Is the PhD a ‘journey’?



It’s not at all uncommon for doctoral researchers to think about the PhD as a journey. And they generally use the PhD-as-journey as more than a simple metaphor – it becomes a, even THE way of explaining to other people what has and is going on in their candidature. The PhD-as-journey becomes a way of telling self and others the story of the PhD process and the various experiences, emotions, and challenges along the way. The notion of the journey sums up the sense of movement, personal growth and change. The journey becomes a meaningful way of narrativising the ups and downs of the whole doctoral experience.

But how good a metaphor is it really? As Christina Hughes and Malcolm Tight (2013) have pointed out, the journey is a pretty vague concept. There are various kinds of possible journeys, some pleasant some not. Hughes and Tight suggest that the most common PhD journey narrative is actually a quest, a search for a treasure, promised land and/or wisdom. Think Holy Grail here, Jason and Argonauts and the Golden Fleece… Well, not exactly. Hughes and Tight argue that the doctorate is most often a Pilgrim’s Progress, with “staged posts of hope, loss, fear, doubt and achievement” (p. 769). Hughes and Tight argue that the Pilgrim’s Progress is in some ways an apt allegory for the doctorate as it captures the loneliness, confusion, loss of voice and avoidance of temptations in the process, as well as the final arrival at the heavenly destination.

So what’s the down side of the journey narrative? Well, Hughes and Tight argue that the Pilgrim’s Progress journey is a particularly individualistic view of the PhD. It places individual motivation and spirit above all else – the pilgrim just has to believe and want hard enough to get there. What’s missing from this line of thinking, according to Hughes and Tight, is anything about learning a set of new work habits – those associated with rigour, knowledge and skill. So they propose that a better way of thinking about the doctorate is to consider it as work.

I want to add to what Hughes and Tight have to say. It’s also important to note, I reckon, that what’s often missing from an individualistic narrative of the doctorate as journey is of course anything that is its binary other, that is, anything remotely social in nature.

For a start, doctoral journey narratives may not include framing issues in any sense other than either as obstacles and helping agents for the individual. By framing issues I mean university rules, higher education policies, fees and income questions but also the ways in which socio-cultural relations of gender, race and ablism for example might function with and through them. Similarly, supervision is seen as an individualised aspect of the journey. Perhaps the supervisor is a valued helper, perhaps a malicious nuisance, perhaps an absence. This view of supervision leaves out the notion of supervision as something that might institutionally structured and framed – it’s really an integral part of the doctoral process and doesn’t just happen by and to an individual, but to cohort after cohort. It’s very strongly framed and regulated. The supervisor must be a gatekeeper for rules, norms and the disciplinary community. Supervision is, I’d argue, also pedagogical and thus has a body of knowledge and know-how. The supervisory gate keeping and pedagogical practices can’t really be understood or interrogated through an understanding of a lone supervisor who is there in relation only to an individual doctoral researcher and their journey. Both are mutually constructed and patterned. A social analysis is required to make sense of this.

And then to the idea of work. Hughes and Tight focus on the kind of work that is involved in learning how to research and write the thesis. Hughes and Tight suggest that the notion of the doctorate as work calls attention to the product, rather than the process. The doctorate is

… a form of work that has involved graft, skills, time, training and painstaking attention to a specific subject of study over a significant period of time. In such a way it is akin to craft, where the intellectual value of the thesis is the primary consideration. (p.773)

But the notion of work can be just as individualised as that of the journey. I’d argue that rather than simply focusing on the work that the doctoral researcher does, it is also important to see work as labour AND about labour relations – the conditions under which the work is undertaken and the various kind of regulations, supervision, training and support that are available.

It’s also critical, it seems to me, to recognize that one person’s work is generally dependent on the work of others. The ecology of support structures – training programmes, library facilities, social media activities and so on, not to mention other scholars whose writings we use – are often entirely omitted from the individual PhD-as-journey narratives. However, they might equally be omitted from the notion of the thesis as work. And that would be to ignore the important contribution that other people make to any research, regardless of whether it is a doctorate or post. In some cases this contribution can be very negative, thankfully in most cases it’s not only useful, but also generative and positive.

A Pilgrim’s Progress certainly doesn’t recognize a supportive (or otherwise) ecology. So I’m now trying to think of a narrative archetype that does. There do need to be ways for us to tell the story of our doctorates and our research. So if the Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t it, and work isn’t it either, what’s the narrative archetype that moves us away from the individual making their way against all odds through multiple perils and problems, and moves us towards recognition of the social AND the individual in the PhD?

Hughes, Christina and Tight, Malcolm (2013) The metaphors we study by: the doctorate as journey or work. Higher Education Research and Development 32 (5) 765-775 (unfortunately this article is paywalled).