Not ‘that’ kind of doctor

On a flight home from a teaching block last week, there was a medical emergency on the plane. The crew, as they do in these situations, asked for a doctor to make himself or herself known (and then asked for any medical professional to come forward). A Swedish doctor sitting next to me stood up, and spent the rest of the flight with the passenger, until we landed and she was handed into the care of paramedics. This was my first such experience, and I fly often. I found myself, for a brief moment, thinking: ‘I wish right now I was ‘that’ kind of doctor – that I could help out here’.

But, I am not that kind of doctor. I call myself Dr. I have a right to that title. But, as a friend of mine said of his own similar title, after a similar experience on a flight last year, ‘It’s not the useful kind of Dr.’ I was talking to my son about this yesterday, and he asked: ‘well, what is the use then?’

This, of course, got me wondering: what kind of ‘doctor’ am I, and what can I help you with, in that role? on Pexels

Maybe a good place to start is thinking about what having a doctorate means. What can you do, or be, that you could not without one? The main aspect of the qualification, and the work involved in gaining this, is research capacity. Whether by ‘big book’ or publication, or art installation, the average PhD project is a research project. You are creating an argument in response to a research question, and that research question is asked because there is a knowledge gap in your field that needs to be filled. The main requirement of any PhD, at its core, is a contribution to knowledge in your (and perhaps even an allied) field of study and/or practice.

It follows then, that doing a doctorate enables you to expand your knowledge of a slice of the world – that related to your area of study, and your research problem and questions. But, to expand your own knowledge, and build on what is known to say something new, and valid, you need to do an awful lot of critical reading, writing, speaking and thinking. A doctorate, then, also enables you to gain, and develop, scholarly skills and practices. You learn to become a more efficient reader, and writer; you learn to make deeper connections between allied ideas and arguments, and critique those which seem incorrect or incomplete; you learn to articulate, in writing and speech, what you think and why you think it, and what it could mean in relation to other meanings. You learn to create a whole, and build that whole through creating and connecting parts – theory, literature, methods, data, and so on.

All of this work, then, over the 3 or 4 or 5 years it can take to research and write a doctoral thesis – in whichever mode you are writing yours in – offers you a sustained opportunity not just to actually do research and write about it, but also to reflect on the meta-level work involved. What forms of writing are more effective and persuasive than others? What kinds of verbs signal your intent in argumentation best? What kinds of structure work most effectively for different parts of the argument, to weave it all together? What does not work at all, and why? In other words, you have opportunities to work out not just what to write about or research, but also how and why to research it and write about it, following certain rules, or bending certain rules about doing and writing research in your field.

As a qualified ‘doctor’, then, you have the insight, learning and ability to offer other researchers, and postgraduate student writers, help with their own writing and research processes.

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

You can do this as a formal supervisor, taking on the role of guide to your own postgraduate students, as your supervisor was a guide to you. You can do this as a writing coach or peer writing consultant, either in a writing centre, or in a more informal or private capacity. You can blog, as I and many others do, about research and writing, sharing what you have learned. There are different roles you can play, with a doctorate, to step up alongside a student who is struggling – experiencing some equivalent form of the medical emergency in my flight – and offer advice, an empathetic ear, guidance, and even direction where this is needed.

There is, then, quite a lot of usefulness in doing, and having, a doctorate. I may not be able to help you if you are having a heart attack, but I can help you create and carry through an argument in a paper; I can help you work out what you want to say in your paper or thesis, and follow a structured process that will enable you to say it more clearly and persuasively. I can offer broad-level advice, and fine-grained feedback. I can draw on my own learning, to walk alongside you as you work through similar learning, and hopefully help you learn from some of the missteps and mistakes I have learned from (even though I may have to let you make these too).

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

In a higher education sector that, globally, seems to be marked increasingly by academics and scholars feeling isolated, overwhelmed, alone in their struggles, those who have the ability, and capacity to put their hand up and move forward when called on are increasingly needed, and valued. The more we are able to step alongside one another, as peers and as mentors, the less lonely and isolating the PhD journey will be – or any other research, writing and learning journey for that matter. I am not ‘that’ kind of doctor, then. But I can put my hand up, and I can help.

Post-submission blues

I am depressed. This may seem strange, given that I have just submitted my thesis and I am on holiday at last and free to watch hours of Downton Abbey while eating mince pies. But, I am. I am annoyed with everyone and everything, I am tired and grumpy, and I keep feeling like there is something serious and important that I am supposed to be doing that I am not doing.  I am not at my best right now. I have what I am referring to as ‘post-submission blues’.

I am not sure what to do about this. I am trying very hard to just relax and be on holiday and let my whole self recover from this long and tough work year. I am trying not to think too hard about the papers I have to write from the thesis in the new year, or the post-doc research I want and need to do. But it’s really tough not to be all about this research and my writing and work when it has been a huge part of my work life and personal life for so long.

I am also trying not to think too much about my examiners and whether they are reading my thesis and what they think about it, and what corrections they are going to recommend. I had a frantic dream last night about getting all my reports back before Christmas and then having to spend Christmas day finding missing references. It was horrible. My examiners were nice enough but I was so annoyed that I had left out so many references for books I don’t even remember reading.

What do people do when they finish their PhDs? How do they go back to normal, whatever normal is? Perhaps there is no going back to normal if normal is what you were before you undertook something as big and life-changing as a PhD. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but if you really want to pursue an academic career, a PhD is a huge thing – the swipe card that lets you in and out of the doors; the badge that buys you recognition and validation. It’s important. And it changes you. Not just as a researcher but personally.

I am not the same as I was when I started this journey in 2010. I have grown in lots of ways ways: as a reader, a thinker and a writer; I have grown as a mentor to others who are working on their own PhDs or MAs; and I have become a more recognised and valued colleague as my ability to contribute to research and practical projects has grown. This process of becoming someone my colleagues will refer to as Dr, with all that this connotes, has been one of many ups and downs for me personally, and it has not been an easy identity to get my head around.

Taking on a doctoral identity is a process in itself – half the time I am convinced that my PhD is awful and that I will be exposed for the imposter that I am, and the other half I think it’s probably good enough and that I have done well – ish. I think perhaps that I need to use this post-submission period to let myself be a bit down, and a bit bereft of this big part of my professional and personal life. I need to find a new normal – a new way of looking at myself, as capable of owning the title of Dr, so that when I cross that stage next year I am ready to take on this new professional identity with confidence and belief that I deserve it. Because actually, I think I really do. 🙂