‘the PhD experience’

Patter is currently on two weeks annual leave. (Faint sounds of cheering.) So the next four posts are reprints of some other writing that might be of interest to Patter readers. This is the foreword I wrote to a new anthology of Australian doctoral researcher stories – Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and succeeding. It’s edited by Chris McMaster, Caterina McMaster, Ben Whitburn and Inger Mewburn.  If you enjoy reading about other people’s experiences of the PhD then this book will interest you. 

 The Hungarian social scientist Michael Polanyi wrote a great deal that was relevant to the ways in which learning occurs. Polanyi argued that all knowledge production was an act of creation which was profoundly about the person, their commitments and passions. He proposed that much of what is often understood as systematic, ‘objective’ and the product of logical reasoning, was actually enmeshed in informed hunches, dreams and intuitions based in ‘tacit’ knowledge (Polanyi, 1958/1998; 1966). His argument could certainly apply to the ways in which doctoral research knowledge is produced. However, it also applies to the process of doing the PhD itself. When undertaking a PhD, candidates not only learn the ‘stuff’ of their dissertation, they also learn about the actual process of doing the doctorate.

51YzPzsn6+L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg The experience of doing a doctorate can remain as tacit knowledge, a profound experience which, although unexamined, is nevertheless a basis for future and further action. Think for instance of the eponymous supervisor who appears to have little basis for their supervision practice other than they ‘know’ that ‘this works’ – they are basing their actions in ‘tacit knowledge’ of experience, their own, and subsequent experiences with doctoral candidates. But tacit knowledge can also become more explicit.

In my field – educational research – we value experience as a basis for action, but argue that learning from experience is considerably enhanced if learners systematically reflect on their experiences in order to develop ‘meta-learning’ principles – that is if they can distill their experiences into more abstracted forms and language that allows their learning to become ‘visible’. Critical reflection also allows taken-for-grated assumptions to be interrogated. Once reflections are made into talk and text they become meta-learnings able to be communicated to others. They can also be brought into conversation with similar ‘processed’ experiences and with relevant research.

This is an anthology of the personal stories of doctoral researchers who have reflected on their experiences, and developed some principles, conclusions and narratives from them. Their narratives serve a dual purpose Firstly, they continue the process of making sense of experience for each writer, because every time we reflect critically and write about our own experiences they make more sense to us. But secondly, the narratives provide a resource that other doctoral researchers and supervisors can use to inform their own critical reflections and arising actions.

Taken together, these narratives add to the available understandings of the doctoral experience. While there is a steadily growing corpus of published research about the doctorate, less of this is in the form of first-person accounts. There is some of course, but much more exists as blogs and storified twitter chats. This curated volume adds a further set of ‘processed’ first person accounts to our collective knowledge.

But this is primarily a book of resources gifted to the reader to use when and as they are apt. Of course, not all of the narratives on offer will be of immediate use. There is no one best way to do a PhD and there are no right answers. These are but one set of doctoral researchers. The stories don’t say everything. Yet there is remarkable value in hearing directly from those who are involved, now, in postgraduate study or who have recently completed their doctorates. Having a range of others’ analysed experiences on which to draw allows each reader to build up their own repertoire of studying, researching and writing strategies. Even if some narratives are not apparently helpful straight away, they may well be at some future date.

One of the most obvious ways in which this book will be useful is that it addresses the sense of isolation that appears to be part and parcel of the PhD. Doctorates in most disciplines are somewhat lonely. Even those who work in laboratory teams are, I suspect, ultimately still subject to the kind of all-down-to-me sense that comes from engaging in a long-term project which will be externally examined, and upon which considerable hopes are pinned. Even though success in the doctorate doesn’t guarantee employment, fame and fortune, there is a sense of personal achievement and identity tied up in completing a sustained piece of research, a study which makes ‘your contribution’.

This does not mean of that completion is an individual affair. An ecology of supervision, disciplinary organisation and university support make it possible for all of us to achieve that sense of satisfaction that comes with writing the words Dr. in front of your name. These days, that ecology now includes online support, different kinds of face-to-face social groups and advice books. This DIY ‘outstitutional’ provision is very important for increasing numbers of doctoral researchers; it can very usefully supplement and complement what is on offer within institutional contexts. Doctoral researchers have probably always helped each other but now have an additional resource at their disposal – “You have this problem? Oh I was just reading the other day…”, reaching for one of the stories in this book.

Some doctoral readers will become supervisors either in higher education or as industry partners. This little book may well come in handy then too, as a way of expanding and adding to the tacit and explicit knowledges of the supervisor.  And for those of us who completed our doctorates some time ago, this collection will serve to update us, and remind us that the world is changing, and the doctorate is not as it once was.

As much as an anthology, this book can also be thought of as an archive, compiled at a particular time and place. As such, it provides a snapshot of the doctorate and doctoral experience(s) which will be of wider and potentially more long-term interest. As someone who researches doctoral and research education, I was certainly itching to start to generate some themes across the contributions. Indeed, this might be something I still do at some idle moment!

I commend and recommend the collection to you and hope you enjoy dipping in and out of it as much as I did.



Polanyi, M. (1958/1998). Personal knowledge. Towards a post critical philosophy. London: Routledge.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The tacit dimension. Garden City, N Y: Doubleday.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in "doctoral student", doctoral education, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to ‘the PhD experience’

  1. Reblogged this on Diligent Candy and commented:
    I am thinking of writing a longish post on my experiences as a PhD, perhaps this will spur me on before I forget, and send over the idea to half-baked ventures I promised to do and never did.


  2. Esther Kanduza says:

    I am certainly going to order this book. As a a person who is still struggling just with my proposal, I cannot miss this. Thank you Pat


  3. wanderwolf says:

    Have a good leave!

    Liked by 1 person

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