Crossing the PhD ‘ocean’: ideas for smoother sailing

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of doctoral researchers recently about some of the challenges I faced doing my PhD. I called my presentation: The Wide PhD Sea: navigating the research journey and tools for smoother sailing’. I used the metaphor of the PhD as an ocean we, as scholars, have to cross. It is sometimes rough and wild and we feel like Robert Redford’s character in ‘All is Lost‘ – alone on a terrifyingly vast expanse of water with no shore in sight and no radio to call for help (or at least no one answering our mayday calls with any urgency). It is sometimes calm and lovely, with sunlight bouncing off the water and it’s like a picture postcard from the Mediterranean. Parts of the journey can be awful and lonely, and parts can be more serene, and much less lonely. What we need, though, is a good boat to carry us from one side of this PhD ocean to the other in one piece. We also need a funny, friendly, helpful crew to help us sail this boat.

I have, in my head, two boat images borrowed from Cressida Cowell’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series which I am currently reading to my boys. These two boat images resonate with me because at the beginning and middle of the PhD I felt like I was sailing the one kind, and towards the end it felt a little more like I was in the other boat.
Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: The Hopeful Puffin (How to Speak Dragonese)


The first image is that of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, a small, oddly constructed wooden rowing boat poorly built by Hiccup during Viking Boat-Building Class. It mostly goes around in circles, and has to be coaxed very gently to go in a straight line. It has a few leaks, and all the other vikings are not convinced it can sail very far or well at all. I sailed across the early section and also middle sections of my own PhD ocean in a version of ‘The Hopeful Puffin’, going around in circles from time to time, and coaxing my thinking into straighter lines, even though I wasn’t always sure where the land I was aiming for lay. This was a bumpy time, my boat was often patched up and leaky, and I did  not feel at all confident of my own ability to get across the ocean, or of my little boat’s ability to get me to my destination in one piece.


Image credit to Cressida Cowell: 'The Peregrine Falcon' (How to Twist a Dragon's Tale)

Image credit to Cressida Cowell: ‘The Peregrine Falcon’ (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale)

The other boat, one I felt I was sailing in towards the end of my journey across the PhD ocean, was ‘The Peregrine Falcon’, a large Viking racing boat, powerful and sleek and guaranteed to get me over or through any unexpected storms or big waves. This is the boat of the Viking chief, and the one all vikings aspire to be sailing in.

At the beginning of the PhD, we are often in the same boat as Fishlegs and Hiccup there – a small, wobbly, patched up but ultimately determined little dinghy, desperately trying to get going with our journey. We are often in danger of wandering into deeper waters we are not ready for yet, because our navigation systems are a bit dodgy (should I be reading this, or should I actually be reading all of that?) We tend to go round in circles a bit trying to work out our arguments and ideas, because our rudder is small and doesn’t always work (is this the theoretical framework? Is that what this means? No, that is what this means. No this. I have it! Oh, no I don’t…).

But, (and here is the first tool I shared with the researchers I spoke to), Hiccup was not alone. He had Fishlegs and they both actually had some skill and ability, even though they didn’t really believe in themselves as much as they could have. The early and middle parts of your PhD journey are tough because often you are plagued by self-doubt, and because you are still acquiring and honing the skills and knowledge you will need to get to your destination. You can’t do this all alone. Create or join a circle of writing friends (find a Fishlegs or two or more): share your writing and thinking, as well as some of your concerns and struggles. You are not going to be alone, and these fellow sailors will have useful advice, encouragement and ideas for you. Sharing your work can be scary, but it is far more scary to keep going all on your own believing the doubts in your head.

The second idea for smoother sailing I found helpful was to kit the boat out with the right equipment (which I worked out as I went along): you need a compass (in many cases, this is a good supervisor and your own research notes and journals, to keep track of your thinking); you also need strong sail, and a rudder and a tall mast (these, in my case, were blogs I read that gave me great advice and ideas; forcing myself to share my work even when I didn’t want to to get a sense of whether I was heading in the right direction or going in circles; and writing kind and encouraging things to myself in my research journal to combat the self-doubt).

The Hopeful Puffin eventually sank in the book, and was fished out of the sea and remade by a more experienced Viking boat builder. Unfortunately, not every PhD student makes it across the ocean in one piece. Not all PhD students move from The Hopeful Puffin into The Peregrine Falcon, a stronger, sleeker and more capable Viking ship, to carry them through the late-middle to end part of their journeys. For me, moving from a sense of sailing the one kind of boat to sailing the other was about using tools and resources at my disposal, and being brave and persistent. I was not always able to make myself share my work with anyone other than my supervisor or close PhD colleagues, but I used their feedback carefully; I often went in circles, especially early on, but my research journal helped me to keep track of my thinking and showed me some direction and sense. It was work, constantly, even when I was just thinking about it all, but all the work does pay off when The Peregrine Falcon docks and all the other Vikings are cheering you on and celebrating your persistence and fortitude.

Look around you at the tools, resources and people you can adapt, use and reach out to; think about which part of the journey you are in, and which kind of boat you are sailing – Who is in your crew? What are the things you are struggling with? Making these things clear to yourself, and taking stock of where you are and where you want to go to next can often help you to find your way to the next stage of your own journey.

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.