Are you just a student?

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I have a friend, let’s call him Peter.

Like many of my friends, Peter is trying to finish off his PhD while simultaneously paying a mortgage and supporting a family. To do this he runs a successful consulting practice and teaches on a casual basis.

In fact, Peter has been teaching for a long time now – over 15 years – and he’s good at it. He is also a great researcher; widely published before he even started his PhD. Peter happens to be charming and funny as well; just the kind of guy you want to run into at faculty mixers.

All this is probably making you wonder why, despite numerous applications, Peter has never been awarded a scholarship or a permanent academic job in an Australian university.

Did I mention Peter is of African descent?

I might just leave that last point hanging because this post isn’t about possible racism in academic hiring practices. It was prompted by an email sent to Peter by his university graduate school, which Peter forwarded to me the other week. Due to all the circumstances I’ve described, Peter is now on his second extension and needs to complete his degree by next February or he will be classed as an ‘over time candidate’. The email was a signal that the university is becoming concerned about this possibility.

Let me take a brief moment to explain what ‘overtime’ means here. Peter is a ‘Research Training Scheme’ or RTS student, this means he doesn’t have to pay fees for his tuition. The Australian government will pay a large sum of money to the university if Peter completes his degree. This is a way of paying the fees in arrears, but if Peter doesn’t complete his degree the University gets nothing.

Essentially, by accepting him as a student in the first place, the university has taken a ‘bet’ that Peter will complete.

Some people may object to the way the RTS reduces education to money and ‘through-puts’, but I think the RTS is quite a clever way of funding PhD education. There’s a clear incentive for universities to help students finish on time. That’s the reason why research education professionals like myself exist at all. You could think of me – and this blog – as a form of risk management technology.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, back to the story. The email kindly offered Peter a special two day workshop in research methods, writing and ‘networking’. Apparently Peter was being offered this “great opportunity” because he has “passed confirmation and is now close to completion”. The letter cheerily pointed out that this workshop would help Peter finish his degree and discover what career options might be waiting for him after completion.

The email made Peter hopping mad, and I could see why. I remember being annoyed by similar letters when I was a research student.

Firstly the letter imagined all sorts of problems which don’t exist and didn’t offer help for the ones that do. The workshop sounded great … for a student who was new to research or who had never worked as a professional academic. But Peter doesn’t need a workshop, he needs money so he can temporarily suspend his other responsibilities and complete his degree.

I knew it wasn’t merely frutration at the offer of useless help that made Peter send the mail on to me. Although he didn’t put it this way, I could tell he was deeply and personally insulted by what we might call a ‘deficit model’ underlying the offer of help.

In the nicest possible way, the letter, by offering and encouraging him to take up some academic help, assumed he was a ‘troublesome student’ who needed to be persuaded to ‘do the right thing’ and attend class. By implying that he was in trouble with his research and ignorant of his career opportunities, the letter also managed to wipe out his years of professional experience as an academic.

What we have here is a classic example of what we research education scholars like to call an ‘identity conflict’.

Peter is acting like he is a professional academic who just happens to be doing his PhD late in his career; the university is acting like Peter is a student who is in need of ‘research training’. Here’s something to think about: is Peter a struggling student – or is he a professional academic? Well, he is both. He is a struggling student, but he’s only struggling because he is a professional academic without a job title and position to back it up.

You are probably wondering what point am I really trying to make?

Am I trying to point out that universities should be more careful about the way they try to help struggling research students? Well, yes, but I work in a Graduate School and I know that its actually quite hard for people like me to know how to help research students like Peter. Money is tight and academic help is all we really have to give, but it should respect our students’ prior knowledge and eperience.

I guess I am also trying to explain one of the reasons why being a research degree student can be terribly confusing. Identity conflicts may sound abstract, but they are the root cause of many practical problems PhD students face.

For example, I often encounter students and supervisors arguing about thesis content and direction. The problem is caused by the role each is being asked to take. The word ‘supervisor’ implies oversight, authority and responsibility for the outcome. At the same time one of the definitions of PhD level work is the demonstration of ‘original contribution to knowledge’ and ‘the ability to work independently of direction’. The student is being asked to act like a professional researcher – but the supervisor is being asked to act like a teacher.

Who should win the argument then? It’s not clear, which is why most conflicts of this kind have to be settled by negotiation.

Doing a PhD can be a deeply political experience. Recognising that some of the uncomfortable politics arise because you are being asked to perform two unreconcilable identities: “student” and “professional researcher” might help because this knowledge creates the possibility of resistence.

You don’t have to always play the role that is being asked of you.

Case in point was the wonderfully pithy reply Peter sent to this email. He started by pointing out his many publications, which meant he didn’t need any help with his research. Then he tendered a list of the type of help he really needed. He received a quick, apologetic reply and an offer to discuss his circumstances.

A small victory, but sometimes only small victories are possible. So I’m wondering: have you ever experienced an ‘identity conflict’ like this? What happened? How did you deal with it?

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