at the University and information on this topic targeted specifically at postgraduate students. So why do I feel like a fraud? From my research and own experience, imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, but high achievers and perfectionist are more likely to suffer.

From how I have experienced it, imposter syndrome feelings include:

  1. Feeling like a ‘fake’: fearing that you will be confirmed to be a fraud or falling short of your own or others’ expectations;
  2. Downplaying your success: feeling that your achievements are not a big deal and pushing away praise;
  3. Attributing your success to luck: giving credit to everything else but your own abilities and hard work.

Imposter syndrome often drives people to work harder. But overcompensating can lead to unrealistic expectations and burnout, anxiety and possibly depression. However, I seem to do the opposite. Instead of overcompensating by working twice as hard, I decide that since my writing is not good enough anyway, I don’t have to try my best. This way, when I get my results or feedback I can tell myself, “Well, I know this wasn’t my best anyway”, which allows me to feel less hurt and inferior than I would do if put my all into my writing. This thought process leads me to become complacent, underachieving and adds to my procrastination.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Can you ‘overcome’ imposter syndrome?

  1. The first step is to recognise it as a problem or feeling that has a name. To recognise and name this feeling is a major step. This can help you to realise that your expectations might be too high and adjust them.
  2. Talk to someone – your supervisor, mentors or friends and family about your self-doubt and ask them to help in you in setting and managing more realistic goals.
  3. Realise that there is no such thing as perfect. You have to come to terms with realising that no one is perfect and in postgrad studies, as my lecture keeps saying, “Done is better than perfect”. No one expects perfection from you or expects you to know everything. As academics, we are always learning and we never stop being students, which has helped me take the pressure off myself.
  4. Admit and own the role you play in your success. For me, this has been vital. This ties in with your academic goals. You need to look to where you want to be and realize that you need to play an active role in achieving those goals, by taking it a task a day and not overestimating yourself (or the opposite!).
  5. Take credit for your achievements and do not downplay yourself and your accomplishments. It means that someone has recognised your work and capacity. You deserve to feel proud of that.
  6. Manage your stress. For me, creating a flexible timetable and schedule has helped me keep my stress down and feelings of impending pressure; this has helped minimize my imposter syndrome feelings as well.

Honestly, I am managing imposter syndrome and not overcoming it because I think we all have a little bit of imposter syndrome in us. As much as I try to overcome it, I have come to realise that, for me, it is triggered by stress. So managing imposter for me also comes hand in hand with stress management. When I have reduced the stress in my life I feel less fraudulent and more secure in myself and my work. Nonetheless, as is life, stress comes and goes and so does this feeling of being an imposter. During times of high stress, such as the end of the year, my feelings of inadequacy come creeping back. So each day I write down two to three tasks to accomplish which help me reach my weekly and then monthly goals for assignments and writing. These flexible daily tasks have helped make my writing more manageable. When I receive my writing back from my supervisor I take two to three days to go through the comments slowly so as not to overwhelm myself with negative feelings. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that my thoughts and comments about my writing are far harsher and more cynical than my supervisor’s. We tend to be harder on ourselves than others do.

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I made it through undergrad and honours with a degree. As my mother keeps telling me, “Not everyone is privileged to go to university and much less persevere and finish with a degree. Having a Bachelor and Honors degree shows that you have done what many cannot and could not, you should be proud and I am proud of you”. Those words are what I remind myself of when feelings of inferiority and inadequacy want to rob me of my success and accomplishments.

Remember you have ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY, you are PROUD of YOURSELF and I am PROUD OF YOU.

Writer, know thyself

Lao Tzu said to know others is wisdom, to know yourself is enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight, awareness, understanding; to be enlightened is to have a deeper ability to see and understand yourself, and why you behave, think, and act the way you do. It is a significant goal of humanity, to achieve an enlightened state within oneself. I am going to argue in this post that enlightenment should also be a significant goal for writers: to gain greater insight into their writerly selves, behaviour and choices.

In my writing courses, when we do catch-up plenaries at the start of the sessions a month and then two months after the first session, I ask writers to think about not just what they have (and have not yet) achieved, but what enabled or constrained their progress. My thinking is that if you can look deeper, to see what helps and hinders you as a writer, and reflect on that with other writers, you can become more enlightened about your writerly self. And, ideally, if you can see more critically how you help yourself, and how you sabotage or hinder your writing, you can try to move the obstacles out of the way.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This is a lesson I am constantly learning, as a writer and also as a writing teacher, with my students. And, while I certainly feel more enlightened than I did when I started out on my scholarly path, I have a ways to go. The overarching lesson I am learning, with smaller sound-bite lessons along the way, is that I need to know myself – my energy, my concentration span, my levels of interest in different tasks – and, crucially important, accept myself as I am. This is not to say I cannot and will not change as I learn and grow – of course I will – but if I go into any writing, or life, task already admonishing myself for not being more focused, more energised, further along in the task, etc., it’s not going to be a rousing success. And even if I get it done, all that negative self-talk is only going to breed resentment for the writing (and life) tasks down time. And that’s not good for me.

So self-acceptance and positive self-talk is super-important, alongside figuring out your own writerly habits, preferences and energies. A big learning for me since I turned 40 last year is that my energy levels have changed. I can’t write and write every day for 2 or more hours and have enough in the tank for all the other work I have to do. My work life has changed in the last few years as I have physically gotten older, and alongside having less energy generally, I also have to spend significantly more time reading other writers’ work, offering them my energies through feedback and advice. So, the lesson here seems to be this: work with, not against, your energy levels.

It sounds super-simple, like ‘duh’, right? But I struggle to accept that my energy for writing has changed, and I keep trying to make myself be more energised. This only serves to make me feel bad, and then shamed that I can’t be more pepped up, and then I’m just a bit paralysed about everything I have to read and write. So, very consciously, I am trying to keep track of the times of the day I most feel like I want to, and can, write. It’s not first thing in the morning, although that would be most convenient. It’s really more like mid-morning to early afternoon. That’s my peak focus time. What I need to do then, to really take advantage of that focus, is rearrange my day so that I have 2-3 hours for my own writing between 10 and 1. The rest of the day can be for other people’s writing and for email and admin. Yesterday and today I am managing this, and I feel so much better. It’s unlikely I will keep it going indefinitely, but I have figured it out, and that’s a big step in the right direction. Forcing myself to sit down at 7am and be erudite and focused is not going to work. I have to accept this about myself and work with it – for the time being, anyway.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The other lesson I am learning has to do with my reduced concentration span. I am sure social media has something to do with this – flitting from one post to the next – but I think it’s also probably got to do with how interested I am in what I am reading or writing, and what else is going on in my life and in my head. It would be brilliant if we could just turn off the rest of our lives when we write – the kids being sick and keeping us up half the night, unwell family members, stress about the declining state of the country we live in, annoying issues at work, etc – and just focus only on the writing. I hear rumours about people who can do this, but I am not one of them. Life and writing happen together, and sometimes the former completely messes up plans for the latter, for days on end.

I used to tell myself I could not write at all unless I had a big block of time, like a whole morning or day, and complete silence and calm. I can hear you chuckling. It’s cool, I can see my error now. Advisors would tell me to take what time I could carve out, even just 30 minutes, and dive in. It took me a long time to learn how to do that usefully, but now, even one good pomodoro a day can push a paper or chapter forward measurably, if I can use my reduced concentration span cleverly for that 25 minutes. Rather than making myself feel bad for not being able to focus for hours on end, I use what time I can create, in small bursts, and I praise myself for writing instead of curling up in a metaphorical ball until a whole chunk of time magically presents itself to me, with no distractions or stress or life to get in my head and in my way.

Underneath learning how to know myself as a writer is self-acceptance, and self-love. To know yourself is to be enlightened – to have understanding, awareness, insight. But using that insight to berate yourself for not being more – more like others, more focused, more energised, more clever, more anything other than what and who you are – can be an obstacle to your writing progress, rather than a push forwards. Like I said earlier, we can and should be open to change and growth: I am not the writer now that I was 5 or 10 years ago, and I have worked hard to change some bad writing habits. What I am saying here is that trying to make yourself a morning person when you just are not is not productive or helpful. Trying to make yourself like a colleague who can write in the middle of the night, or on a train, or super-fast, when these things don’t work for you, is not helpful.

You need to track your own energy and focus patterns, and make adjustments to your day so that you work with, rather than against, yourself; you need to look at what is taking up your time for writing, and work out where to put those things on your priority list so that writing comes out much higher up. And you need to be kind to yourself, and encouraging – as kind and encouraging as you would be to a peer or student struggling with their own writing. Learning about your writerly self is a powerful step towards becoming a happier writer, and happy writers are generally more successful writers too*.

*This insight is borrowed from Helen Sword’s book: Air and Light and Time and Space. How Successful Academics Write. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

Photo by Abel Tan Jun Yang from Pexels

Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.