unlearning who you are and what you know? starting the doctorate

No-one arrives at a doctorate as a blank slate. Everyone brings with them particular histories – we have life experiences and personal pathways which are classed, raced, gendered; work experiences and sometimes long professional careers; as well as educational histories. Formal educational histories of new PhDers are generally strongly disciplinary and focused on academic success in lower degrees.

These histories do not always seamlessly morph into the doctorate. It is as well to understand the potential for uneasiness between what you have experienced and understood before the PhD, and how it sits with the doctoral process. I am about to generalise mightily here, but bear with me.

There is now plenty of research evidence to suggest that universities have not moved as far away from their elite origins as they might. Despite their official recognition of ‘equity and diversity’, universities still tend to be (variously) hostile environments for those who have gained entry, despite the odds against them. And people who are “non traditional” often feel different, out of place.

The feeling of being an outsider does not go away simply because you have got as far as starting a doctorate – although most people in doctoral programmes feel somewhat off balance and as if they are becoming someone else during the long and intensive process. However, the outsider-ness borne of class, race, gender, sexuality, neurotypicality and able-ness is different from, and added into, the challenges inherent to the doctorate.

The research on experiences of being and feeling an outsider in the university points to subtle expectations that you will become someone else. These expectations often have nothing to do with your academic competence. They are more about the ways in which you speak and act, your tastes and non-academic pursuits and your familiarity with particular people and places.

Do you have to unlearn these things? No of course not. Are there pressures for you to do so? Well often, yes.

If you’re reading this, some of you will wonder if I am talking about outersiderness from reading the research. The answer is yes, but not entirely. When I first went to university, women were in a minority (a third in my case) and there was a small group who came from state schools (about 10% at my university at the time) and even fewer from families that were categorised as working class. That was me – woman, state school, working class. Mine was the first generation in our extended family to go to university. I do know first hand what it means to have to fit in to a very different environment from the one you are used to. It was all very disorienting and I would certainly have dropped out if I hadn’t found other people like me pretty quickly.

It is worth thinking about how much these questions of outsider ness might matter to you, and where you might find others who are in similar situations. They may be in your institution, or beyond.

Feeling out of place mattered to me a lot as an undergraduate. However, in the doctorate what mattered more were the ways in which my professional knowledge counted.

People who come into the university as mature students – lots of life experience- and later career – already highly competent professionals – not only have experiences but also knowledges based in practice. As opposed to life experiences, where the challenge is about refusing to be stigmatised and about retaining those things that are core to identity, the challenge for professionals is how to bring professional knowings together with codified scholarly knowledges.

Within universities, there is a strong tendency to act as if academic knowledges are more legitimate than those developed in the field. But most professionals who do doctorates don’t want to abandon their professional understandings. They want to add to what they already know and can do. It is of course important to look critically at professional understandings, just like any other body of knowledge, but it is equally important not to deny them.

Those who teach on professional doctorates are often very aware of the knowledges that people bring with them, and want to find ways to avoid ignoring them. They want to find ways to widen what counts as scholarly knowledges and see the inclusion of professional insights and understandings as important. They do this with varying success, often against university cultures and structures.

And yes, I’ve been this mature postgraduate too. But I didn’t have to unlearn what I knew from my long career in order to do research. There were many ways in which my professional experience helped in my doctorate. I didn’t need to read about the development of national policy and the histories of educational change – I’d sat on numerous relevant committees and already had the books and documents on my book shelves. I didn’t need to sweat about making contacts with people and places – I already had great networks and street cred. I asked questions about issues that I knew from my own experiences mattered, even though they weren’t a highlight in the literatures (budgets, fundraising, timetables). My supervisor understood this, saw these as strengths, and let me go my own way.

Other professionals tell similar stories to mine. If supervisors and university teachers understand the value of professional understandings, then they can help to minimise the potential conflict and feelings of infantilisation that come from being treated, by the institution, as a novice/empty vessel to be filled up. But recognition of the value of professional knowing needs to go further.

Destinations and intentions matter. Many mature PhDers don’t need career advice. They aren’t doing the doctorate to get a job. They already have one. They are studying for other reasons. As it happened, I did do the doctorate so I could switch career from schools into higher education. Other people don’t do this and want to stay in their professional practice. There is still a dominant and unfortunate tendency to see this as a lesser choice – an unhappy reframing of the hierarchy of theory and practice.

If you are starting the PhD and are concerned either about losing identity and feeling like an outsider, or about how to work with professional knowledges, there are things to read and places where you can discuss these kinds of questions as you start. It is worth doing a search on facebook and twitter to look for networks. Ask on the socials for recommendations – linking people and giving information is a key attribute of platforms like twitter.

And rather than list only the support groups and networks that I know, perhaps if you have particular groups you find helpful during the doctorate and beyond, you might put them in the comments. 

Photo by REGINE THOLEN on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, academic writing, identity, mature age PhD, outsider, professional doctorate, scholarly identity, starting the PhD and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to unlearning who you are and what you know? starting the doctorate

  1. Katrina McChesney says:

    Love this … really important issues and important that we disrupt the power structures and perceived hierarchies of identity, knowledge, and career choices. Thanks, Pat. In terms of places to belong – I was a distance student and also had a baby mid-PhD. Groups I love are/were:
    – Women in Academia Support Network: https://www.facebook.com/WiasnHQ
    – PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents: https://www.facebook.com/groups/776957585681408
    – Doctoral Research by Distance: https://www.facebook.com/groups/doctoralresearchbydistance
    – Academic Women Online Writing Retreat: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1617153205104240


  2. Jo Burrows says:

    Thanks for this post Pat. Coming into my PhD last year with a professional background in industry, I relate strongly to the “feelings of infantilisation that come from being treated as a novice/empty vessel to be filled up” you have described here. Professional experience is often treated as irrelevant or inferior compared to academic expertise, despite enabling unique insights and perspectives. On Twitter there is so much discussion at present about transitioning from academia to industry. However, I feel that a commonly overlooked experience is that of transitioning from industry to academia, including into a PhD. There is very little guidance or support available for those going through this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kirsty Ruthven says:

    Thank you for this, I really needed to read this today! Especially with horrible changes at my institution involving redundancies and the closure of courses and departments. Thank you too to Katrina above for the Facebook group suggestions.


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