Making the jump from M to (Ph)D: supervision and literacy development

Although this blog is primarily focused on writing a PhD thesis, and more latterly on writing for publication, I have become aware fairly recently that I have several readers who are Masters students. This post considers the move from masters to doctoral study, and the supervision needs to scaffold further development in (Ph)D students’ literacy practices, building on the M(A).

Perhaps a good place to begin is with a generalised sense of what an MA thesis is, compared to a PhD thesis. A colleague recently commented that, if you want to be an academic working in some form of higher education institution these days, the Masters is the new school leaving qualification and the PhD is the degree. This signalled to me that, certainly in academia, the PhD is the basic standard if you want to be taken seriously, and in all cases I know of you need an M degree of some kind (MA, MSc, MPhil, MFA etc) to apply for and be accepted into a PhD. A Masters degree by coursework, involves a good deal of reading, writing shorter and longer papers on aspects of your reading, both assigned and self-selected, and culminates in the researching and writing of a thesis of around 30,000-40,000 words; an MA by research only involves choosing a research focus, designing an appropriate study, and researching and writing a thesis of around 60,000 words.

Giuseppe Momo's spiral staircase at the Vatican (thetimes.co.uk)

Giuseppe Momo’s spiral staircase at the Vatican
(thetimes.co.uk)

The point about an MA being a prerequisite for PhD study implies that completing a Masters degree would act as a form of preparation for PhD study, and that if you succeed, you will be well able to make the step up from MA to (Ph)D study. I have to say, in my own case, I did not find this to be quite true. My own MA degree, a mixture of rigorous coursework and writing shorter papers with a longer research paper (during which I was not well supervised), did a rather poor job of preparing me for my own PhD, which I started five years after finishing my MA. I did well in my MA – it felt mostly familiar to me as it was structured similarly to my previous Honours degree. The literacy demands were greater, especially around the reading and seminar preparation, but on the whole it felt manageable. My first year of PhD study was a shock to the system.

The main reason for this shock, on reflection, was that I really had no clear idea of what a PhD actually was or what researching and writing a thesis entailed, and working on my own, on one (huge) research project just felt like far too much, too soon. It was not really like my MA at all.

PhD thinking capA key difference between the (Ph)D and the M(A) is the demand for an original contribution to your field. The M degree generally does not require originality; rather, the requirement, generally, is that you show that you are able to design and conduct a research study, and create a well-written account of it in the form of a thesis. If you do make an original contribution that is a bonus, but you won’t be failed or held back from graduating with your MA if you do not. With a PhD, however, treading solely over previously trodden ground and making no new contribution to your field is considered to be a failure to meet one of the basic requirements, and may well result in you having to make significant revisions, or even being failed by some examiners. This, I think now, was behind the shock to the system: how was I going to up my game as a reader, thinker and writer to make this original contribution to my field? What previous literacy practices and skills could I draw on?

This points me to an issue that does not seem to be as readily realised in academia as it should be: that at each level of study, from first year to final year of an undergraduate degree, and in each different postgraduate degree, as well as beyond postgraduate study, the literacy demands made of students and writers change. Yet, the support offered to students post-first year seems to fall away at varying rates, based (it seems) on the assumption that the literacy practices they have been taught and expected to master (!) early on will carry them through the rest of undergraduate study. Postgraduate supervisors often seem to assume that the literacy practices and skills mastered in undergraduate study will carry through to and adequately support postgraduate reading, thinking and writing, and supervision does not often seem to involve helping students with developing their PhD-level literacy.

Without turning to the research on this, I think anyone who has been a student or taught students at both under and postgraduate level can see the problem here. Literacy demands change, and writers have to change to meet them, but without relevant support, teaching, feedback and guidance at each level to make the demands and shifts clear to writers, there will be repeated shocks to the system as writers progress through their levels of study. Believing yourself to be a good writer, based on your success at school, and then finding that you are not doing the right kinds of writing expected at university can knock your confidence enormously; by the same token, doing well in an MA and then finding yourself completely at sea starting a PhD can have the same effect. And knocks to confidence lead to other kinds of issues, like slow progress, self-doubt, strangled writing and misery.

Jorge Cham phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham (phdcomics.com)

Thus, I suggest (as a start) that we need to think far more carefully about the ways in which MA and PhD study connect, especially in terms of the literacy demands (taking into account the differences between writing and researching an MA versus a PhD in different contexts). We need to critically examine the connections (and gaps) between the literacy practices involved in completing an MA and those in completing a PhD, and finding clearer ways to supervise and guide students at PhD level that can scaffold them up from MA to PhD level. This is not a task for students to work out alone and without clear guidance – that way dropping out lies. Rather, this is a task for students to work on with strong supervision that not only focuses on the knowledge that students are writing about, but also how they are writing about it, and what they need to be doing with their writing to move up a level in terms of their ability to read, think and write more independently, more critically, and with a view to finding a strong voice capable of making an original or novel contribution – even in a small way – to their field of research and practice.

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What if my thesis is not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written?

I’m starting this post with a confession: I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but I wanted to. I got things wrong in my thesis, and I didn’t really push myself as hard as I could have in the analysis of my data. While I am proud of what I achieved, and (mostly) believe the positive praise I received from my three expert examiners, I am mostly convinced that I took it a little too easy on myself and could have produced an even better piece of work had I taken more time, or read more, or written more drafts or tried harder.

I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever. And I really wanted to. I wanted it to be the best thesis my examiners had ever read. I wanted them to tell me it should be a book, and that they had sent it to a colleague at Oxford University Press, who would be in touch to fall all over me with heaps of praise and a book contract. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, is I graduated. On a sunny, happy day in April with my mum, husband, kids and friends watching me and cheering me on. I received well-deserved praise from my examiners, and I made my supervisor proud.  I earned a title I finally feel comfortable with. I gained a great deal from the whole process. But, I have no book contract, no ‘this is the best thing I have ever read’ comments, no awards and accolades.

Image from lexisnexis.com

Image from lexisnexis.com

When I started out, I told everyone that I would be happy to get minor revisions and mostly complimentary comments, and that the aim was really to do the work, earn the degree, and progress in my academic career, rather than to write The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. It was kind of true. But what was also true, and something I kept to myself, was that I really did want to write the other thesis – the Most Awesome one. I really wanted to be the very best. I was a top student at school, winning academic prizes and striving to get top marks. This drive was tempered in my undergraduate years and during my early postgraduate study, when I realised I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. It was hard to be good but not the best, but I got used to it for the most part. Between my MA and PhD I took a 5-year break, so starting my PhD in 2010 I felt a little older and wiser than I had been but, oddly, this must-be-top-in-class-or-nothing-counts-for-anything drive returned.

This drive worked for and against me in certain ways. Doing a PhD part-time when you have a full-time life and job is really difficult, and most days reading, writing and thinking about the doctorate just feels like a bridge too far when your kids have school stuff on, your partner wants time with you, and there are work deadlines looming. Having the ‘I must be the best or I will be nothing’ drive can push you on when you feel you just can’t push yourself. That drive did keep me going when things got tough and I wanted to just stop and have a really long nap.

But, on the flipside having the ‘best or bust’ mentality made it hard for me to celebrate positive feedback because I focused on all the negatives and things I had missed or gotten wrong. This mentality makes it hard for me to celebrate small successes and see these as big gains, because I want all my writing and work to be the Best Ever. I don’t really want to just be okay, or even good. I want to be awesome, and I want other people to think I am too. So, I can get really bogged down in feeling like ‘my work is crap, actually, and so why should I even bother because no one will even read this paper, much less cite it?’

Is this silly? Perhaps. Am I alone here? Nope. I think anyone who has been really good at something in some part of their lives has come to like the recognition and validation that comes with being really good, or even the best. Not being really good or the best becomes harder to live with, because it means perhaps less recognition, less validation from those external people and sources. It means having to find more of that within yourself, and that self-belief is not always easy to offer yourself on a sustained basis. It helps to have others telling you that you are actually awesome, and good, and more than okay, right? But it also helps if you know that they are speaking the truth (or some version of truth) and not just being nice to you. In order to take on the recognition and validation and use it to drive you forward, you need to believe that you are actually smart, and capable, because then the praise makes sense. If you have people praising you but you really believe everything you write is crap, the praise falls on deaf ears.

Underneath all the focus on the criticism instead of the praise, and the writing paralysis that I struggle against, I do really think my work is at the very least okay, and some of it is good. Some of it might even be better than that. My thesis is good. It’s not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but the colleagues who have read it liked it, and found it helpful. That’s pretty awesome. I have a PhD, achieved through my own hard work. That’s also pretty cool. I am writing papers, and when they have been revised and polished, they will be published. Again, a win.

Image from egosquared.com.au

Image from egosquared.com.au

Being the best ever, I have realised, is a) not possible, and b) not actually a very good thing, because it’s too much pressure in the end. I’d rather work my way, paper by paper, towards better writing and more refined thinking, rather than start out with the best thing ever and then decline from there while killing myself to maintain that unrealistic standard. This is how I look at it anyway.

The PhD is a part of the foundation on which you build your scholarly career; it’s not the career in a nutshell. If you try to turn it into everything about you as a scholar that is good and worthy of validation, you may never actually be able to write it. You’ll paralyse yourself with the fear that it won’t be The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. But chances are it’ll be a good thesis. I think the thing is to really try to realise and remember that good in the world of doctoral study is actually enough, and that the goal is to lay a strong foundation for further work, rather than to encapsulate your whole academic self and career in one PhD thesis.

A letter to my dissertation, after the break up

Dear PhD dissertation,

It’s been just over 2 months since you left my life. Two long months. I have been filling up the time with holidays and family and more recently work again. I’ve been busy but it’s a different sort of busy to the busy I was when you and I were still together. I find that, although I was relieved when I said goodbye to you, I miss you. But more than that, I think I miss the me I was when we were together.

Allow me to explain. Choosing to get involved with you was a big step for me.  I had to make a choice between a new field of higher education studies in which I was working and my previous field of research in women’s studies and politics. It was not an easy choice to make, but as I began to immerse myself in the theory of this new field, and in its practice, I found myself really enjoying the intellectual growth, the new colleagues and connections I found and I realised I had to find my way to you, and to the qualification you would earn me as well as the recognition and career opportunities you would bring me to. You represent the choice that I made.

Initially getting involved with you was difficult. You were so demanding – you wanted so much of my time, my headspace – I didn’t know how to give enough to you and to my work and to my husband and children. I felt frantic all the time, and after a year of getting nowhere fast I decided we needed to take a break from each other. I needed to find some kind of balance and I couldn’t stay attached to you and do that. The break lasted about 6 months. I just focused on work, and on my life at home. At first it was glorious – all the space in my head and in my diary, no pressure all the time to be reading and thinking and writing and Making Progress. But then I started to wonder if I had given up too soon. I slowly started reading and writing again, but on a new topic, a different focus to what I started with. I found myself writing a proposal, and enjoying it. I still felt a bit overwhelmed and frantic, but it was clear that, for the present anyway, we belonged together and I needed to get us back on track.

I realised that what I was finally starting to feel was the beginnings of a scholarly identity or sense of myself. I felt like a researcher, albeit a fledgling one. And that felt good. I wanted to know more, think more, write more – I wanted to grow intellectually, professionally, personally and I knew you and the people you brought me to would help me to achieve that goal. Grow I did. I am not the same person now, professionally or personally, that I was in 2010 starting out or drowning in 2011. In doing a PhD I found my way to sense of self and a scholarly identity that I quite like. I was part of a scholarly community of fellow PhD students and travellers who understood what I was going through both personally and intellectually, and I really enjoyed being ‘in’ with them. I enjoyed the status that came with the statement ‘I’m working on my PhD’. I got recognition and also some sympathy, and a bit of a free pass on some things at work. ‘We can’t ask S now, she’s doing her PhD. Let’s ask her to do X or Y next year rather’. It was pretty great on the whole, even though it came with all the tough stuff too.

And now, PhD dissertation, you are gone and so is all of that it seems. I feel relieved and bereft at the same time. I have all this time to do things now, yet I’m drifting, aimless. I send endless emails and reorganise my desk and file papers and go to meetings and talk to students and complete the more mundane tasks. Some of my work is not mundane at all but it feels mundane compared to the enormity and importance of working on you. You made me feel important and scholarly and smart, and now I feel duller, less colourful, full of doubt. I don’t know how well you have been received yet by the examiners. I am terrified of turning you into papers for journals lest people find my work pedestrian or uncritical or worse. What do I do now? I feel so lost without you, and without the community you brought me into contact with. There is a PhD-shaped hole in my life and I don’t know what to fill it with yet.

No one told me it would be like this. People have told me about missing their PhDs, but now, in missing you I wonder if what they miss is really this part of themselves that they find in this process of taking on and shaping their own doctoral identity. I will gain so much by having had this time with you, but there is also loss. I can’t be a PhD student anymore, and I cannot continue to live as much as I have in that question-mark-space. I feel that I am being asked to claim a firmer identity now, that of a Dr, which still feels alien,  and that I am being asked to know things I am still not sure I know.  I will get there, of course,  in time. But breaking up with you is turning out to be hard to do.

X

Post-PhD Drift

I have been wandering around for the last few weeks in a bit of a fug. I have been feelings all sorts of things – frustration, boredom, aimlessness, sadness, the Meh – and I have been a bit puzzled about this. Why do I feel this way? I show people my thesis in its beautiful ring-bound form – friends and colleagues who have been cheering me on – and they exclaim and hug me and I feel fabulous, and then I go back to my office or sit on my couch and feel all of these other things. After some deliberation I have diagnosed my problem and am working on a cure: I have Post-PhD Drift.

I started this year with a sense of relief – no more looming deadlines and panic and sleepless nights wondering about whether I am really doing a proper analysis of my data or something less than that. No more carrying this weight around with me everywhere, this thing that pulled me to my feet and off to my desk most of the times I sat down in front of the TV or with a book. But as my work year started – and bear in mind I am only about just over a month into it – the sense of relief started turning into something else. It turned into a new kind of anxiety. A ‘what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now?’ kind of anxiety.

Of course, I am still waiting for the reports from my examiners – I don’t have to do a Viva but I do have to engage with and respond to comments and requests for revisions from three examiners. This has compounded my anxiety enormously. But the anxiety will not necessarily disappear when the reports are in and the revisions or corrections are finished. It goes deeper than just waiting for feedback. I feel I have lost a piece of my self. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m not a Dr either. I feel I am in a strange sort of no-(wo)man’s-land. I know I have to move on and get going and write papers and submit abstracts for conferences but I just can’t seem to do that. My brain still feels a bit paralysed.

I think part of this paralysis is because I don’t know yet whether my work will be lauded or trashed. I don’t know if these examiners, all experts in my field, will applaud what I have done and suggest corrections that will make it even better or will hate it and ask me to revise it completely. So I can’t write papers yet because it is possible that my work is not good enough, that my thinking is not critical or analytical enough. (Yet.) Of course, I know my supervisor would never have let me submit if this was the case, but it is my fear all the same. I don’t really feel full ownership of these ideas yet. I feel hesitant and afraid to take the risk of telling people what I think in case they argue with me and I cannot argue back persuasively or knowledgeably. And I have written a whole thesis. 83246 words. I should be confident and persuasive and knowledgeable, at least about my own research. Yet, I am not quite there yet.

Part of this paralysis is also down to the Drift I have diagnosed. Working on, researching, writing a PhD dissertation is great for giving your life meaning and purpose. It’s a clear goal, and defined. There is a beginning and an end and usually the former is about three to five or so years before the latter. So, unless calamities and awfulness befall you, and I know this is true for many scholars, at some point you will finish. It’s not like that with a career, and that is what I am staring down the barrel of now. The rest of my career, whatever I may choose to make it. A career is longer, without a very clearly defined end, as many academics go on researching and publishing after retiring from formal academic life. Is this what I want my career to be? I know I can make changes as I go, and my interests will shift over time, but I have chosen academia. A life of the mind and research and also teaching. Some days I am not sure I’m really cut out for it.

I am not sure yet how to get over this drift. I went to a meeting with colleagues yesterday where we talked about a course we are designing, and I attended a book launch where colleagues talked eloquently about the research they had been doing. I felt, for the first time in a while, a renewed excitement about the research I am doing and what I can contribute into these intellectual spaces. Perhaps that is one way through this; to connect as much as I can with fellow scholars and researchers whose own research questions can spark off my own, and whose work can catalyse my own continued thinking and writing.

I will stop drifting, and my to-do lists will become more focused on my writing and less on emails and filling in forms in time. But for now, and perhaps until I graduate and am forced to confront and take on this new identity properly, I am likely to keep drifting, finding ways to keep my little boat at least pointing in the right sort of direction as I find my way in my new post-PhD career.

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. 🙂