Becoming doctoral now: What might feelings teach us?

Dr James Burford, Thammasat University, Thailand

When I was a PhD student, I regularly fielded questions about the topic of my studies. In responding I often hesitated, as if saying things out loud might somehow attract bad luck. This information probably marks me as superstitious, and maybe I am. But I think it might also be explained by the fact that it is often a tricky thing to speak a PhD into life. And, then there’s the added challenge of keeping your response short and sweet for a conversation partner who may really only have a passing interest in what you’re working on. Over the years I developed a few well-rehearsed lines that I could use when people asked what my PhD was about. ‘It’s on PhDs,’ I’d say. Or, ‘It’s on the politics of doctoral writing’. Sometimes I’d get closer to the core: ‘It’s on what it feels like to write your doctorate in the contemporary university’. The replies were often kind. Sometimes involving follow up questions. But almost all of them included the exclamation: So, you’re writing a PhD about what it feels like to write a PhD?! ‘Yeah’, I’d say, ‘something like that’.

Doctoral education: A view from the inside

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about doctoral education from the inside. The internet abounds with comic strips, blogposts, podcasts and gifs, all of which offer insights into the toils of doctoral students, and the tolls that the doctorate exerts on their social lives, mental health and bank balances. It’s true that the rich pleasures of doctoral education do get some airtime in literature on postgraduate research, as do pieces that advise students on how to extract themselves from sticky situations. But what strikes me as I potter about the web is that many accounts of doctoral education are darkly comic. They make us laugh as they puncture the inflated promises of the doctorate, or the inflated egos of certain characters involved in it. They poke fun at doctoral students who might have made the mistake of thinking that a doctorate would mostly be a straightforward life route, when in reality sometimes it may be experienced as a confusing and lengthy life rut.

What might we take from this kind of humour and the darkness that underpins it? Perhaps we might conclude that doctoral education is demanding and that doctoral life isn’t always as glamorous as it seems. Indeed, a particular body of doctoral education research might support this conclusion. It has outlined how doctoral education is often forged in the fire of trauma and distress, where feeling bad is a “necessary condition and effect of the production of the subject of doctoral study” (Lee & Williams, 1999, p. 8). What Lee and Williams suggest here is that some distress is to be expected. After all, doctoral education is an ordeal whereby a student is expected to produce an original contribution to knowledge, become an independent scholar, and also separate from aspects of an older pre-doctoral self. It’s no wonder, then, that the process can feel bumpy. Indeed, as The Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn has written, many students find themselves entering The Valley of Shit, a period during the doctoral journey where things seem hopeless, your research feels passé, and despair is a fairly common companion.

I like that these lines of thought understand the doctorate to be an emotionally-involved process. I also like that they understand doctoral education to be transformative of students in that it calls them to think about their research and selves in different ways – a process that can be deeply unsettling. However, there are additional ways we can explore the emotional dimensions of the doctoral journey.

Doctoral education: Anchored in context

My doctoral project began with a desire to supplement existing arguments about doctoral education’s natural lows. Rather than seeing certain feelings as just part and parcel of the doctorate, in my thesis I foregrounded how political changes to the contemporary university (such as neoliberalism, audit culture, and managerialism) also shape the felt experience of doctoral education. What I mean here is that doctoral education is not an unchanging practice. Instead, I see students as always becoming doctoral within a particular historical time, and a particular socio-political context. This means that if we want to think about the emotions of doctoral education we also need to understand what it feels like to become a doctoral student today, given the contemporary conditions of doctoral study.

An organising claim of my work has been that doctoral education in Aotearoa New Zealand has become an increasingly pressurised practice in the 21st century. Part of this pressure has come to bear because doctoral education is now viewed by our policymakers as being more important than it once was. Doctoral students are increasingly framed as drivers of innovation, and thus as a key component of national success within the global knowledge economy. This has, in part, led to further pressure, as doctoral education has become more regulated and subject to greater surveillance than previously. These changes have occurred at the same time that doctoral completion times have been expected to shrink, expectations for writing outputs have expanded, and a wide public debate about whether there are too many PhDs, and not enough academic jobs has continued to generate anxiety. Arguably, all of these changes have combined to shape how students think about themselves and their projects, and also how they feel as they make their way through their doctoral degrees. My goal in my doctoral thesis was to take doctoral students’ feelings seriously, and think about how their emotions might be connected to wider political transformations to the university.

Researching doctoral emotions

I approached my goal of exploring and interpreting doctoral students’ emotions in quite an unusual way. Part of my study involved research with 10 doctoral students in faculties of Arts and Education at a university in New Zealand. I invited students to write diaries, conducted semi-structured interviews, and held a writing retreat away from campus where students wrote, made creative artefacts (see examples below) and engaged in discussion. Another part of my study involved examining cultural texts generated on a public online photo blog, and autoethnographic texts generated by my own self-reflective writing practice.

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ABOVE / BELOW: Examples of artefacts created by doctoral students participating in my study to illustrate their doctoral experiences. Participants consented to their artwork being used for the purposes of research dissemination.

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Here is a brief overview of some of the key arguments in my thesis:

  • One of my chapters used poetry and short fiction to surface some of the affective-political ‘stuff’ that forms a part of doctoral life. Sometimes emotional phenomena or ‘vibes’ are difficult to get at using standard social science research practices, so that’s why I turned to some more evocative methods in my thesis.
  • Another chapter called Not writing, and giving zero f**ks about it looked at why ‘failing’ to write in the first year of your doctorate might not be such a bad thing after all. It asked how ‘failure‘ might be understood as a creative political response to normative (and narrow) visions of doctoral ‘success’. I suggested that embracing failure might allow us to see some possibilities for living the doctorate otherwise.
  • Dear obese PhD applicants explored the connections between being fat and the ‘intensified’ workload and expectations of the doctorate. I identified how social interpretations of ‘fatness’ (as disorder and a lack of self-management) clash with the kinds of students idealised under the intensified doctorate, which tends to privilege bodies that are readily associated with the self-managing, motivated and disciplined student. This chapter of my thesis explored the 2013 case of a US professor who tweeted that ‘obese’ doctoral programme applicants lacked sufficient self-discipline to succeed at doctoral study. I explored the resistance enacted on a photo-blog called Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs that arose in response to that tweet. This photo-blog offered new ways of seeing fat doctoral students, associating them with pride, capability and success.
  • In the final chapter of my thesis, The trouble with doctoral aspiration now, I drew on verbal and visual data from across my study to critically examine an affective practice that is often assumed to be positive for political transformation: optimism/aspiration. I argued that optimistic attachment to an ‘academic good life’ can bind doctoral students to precarious modes of living in the present. I ended the chapter with a call to imagine new, and hopefully less cruel, kinds of doctoral aspiration.

Overall, my thesis work has offered case studies that demonstrate how felt experience and transformations to the university can be clumped together. I have worked to demonstrate that features of contemporary doctoral education in Aotearoa New Zealand such as the intensification of the doctoral experience, expanded regulation and audit, and ongoing concerns about the deteriorating conditions of academic work have all impacted on what it feels like to undertake a doctorate today. I’ve done this with the goal of understanding how students currently experience, endure and resist these transformations to universities.

All and all, my thesis has been an attempt to engage those who are interested in doctoral education and the affective life of higher education. I hope that readers of my work find something in it that interests them – whether this is material that sparks future inquiry, bones to pick, or ways of thinking that readers can bring to their own lives as inhabitants of the university.

I’d love to hear from you – what does work and life in the university feel like for you now?

Jamie LSEd.jpgJames Burford is a Lecturer at the Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education, Thammasat University, Thailand. He undertook his PhD at Auckland University at the School of Critical Studies in Education, and was supervised by Associate Professor Barbara Grant and Professor Louisa Allen. James received the 2017 NZARE Sutton-Smith Award for his exceptional doctoral thesis. James has published on teaching writing, poetry, academic activism, Thai knowledge production and school bullying. His current projects are concerned with academic mobility and the conference as a site of knowledge production. He blogs at Conference Inference on academic life and conferences. He tweets (occasionally) at @jiaburford.


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