PhD narratives

Patter is on annual leave and reprinting bits and pieces from other writing about writing or doctoral education. This is the (second) foreword I’ve written for an edited collection of PhD stories. This one is called Postgraduate study in the UK: surviving and succeeding edited by Sue Cronshaw, Christopher McMaster, Caterina Murphy, and Natasha Codiroli McMaster

This book is a collection of stories and it is about storied lives – and it is perhaps useful to consider what this means, even before you begin reading.


It is now an academic truism to say that we live storied lives, and that we are storytellers and characters in our own and other people’s stories (e.g. Berger, 1997; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). The eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner claimed that our stories are not static and stable. We continually remake our stories over and over throughout our lives. This ongoing narrativisation helps us make sense of our lives, and in so doing, we also make our lives as they unfold (Bruner, 1986). If we follow this line of thinking, it is hardly surprising that the PhD is a fertile site for storying.

Bruner, a psychologist, wanted to understand how people make sense of themselves and their worlds. He argued that narratives are inevitably concerned with:

  • the duration of time (drawing on Ricoeur, 1984-1988);
  • particularity – each narrative is different and specific to its teller, but operates within particular narrative ‘types’;
  • intention and agency – these are located in the characters in the story, be they human or non-human;
  • interpretation – stories are hermeneutic, open to our own retelling, and thus they are understood differently by different people (a point important in literary theory, see for example Bal, 1997);
  • ‘truth’ – the narrative contains something recognisable, it ‘rings true’, it has ‘verisimilitude’, rather than being factually evidenced;
  • explicit or hidden norms – these are addressed, breached or illustrated through story;
  • cumulative cultural understandings – when narratives accrue, they constitute something beyond the single story (Bruner, 1991).

Bruner was also keen to point out that underneath the most apparently straightforward and tidy narrative, double meanings, ambiguities and doubts often lurk (Bruner, 2003).

It is not hard to see the narrative features Bruner outlines in the PhD stories in this book. For instance… The writers offer perspectives from various stages of the doctorate and locate their experience within its often time-pressured frame. One of the odd things about the PhD is that it simultaneously seems to be endless and at the same time, often has too little time.  And while each story is highly individual, the writers address common challenges and there are sometimes obvious references to ‘types’ of doctoral experience – the journey, the battles uphill, success against the odds, the gradual enlightenment. Furthermore, the stories address/interrogate/disrupt the institutional and disciplinary structures within which the doctorate is undertaken and each narrative also conveys something of the energy and efficacy of the writer. And of course, as readers, we will undoubtedly interpret these stories for ourselves, bringing our own experiences into conversation with the text in order to make sense, and use, of it for ourselves.

However, Bruner’s line of thinking about narrative and storied lives is not without its critics. For instance, reviewing Bruner’s 2003 book Making Stories, Law, Literature, Life in The Guardian, Philosophy professor Galen Strawson says

Bruner never raises the question of whether there is any sense in which one’s self-narrative should be accurate or realistic. Those who favour the extreme fictionalist or post-modernist version of the narrative self-creation view don’t care about this, both because they don’t care about truth and because a fiction isn’t open to criticism by comparison with reality (it doesn’t matter that there is no Middle Earth). But honesty and realism about self and past must matter. There are innumerable facts about one’s character and history that don’t depend on one’s inventions. One can’t found a good life on falsehood. 

Strawson is concerned that a narrative can stray too far away from lived reality. It becomes a kind of fantasy, a false world in which the protagonist storyteller constructs an amoral rationale for their actions. Is this true of these stories?

It seems to me that Bruner’s argument about ‘ringing true’ goes part of the way towards addressing Strawson’s concern, although a philosopher might want to warn about the possibilities of collective self-delusion. However, in the academy, we are strongly committed to notions of collective scholarly agreement, and peer judgment. If, therefore, readers (collective) of the book agree that these stories resonate with them, then this potentially puts paid to Strawson’s worry. As readers who find resemblances between our experiences and those recounted here, we can assume that contributors have responded truthfully to the requests for contribution, and that the stories interpolate the ‘real’ of the doctorate. Certainly, while not all of these stories were my experiences, or those of doctoral researchers that I supervise, they all seem to me to be not only plausible and reasonable, but also convincing.

But is there anything beyond a straightforward reading of the book possible? Are these just small anecdotes to read at night to reassure us that we are not alone, or suggest that there are other ways to live and do the PhD? Of course. One of the ways in which we might make more of these stories is to subject them to narrative analysis (Riessman, 2008). This would be to put Bruner’s final point – about the ways in which narratives make culture(s) – to the test. We might read this collection looking for shared plots, common themes, patterns of emotional responses, common characters (human and non human) with similar intentions. We might use this kind of interpretive reading to build a critical view of the doctorate and the doctoral experience, asking ‘What does this overall narrative analysis mean? Is this the only story in town, the only way the PhD could be? Who is in this collective story and who isn’t – what kind of inclusions and exclusions are made visible through this analysis?’ And on that basis, ‘How might the doctorate be different?’

But of course, dear Reader, the text doesn’t have to be studied. It doesn’t have to be more work. These stories can simply be read to be enjoyed.  And they can be read to provoke your own stories which you might then add to the growing global anthology of PhD experiences.



Bal, M. (1997). Narratology. Introduction to the theory of the narrative (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Berger, A. A. (1997). Narratives in popular culture, media and everyday life. London: Sage.

Bruner, J. (1986). Life as narrative. Social Research, 54(1), 11-32.

Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1-21.

Bruner, J. (2003). Making stories. Law, literature, life. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry. Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Ricoeur, P. (1984-1988). Time and narrative. Volumes 1-3 (K. M. a. P. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Riessman, C. K. (2008). Narrative methods for the human sciences. Thousand Oaks: Sage.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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1 Response to PhD narratives

  1. Alan Thomson says:

    Will be looking out for this. I had been thinking of constructing a narrative account of my own Viva using my own story interspersed with the narrative accounts of both my Supervisor and one of the examiners. By storying the three perspectives of the Viva (Harry Walcott talks about the Rashoman effect), I could examine my own life history narrative to make sense of the three stories. Wondered what your thoughts would be on this. The plot line alludes to the narrative ‘People like me me/my background don’t get PhDs’. Think there is a story here that has a strong element of ‘transferability’ to others engaged in the Viva process.


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