The PhD Diaries #4: Onward

A SUMMARY REPORT OF THE ADVANCED QUALITATIVE RESEARCH PROGRAMME AND THE PHD THUS FAR

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Although I have little intention of sharing this summary, I think it would be nice to have if I (inexperienced as I am), or some other PhD student, happened to need a few useful pointers; so, I shall keep it tucked away in The Alcove, along with the book reviews and favourite essays and musings on childhood reading and feminist ideals.*

A pre-requisite to conducting ‘real’ PhD level research is a compulsory course in advanced qualitative research methods. I initially looked on this requirement with no small amount of trepidation and a dash of annoyance, not because I didn’t think I could do it, but rather, it seemed a distraction from what I should be doing (e.g. working on my own literature review and proposal). I thought I already knew enough about various qualitative methods and methodological fit, along with other abstruse terms like intersubjectivity and post-positivism, to get by reasonably successfully.

I suppose now is the time to write: “But I was so wrong!” And in some respects I was – I didn’t actually know that much about qualitative methods, and the course was a timely opportunity to clarify my position in relation to the broader qualitative field. A range of hints, tricks, questions, and soundbites of important information were also provided and duly recorded. A few of my favourites include:

 

  • Doing research is a craft, a skill that can be learnt but requires practice. To become good craftspeople, we need to learn to use the tools. But to know what tools to use, we need to know what we’re building.
  • Your theoretical framework determines what you do with your data. The lenses are vital. You need to stay true to your ontology – once you commit, stay committed.
  • Find your ‘island’ and stay there.
  • You can’t sit in a dark corner and just write. Being a scholar is a collective conversation – Pick your conversation and contribute to it. What is the history of the conversation? Where is it going?
  • Who is your audience and how does this influence how and what you write?
  • Don’t write like you’re trying to educate the examiner. Avoid an educational tone by showing not telling (e.g. “I have decided to position myself in this way because…”). Be elegant in communication.
  • Don’t lose control of the process and drift away from your harbour, you’ll catch the wrong fish (data).
  • Rather than ‘walking around speculating,’ think through writing.

I finished the course with an excellent overall score (90/100). But despite my ‘success’, I’ve felt insincere every time I repeat the appropriate platitudes to the appropriate people; “The course was so great! I learnt so much! What a good opportunity for PhD students. It should definitely stay compulsory.” However, I’ve struggled for several weeks to sort my disparate thoughts into a coherent understanding of why I feel unsettled talking in this way; why I look back on the past few months, and in fact, the whole PhD experience thus far, with a slightly perplexed frown rather than an enlightened and self-assured smile. Ladkin (2010) terms this unsettled visceral response the ‘yuck factor’. A ‘yuck’ response

…provides important information regarding one’s aesthetic judgement of a questionable situation. It is our physical and emotional response of distaste which informs us that we are reaching an edge. Like the disquiet at the edge of consciousness when a ‘part’ does not quite fit with a ‘whole’. (p. 172)

As I sit and contemplate Ladkin’s description, a dreamlike image repeats itself: I am wandering the halls of academia, through corridors, down steps, up lifts, searching for something. Walking slowly, but determinedly. There are no maps for these halls and the twists and turns are many. I’ve memorised sections, but dead ends and sheer drops appear suddenly and unexpectedly. A dollar sign hovers over my head; the value is set high, and the weight of it makes me walk slightly hunched over, heavy. There is the promise of a destination, but only a few people along the way to lead or guide me beyond one corner or the next hallway, and some ignore me completely. Everyone is rushing, rushing, rushing. The halls themselves seem deliberately set up in labyrinthine form to thwart any clear and straightforward passage. Maybe I will walk forever.

I am pragmatic. I know my value is set – I am an asset to the university, a number, a tick or cross in the various boxes that comprise the next three years. But I sense a change in me, I not only perceive my dehumanisation as it exists outside myself, I am beginning to see myself as a separate entity – a thing that must be made and forced to work hard. My body, my brain – a business, and its ownership in constant contest.

Perhaps I am over-exaggerating? I am often my own harshest critic which suggests these demands are at least partly illusory or self-imposed. In expressing mild discomfort with the ‘way of things’, I have been told to move on (“it’s just that lecturer”), to appreciate what I’ve got (“you’re lucky to be here”), to keep quiet (“it sucks but there’s no point complaining, our job is to just get on with it”).

Yet to dismiss myself in such a cursory manner, to repress the essence of my experiences thus far, runs counter to my desire for authenticity and reflexivity during the PhD process. If I truly subscribe to an intersubjective paradigm, I must look at myself-in-relation-to-others (and in relation to the institution of which I am a part) and the meaning making which emerges from these interactions or ‘moments’ (Cunliffe, 2011). As Cunliffe (2004) explains, “Interactions are responsive relationships (Bakhtin, 1986). We act in response to others and our surroundings” (p. 415). However subjective my interpretations, they still hold ‘truths’, even if they are personal ones. It is only in surfacing these underlying assumptions, taken-for-granted actions, and different interpretations that I can move towards what Cunliffe (2004) calls “a critical questioning of experiences” (p. 421) and, subsequently, embody different ways of being, acting and relating. I want to work with these feelings, rather than against them. Otherwise the only option is suppression, and a disempowering acceptance of the status quo. I will stay in a self-defeating loop that demands an impossible level of perfection. Further, dwelling with a negative response to an experience/moment/encounter is not bad or unproductive in-and-of itself; it always strikes me how we formulate our understanding of good/bad, positive/negative, happy/sad, as strict dichotomies – I should be a good student, who is positive, and maintains a happy façade in spite of X, Y or Z.

F*ck that.

As Le Guin (1989) so elegantly puts it: “Now this is what I want: I want to hear your judgements. I am sick of the silence of women. I want to hear you speaking all the languages, offering your experience as your truth, as human truth, talking about working, about making, about unmaking…about feeling, about thinking…There’s a lot of things I want to hear you talk about.” (p. 159)

Am I student or am I an adult?

I arrived home on the 17:10 train from the first qualitative research class feeling very downcast. Perhaps because I'd been dreading it slightly, or maybe because it just was that way, in response to my first impressions I felt I was slipping into the disempowered student persona of past days. The hierarchical lines between teacher and student were clearly drawn and unspoken expectations suggested this would be one long lesson in proving myself (again and again), every misstep ceremoniously recorded (participation marks!) and made worse by my own nervousness which left me feeling like I might say something, not stupid, but perhaps not quite smart enough, and be seen for a fool, a fraud, or worse.

I am happy to report that my experience of the course improved, and I settled into a productive rhythm, but I still haven’t shaken the feeling of disquiet, a sort of less-than feeling. The question “am I a student or am I an adult?” suggests these identities are mutually exclusive, and for me at least, they often feel like they are. I started university when I was 17, and have studied almost continuously since then in one form or another. Given the length of time devoted to study (almost 7 years to-date), and despite my forays into the workforce (retail manager, dance teacher, social media manager, copy editor, tutor, etc…), family and friends have always seen and treated me as a ‘student’; the perpetual student. And at times this has manifested itself in quite disparaging ways. Take for example, the well-meaning pastor friend of my parents who suggested to my husband that he should assert his right as ‘head of the household’ and steer me towards a more appropriate occupation (e.g. childcare worker, church volunteer, mother). Or the friends who can’t help but comment in a patronising tone almost every time I see them, “Oh, are you still studying?” Only a few people treat my decision to pursue a PhD and conduct research as a genuine career, even though I try hard to portray it as such. As with every decision, deciding on the PhD entailed a trade-off; a trade-off for several other careers I could have successfully pursued and in which I would have achieved a greater degree of immediate respect (or maybe I just know a whole lot of assholes?). So – and this explanation is becoming long-winded – what I am trying to say is that, sometimes, despite my best efforts to believe in my academic future, when I am treated like a student (in the classic undergraduate and/or bottom of the hierarchy sense), it is disempowering. The implicit power relations espoused by the institution suggest that you have neither made it nor are you an employee in the proper sense of the word. Of course, I am in a position where I have a lot to learn, so I am an apprentice to those who are more knowledgeable and wiser than me and I embrace this, however, I had hoped (and have experienced in some instances) that this would primarily be on relational terms, not hierarchical ones.

So, if someone happens to ask, a future response must look something like this: “The content of the course was interesting, the teaching invaluable, the assignments useful, but the hierarchical environment, the languages of power, and the impositions enforced by the university in characteristically depersonalised form (‘You must do this course, you must get a B+, you must do an English test,’ etc, etc, etc), made me feel less-than, and I am not less-than, I am a grown person, a smart person, a person who is willing to learn and contribute.”

Which leads to my next questions – Do I have a future or just a piece of paper?

Like a persistent itch, the question of whether or not there is any secure future for a PhD grad is a reoccurring topic of conversation at the university. I’ve started recording the ratio of ‘do worry about your future’ (9+) to ‘don’t worry’ (3) speeches. The ‘do worry’ team is pronouncing their message loud and clear (and in good faith I suppose; an effort to save us from disillusionment), no doubt they see themselves as harbingers of the ‘truth’ of things: There is unlikely to be a long-term or secure job for you here or anywhere. I heard the speech just yesterday in fact – if you even want the chance of a job, you must work harder and smarter. Publish, publish, publish. Give 110% or, as someone put it recently, 150% (e.g. 7 days a week, 12-16 hours a day). While I don’t doubt the message’s importance, or its practical ‘truth’, I do question the university’s role in promoting and requiring such a ridiculous standard, where over-working is praised, and you can kiss goodbye to a humane work-life balance, just for the chance of a job (where is our union?! The PGSA? you’re joking). I am not afraid of hard work, and I don’t point this out because I want to take an ‘easy’ route (for several years I juggled full-time study with two, and sometimes three, part-time jobs) but it seems nonsensical to take a bunch of motivated and clever young people, pay them just enough to survive for three or four years, or in a lot of cases don’t pay them at all, demand a high level of commitment and dedication, and then once their PhDs are cashed in, clear them off their desks as fast as possible (which I’ve been told often happens within a week) and replace them with another earnest go-getter. And thus repeats the cycle. Does this happen in any other industry in this country? Why are business PhD students not treated as apprentices (with a clear path towards a full-time job) rather than expendable commodities? I suppose the answer is simple – money, money, money. As long as PhD candidates are thought of as ‘students’, that is, someone the university is doing something for and not the other way around, not as employees or contributors or apprentices, I doubt this will change. No amount of “we value our students” can supersede the fact that as a business student, barring the support of your supervisors (if you’re lucky), you are released into an unfriendly and competitive wilderness after you graduate (Kelsky, 2015). While I agree I am lucky to be here – although privilege probably has more to do with it than luck – the university is also lucky to have me. We’re in a mutually beneficial relationship. My passion is the university’s profit, and the university’s platform is my ticket, or it should be.

No doubt some people would strongly refute this story, BUT it is the one I keep hearing and it is a powerful and distressing tale. I have heard it over and over again from many different people and in many different forums (seminars, lectures, conversations, etc…) in the short 7 months I have been here. For example, in a guest lecture a few weeks ago a new-ish academic exhorted his listeners in strong terms that “a PhD is not enough anymore,” you must “grasp each and every opportunity” whether it be marking, teaching, research work, publishing, reviewing, helping a contact, being on a committee, presenting at conferences (all activities which directly benefit the university, I might add), essentially anything and everything; grasping opportunities is the only way to succeed, and even then, you need a fair amount of luck because jobs are scarce as hen’s teeth. I suppose he was trying to be helpful but what I find most interesting here is the language. ‘Anymore’ implies that once upon a time an excellent, lovingly and passionately crafted PhD was enough, and ‘grasping,’ that is, “to make an attempt to seize, or a motion of seizing, something” (a violent action?), is aptly summed up by an example of its use in my dictionary: “a drowning [wo]man grasping at straws.” 

So, what to do?

I’m outlining these frustrations because they unsettle me, and by naming them I hope I can disrupt the immobilizing power they hold over me. Even though I can’t make any systemic changes at the moment (barring writing this blog post), I don’t want to become lost in this story (stressed, grasping, sleepless), nor do I want to give up and leave because it feels to hard, to unrewarding, to dehumanising. To borrow the words of Le Guin (1989), these are narratives written and disseminated in the father-tongue, a language which speaks in terms of competition, hierarchy, power, individualism, success, and ivory towers. It says: 'To be successful in the battle for an academic career you must do this and that and then this. Only then are you enough.' The father-tongue doesn’t question the dominant way of things, it colludes and perpetuates rather than demanding change.

I have been learning this language and wallowing in it, but if I continue to live with and in these stories for the next three years I won’t sleep enough, I won’t spend enough time with my family, I will be constantly worried about the non-existent future job. I won’t make time for yoga, dancing, holidays, reflection. And yes, ultimately the university could and should do better, but I am also responsible for myself, both now and in the future, to live in a way that is fulfilling and passionate and giving. So I happily refuse to overwork. That doesn't mean being lazy, refusing to fill out all those copious forms, missing due dates, or being willfully ignorant about the future, it means being fully engaged in the process of learning, achieving mastery, and (*gasp*) allowing myself time to enjoy the experience, and by doing so, not sacrificing myself to a system which appears to demand an impossible 150%.

It means giving myself grace when things aren’t perfect. It means dwelling in the moment rather than living in tomorrow’s uncertainty. It means getting distracted sometimes and not being disappointed in myself when plans go awry. Oh, the AMAs are on today? I wonder what Lorde is wearing? Did I just hear my email notification? What does ‘limpid’ mean? I feel like I should know this. Sartre, yes, I think I know who that is, but I’ll just double check…Oh, he wrote novels as well – right, onto Goodreads then for some research. My favourite blogger just recommended 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die…better check that link out, there might be a potential lead! *starts mentally ticking off the novels I’ve already read* I bet the library has this book, I should order it now. Is it going to rain on Wednesday? *goes to Metservice* possibly a shower or two, ok that’s fine, I’ll take an umbrella.

It is a slow process this unlearning and realigning. 

In closing, and I hope as I have shown in this blog post, I am willing to move onwards, upwards and backwards in confusion through the labyrinth, but following my own thread and drawing strength from different stories, told in languages other than that of the father-tongue which speaks from above and demands too much (Le Guin, 1989). I am not a cog in the great machine of the university, and I will not measure my ‘success’ only by numbers and impact factors and grades – I am a woman dancing, singing, laughing, reading, writing, studying, and she is fully human.

Notes:

* The introduction to this blog post models the short story ‘Sur’ by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is rather tongue-in-cheek, as like the silenced female explorers of Le Guin’s story whose only record of their experience is a written document left in an overcrowded attic in some undisclosed location, this report will likewise remain tucked away alongside the other bits and pieces found on a blog of this nature.

References:

Cunliffe, A. (2004). On becoming a critically reflexive practitioner. Journal of Management Education, 28(4), 407-426.

Cunliffe, A. L. (2011). Crafting qualitative research: Morgan and Smircich 30 years on. Qualitative Research Methods, 14(4), 647–673.

Kelsky, K. (2015). The professor is in. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Ladkin, D. (2010). Rethinking leadership: A new look at old leadership questions. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Le Guin, U. K. (1989). Dancing at the edge of the world: Thoughts on words, women, places. New York: Grove Press.