are we heading for a DIY PhD?

This is an op-ed piece I’ve recently written. It’s still in press but I thought I might give it a little pre-publication outing here. The DIY theme is one I’m doing more work on right now.

In the humanities and social sciences, the PhD is usually equated with a supervision relationship; thinking about this supervision relationship as a pedagogy is however relatively recent. One of the landmarks in the supervision-as pedagogy-thinking came in a 1995 issue of The Australian Universities Review (Vol. 38, no. 2), when editors Bill Green and the late Alison Lee brought together a range of ‘down-under’ scholars to discuss “postgraduate studies/postgraduate pedagogy”. The special issue addressed the emergence of a mass higher education system in which a normative ‘rational’ science model of research and supervision and discourses of ‘quality’, ‘experience’, ‘competency’ and ‘accountability’ were rapidly becoming dominant. In this context, the editors and authors collectively argued, the PhD was still subject to its popular caricature of apprenticeship. This, they said, ignored key questions of disciplinarity, identity and the production and reproduction of knowledge and knowledge elites. While addressing the Australian context, the special issue also suggested that the same practices could be seen elsewhere, including in Britain.

Arguably, much of what the writers in this special issue saw as trends in higher education postgraduate education have become reality. British universities no longer see the PhD as the production of a ‘genius elite’ (Yeatman, 1995); rather it is ‘training’ for a career in some form of knowledge work, research or teaching either in higher education or elsewhere. It would be hard to find a British university that does not now have a Graduate school and/or Academic Development Unit which runs a menu of doctoral training programmes. Some of course also have Research Council funded Doctoral Training Centres which offer ‘core’ methods modules, as well as master classes. Supervision too has become more formalized and normalized with various kinds of confirmation papers and vivas, annual reports, and proforma to provide audit trails of supervision meetings. Doctoral education is now much more than the sole responsibility of the supervisor.

However, a recent google search, combined with conversation on social media, suggests that in Britain, despite all this ‘academic development’ there seems to be pretty patchy institutional engagement with supervisors on the topic of postgraduate pedagogies – despite the growing body of research in and around supervision pedagogies and doctoral education. There is even less discussion with supervisors about the changes that might be produced by what I see as rapidly expanding DIY doctoral education practices.

Doctoral researchers have probably always acted outside of the supervision relationship, talking to each other, swapping ideas, books and experiences. These days it would be a rare supervisor, graduate school or academic developer who frowned on self-managed reading groups – such groups are often formally organised within institutions, and more often than not, within shared disciplinary frames. Supervisors are not averse to referring doctoral researchers to selected volumes from the shelves of advice books that are now available on every aspect of the PhD. There are also now academic writing groups that function in the same way as reading groups, within and beyond universities and within disciplines (Aitchison & Guerin, 2014).

The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQ, PhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis Whisperer, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.

We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere.

As someone who is engaged in this DIY field with books, blogs and twitter, it seems pretty apparent to me that something is happening here and we (collectively) don’t know what it is. It’s largely outside the normative audit oriented training processes that Green and Lee were so concerned about. It’s a field which is fragmented, partially marketised, unregulated and a bit feral. But it’s big, it’s powerful, more and more doctoral researchers are into it, and it is profoundly pedagogical. I’m concerned that British universities are generally (and of course there are exceptions, but mostly this is the case) not helping supervisors to think about this DIY supervision trend and what it means for how doctoral education is changing – and crucially, what the implications for their supervision practices might be.

Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (Eds.). (2014). Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond. London: Routledge.
Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2008). The failure of dissertation advice books: towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing. Educational Researcher, 37(8), 507-518.
Yeatman, A. (1995). Making supervision relationships accountable: graduate student logs. Australian Universities Review, 38(2), 9-11.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in advice, doctoral pedagogies, pedagogy, supervision and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to are we heading for a DIY PhD?

  1. Joao Costa says:

    I am a subscriber and careful reader of your blog since 2012, which was referred during one of the EERA Summer Schools on Academic Writing – one of the richest and enlightening experiences for me, I should say -, and I would like to thank you for pointing out to me some fundamental elements of doctoral research and supervision that “break” what it seems to be undisputed and undiscussed norms and practices. I find some of them very courageous and groundbreaking (e.g. doctoral student vs doctoral researcher; “traditional” PG supervision vs pedagogical PG supervision) but, at the same time, that novelty is somewhat disappointing because it should be normal within our community. Even though I have read some of your previous posts on this topic, this one in particular and and the references that you provide, especially your 2008 co-authored article which I read more carefully within the short time I have left, are very stimulating and engaging to the point they made me anxious (lacking a better word) to finish this stage so that I can start to explore and share what my fellow emerging researcher peers are experiencing during their doctoral research. Once again for your sharing of ideas, knowledge, insights and provocations, and thank you to all of the colleagues like yourself who strive for a better science through better researchers and supervisors.


  2. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online.

    Just anecdotal evidence, but I pointed my supervisees to this blog. While I can spot some of the “errors” they are making, you are typically better in explaining why it is “wrong” and how to do it better.


  3. There has been a perceptible rise in the practitioner degrees among many professions. ED. D. for education, DNP for nursing, DFA for arts, etc. These ‘professional’ doctorates often are considered the DIY degrees you discuss here. Doctorates are, if advised properly and educational offerings are robust enough, specifically designed to allow for the integration of additional knowledge and experiences. Unfortunately we seem to have moved away from this model over time to more uniform curriculum, fewer minors, and lowered requirements for admission. Limited are the traditional models of apprenticeship and future faculty training in many professions.

    I would argue that even a bachelors or masters program these days could be much more DIY and could produce some of the real-world competencies employers are seeking. We also need to be more aware of student engagement, everything from internships to student organizations, which can connect the co-curricular with the curricular in ways that can benefit the student and future employers.

    Great article Pat.


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