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).

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Hughes and Tight, journey, metaphor, PhD, thesis, work and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to is the PhD a ‘journey’?

  1. Reblogged this on PGR Doc Blog and commented:
    In her latest blog post,Pat Thomson asks a question PhDs should consider.


  2. rachel says:

    It’s still journey based, but I have been thinking about my doctorate more in terms of a marathon, or perhaps one of those friendly triathlons. You do the work, and make the effort, but you have a support team of your coach (supervisor) your support team giving you massages, bananas and isotonic drinks. You have your friends and family cheering you on (I have to say that the virtual cheerleading team of friends that I have has made a huge difference to me); and your fellow runners in the running club who offer support and advice, and share part of the race with you. I guess where it falls down is in the competitive element – this is about me achieving a standard, not beating all the other guys.
    This may not work for you, I may have missed some of the subtler points of your post, but two weeks prior to submission I am in the twilight zone, and being a bit focused on me, my work and that dratted finish line. I do wonder if the metaphor might be different depending on where you are looking from


    • ELF says:

      A marathon – yep I totally agree! I wrote a small journal entry on this a little while ago. It was submitted as a possible book chapter but rejected. Ah well…

      Best of luck for the last two weeks. 🙂 You’re so close! Make sure you post again once it’s done!


  3. SheriO says:

    In one of the numerous self-help books in the cottage industry to help doctoral students, the writer (Rugg?) uses the metaphor from the supervisors’ point of view of ‘throw them in the deep end.’ This is an athletic metaphor where the thrown person has to learn to swim or drown. It’s good because the 50% of doctoral students leave (drown) so it makes sense.

    I think falling down a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland captures some of the experience. Alice works so hard to get back home .All the weird and wonderful people she meets could stand in for those in the rabbit hole of doctoral programs. Doctoral socialization harkens back to a time before modernity, where a queen and Latinate expressions make sense. When the steps appear in the darkness just as Alice puts her foot down it’s like making sense of data and trusting that you’ll find a way if you continue to put one foot in front of another.

    Maybe the metaphor is one of a fantasy game drama…thrilling, all encompassing and tinged with nightmare.


  4. SheriO says:

    William James wrote of The Ph D Octopus, which the dean of Princeton’s Graduate School Theodore Ziolkowski morphs into the giant, ink-quirting Squid, in this article.


  5. As far as most descriptions of the PhD journey as a Pilgrim’s Progress goes, Pat is absolutely correct. The original progress is less individualistic than these modern versions. The characters Christian meets on his way are allegorical, representing multitudes (as indeed do he himself, his companions, and the second cohort represented by Christiana), plus some of the best scenes in the story which involve crowds and institutions (Vanity Fair, the Heavenly City). I guess I’m saying that the simplistic reading of Pilgrim’s Progress has been coopted to a simplistic metaphor of the doctoral process as a single person’s journey, rather than as being embedded in a wider genre, faith context and social structures. Recognising these could help us to have a better journey metaphor–or recognise that 17th-century England might not help us to read our own 21st-century experience!


    • SheriO says:

      Thank you Pat for this post. Back to the metaphor of the quest/inititation/trial as the kind of journey you say the writers talk about in your blog post.
      I looked up Katherine Firth and I read her blog likening the Ph D to a quest/initiation. The post captures the experience and gets at the dark underbelly of doctoral education which needs address.
      Also in the comments section of the post, I found a paywall journal…International Journal of Researcher Development and this article in it.
      Katherine’s post and this article match the doctoral experience better than the marathon or journey. If doctoral education grapples with the trail of tears and broken dreams left in its wake via a better metaphor, then no one need defend esoteric quests for a better metaphor.

      Alistair McCulloch (University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia)
      Alistair McCulloch, (2013) “The quest for the PhD: a better metaphor for doctoral education”, International Journal for Researcher Development, Vol. 4 Iss: 1, pp.55 – 66
      The fulltext of this document has been downloaded 233 times since 2013


      The author would like to thank Professor Marie Brennan for giving him the idea for this paper at a seminar on the research degree she gave at the Mawson Lakes campus of the University of South Australia during Winter 2009. In answer to a question from another participant, she said words to the effect that she disliked intensely the metaphor of the journey for doctoral study and suggested strongly that it should not be used. This gave the author food for thought as, up to that point, he had been blithely deploying it both in seminars and conversations with students and supervisors without giving it another thought. Her words struck home even though no alternative was suggested. It took several months before serendipity took a hand and the author came across the Auden chapter upon which the article draws whilst reading a long way outside the area of research education. To use both a cliché and a metaphor, a light went on!
      – The paper seeks to propose the adoption of an alternative metaphor to that of the “journey”, currently the most pervasive characterisation for the student’s experience of doctoral education.

      – The paper adopts a conceptual and rhetorical approach.

      – The paper offers a critique of the journey metaphor as a characterisation of the student’s doctoral experience and proposes instead the metaphor of the Quest, a cultural and literary form found in most societies. It argues that the six elements of the Quest identified by W.H. Auden resonate with the contemporary doctoral experience and emphasise the uncertainty involved in research rather than the linearity implied by the journey metaphor.

      Social implications
      – The paper argues that the quest metaphor offers a cross‐cultural basis for both staff and student development activities through which sense can be made of the research experience, student concerns can be surfaced, and potentially difficult issues raised for discussion in an unthreatening way.

      – The paper is the first to apply the quest as a metaphor for the student’s doctoral experience and offers a new way of interrogating that experience which will be of use to those involved in supporting research students.

      Liked by 1 person

      • pat thomson says:

        As the original paper makes clear the quest is a journey narrative, one of the classics. The quest is always for a pot of gold or holy grail or some kind of magical prize. So McCulloch is actually doing a version of journey if you adopt narrative theory.


      • SheriO says:

        The nature of the journey is the difference. It’s not a straight line. The quest narrative for the prize/gold/secret knowledge apparently crosses cultural lines and is universal. Who better than a renowned poet, in this case W. H. Auden, to map a quest metaphor. McCulloch uses Auden’s work to figure out a metphor. Here is a pdf of McCulloch’s paper. (I love it when a pdf also pops up on Google Scholar along with the paywalled article).

        Click to access mcculloch-2013.pdf


      • pat thomson says:

        My argument in the post is simply that metaphors of journey and work, and I’d say quest too, don’t adequately convey the social, institutional and political nature of the doctorate. Because they individualise, they are inadequate for dealing with the kinds of socio-structural/discursive relations that can help or hinder doctoral researchers. That’s my cultural sociology perspective. Im happy to accept Katherine’s argument that Bunyon has been re-read post Enlightenment in this individualised way, and that other more social readings of his text are possible.


      • Thanks! I’m glad you found this helpful!


  6. DanutM says:

    Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    An interesting discussion.
    I guess I see the point or criticism of the individualistic view of the ‘journey’ metaphor, especially if interpreted in the Pilgrim Progress perspective. But is that the only possible perspective? I doubt.
    And I would add that ‘work’ is barely a metaphor, if at all.
    I clearly prefer to it the ‘journey metaphor’, which, however, being an Easterner, I have never never interpreted in Bunyan’s individualistic Baptist paradigm. Even if I have lived most of my life in the Baptist fold, and I have turned Anglican lately.


  7. SheriO says:

    I agree that ‘work’ is barely a metaphor. Work is like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up hill or going to the salt mine whereas labour aside, the doctoral student needs to fabricate something ‘original.’
    Fabrication is the word used in the White Paper on the Future of The Ph D in the Humanities.
    Fabrication gets to the heart of the matter…the doctoral student (& latter academic) fabricate an extension or embellishment of knowledge or some new understanding. Fabrication gets at the edginess and contested nature of research. The oral defense attempts to attack and take apart the assertions and claims of fabrications in the thesis. Fabrication also implies lying, making stuff up, and alternatives…It fits for me..Think of Kuhn and paradigms and fabrication fits..
    Another metaphor I read in a self-help book for doctoral students and I think is appropriate too is ‘throw ’em in the deep end.”


  8. rachel says:

    fabrication is interesting, although I read it with another metaphor in mind – that of house building. I’ve just realised that in writing my thesis I have been talking to myself about my ‘first fix’ and my ‘second fix’ (no, not caffiene) but the act of passing through and noting all the inconsistencies, the errors and omissions and systematically correcting them. Maybe this just a writing up metaphor, and maybe the viva becomes the big bad wolf coming to huff and puff……


  9. SheriO says:

    Fabricating a house (to be occupied by someone else?) which is strong enough to withstand the huffing and puffing of a pack of wolves works as a metaphor for writing. Some small part of the house needs to be original; it’s design, materials, construction, creativity to meet building codes, adaptation of architectural style, adaptation for the climate….
    Maybe doing the Ph D in the 21st century will become like coding a program for a 3D printer to make a house or print a human body part.
    Fabricating your own little misunderstood Frankenstein that the villagers want to destroy fits..


  10. julia says:

    I have some difficulty comparing the PhD to work. Workers get paid and usually benefit from a certain level of protection. There’s also some form of accreditation for the years that they spend working for a given employer. That time does not just get written off their CV like it never existed. After years of PhD work, which I am now hardly able to finalise owing to the poor management of my situation at the level of my institution, I’m faced with an unexplainable gap of six years on my CV. During that time I did not benefit from (social) protection either while I am now unemployed and devoid of any financial means. The situation of workers, though it can vary a great deal and be hugely precarious, is different on a number of levels. I would rather compare the PhD to a form of ‘apprenticeship’. However, a lot still needs to be done to ensure that doctoral candidates experience a form of apprenticeship that is constructive and felt as value added rather than value extracted.


    • SheriO says:

      Oh dear. I read bitterness and betrayal in your post. Your experience is closer to an ordeal or biblical type trial or Dickens and is not uncommon (Lovitts, 2001?). Buyer beware.
      I feel a loss of innocence and terrible anguish bordering on something operatic in reading your post. You experienced intense emotions which still colour your speech. You were not forewarned..doctoral degree seekers can languish for years in obscurity…and more than half depart studies, often with a terrible burden of defeat and melancholy which forever diminishes them.
      How to explain your missing years? Luckily thanks to our cultural memes for time to completion of doc degrees, the six years that worry you are not out of line at all.
      Perhaps you can turn your anguish into a cultural entertainment…How about writing a book abut it and going on a speaking tour and support service for the many others who are suffering…or working to reform doctoral education…or depending on your talents a rock opera called “a grand seduction”..
      You got lemons and if you make lemonade it will feel therapeutic.
      On another note, Canadian Jewish writer Mordecai Richler, wrote an early novel called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. It’s about the way a young, Jewish Montrealer goes about making his fame and fortune with the moxy of the many driven Jewish entrepreneurs who precede him. Duddy makes it..and others pay a price..his apprenticeship delivers. I’d be in favour of apprenticeship as a metaphor in the way Richler used it, but not as a literal expectation


  11. How about pregnancy and birth? No one gets pregnant without help and once you give birth, you instantly join an entire community of mums.


  12. Terry Smyth says:

    How about also focusing on the ‘product’ as well as the process? So, let me try these out: 1) a consummation (of you and your subject(s); you and your research participants; you and your supervisors). 2) a culmination (of a plethora of different strands, activities and subsidiary ‘journeys’). Finally, 3) a confirmation (of achievement – primarily scholarly, but perhaps also ethical, and personal …).


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  15. waylandia says:

    I’ve come to look on doctoral research and writing as an act of translation: it draws on a language, a body of ideas and resources (including human ones) already in existence, then selects the most appropriate form of presentation in order to communicate an idea / ideas to others. For me, this emphasises the collaborative, interactive nature of the process.


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  17. How about just describing a PhD in literal terms? You can make a superficial analogy using pretty much anything, but I’m yet to find a metaphor that doesn’t fall apart under the slightest examination.

    A PhD is not a journey, it is not a pilgrimage, it’s not like building a house, it’s not a marathon, and it’s not a mountain to climb. It is a PhD- a unique and complicated process. If we abandon this idea of using a metaphor as a model and try to get down to fundamentals then we might start to gain some useful insight into the process and the problems that arise.


    • pat thomson says:

      Metaphors are deep cognitive frames. The point is not to use them to design your research but to see how your everyday metaphors limit what you do. That they are inadequate is actually the point of examining them. This is well established in psychological research. best to start reading with Lakofhf and is applied in most talking therapies.
      And we all use metaphors in everyday communication. This is well established in communication research. The dominant metaphor in your comment, blog and book is of the PhD as a science project… Fundamentals, complex, literal, black and white etc etc. I’m sure this works well for the people who you provide services for, as this is also their deep framing.


      • OK, there’s a lot going on in your comment so I’ll have to break this down…

        1) I agree with the point about everyday metaphors limiting what you do, but this does not mean you have to replace them with another metaphor

        2) There are countless blog posts and even some books which use bizzare metaphors as the foundation for an argument, often misunderstanding their own metaphors (eg talking about marathon running or mountaineering without any experience of these things). The insights are often superficial, because the analogy is superficial (or just wrong).

        3) Of course we use metaphors as part of language. The word metaphor itself is a metaphor (to carry meaning). It is only the use of metaphor as a foundation for an argument that i disagree with.

        4) I don’t understand the “dominant metaphor” comment. In my book, I describe my own PhD, which was a science project- so it isn’t a metaphor! In my comment above, I don’t think you would identify that metaphor if you didn’t know my background.

        Basically though, I don’t understand why you are looking for an archetypal narrative! You have so much knowledge and experience, why not just share your insights regarding what a PhD is, rather than what it is like?


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