What are you learning while you do your PhD? (maybe not what you expected!)

This is the first guest post by Mary-Helen Ward, who is doing a PhD at the University of Sydney

When you enrol for a PhD you don’t have much idea about what you will learn. Sure, you have an idea of what you are going to investigate, and you may even have some idea of how you might go about doing that.

You’ll probably start talking to your new supervisor about your project in those terms: what I want to find out about and how I think I might do that. But very quickly you will find that doing a PhD is about much more than that. It’s going to take you between 3 and 8 years, depending on whether you are full-time or part-time.Either way it’s going be a good slice of your life.

You will learn heaps – about yourself and about your discipline and about academia – and a lot of it won’t be things you could have anticipated.

My PhD is in Education, and I’m investigating how the student experience of doing a PhD at my research-intensive Uni contrasts with the (limited) theory of how and what people learn when they’re doing a PhD in Australia and my University’s story of what a PhD can -  or should  – be.

I’ve listened to lots of people on the campus, as well of course to students, as I’m coming to form the ideas that will be the basis of my thesis. The short story is that I’ve learned that PhD students are in a kind of shadowland that I call a liminal space. Most of what they learn isn’t planned at the beginning – it just happens through the process.

As you’ve probably figured out, there isn’t a clear plan at most unis for how you will do your PhD. It’s not like enrolling in a unit of study with published ‘learning outcomes’ and a syllabus of topics to be covered with set assessment tasks. There might or might not be some coursework or skills workshops, and you will probably have to present a formal proposal at the end of a set period of time in order to have your candidature confirmed.

Most Unis now have some kind of regular review process, where you meet with people who aren’t your direct supervisor(s) to talk about your progress. There may be a requirement for you to do formal presentations at various points in the process. If you’re working in a team there may be a fairly clear role for you in that team, which may involve completing set tasks to contribute to the bigger picture of the project.

But for many students the reality is that the first thing they learn is that it’s up to them what they learn, and the only thing they will assessed on is the thesis they will write.

Jim Cumming, in his interesting thesis Representing the complexity, diversity and particularity of the doctoral enterprise in Australia, had the clever idea of mining his case study interviews for ‘pedagogical moments’ – points or processes in their doctoral studies during which people learned things. He was interested in how people identify what they learned and the pedagogical mechanisms involved (how they learned these things).

Cummings found out that the people he interviewed identified lots of things that they’d learned that they hadn’t expected to. Things like how a workplace team functions, for instance, or how to get the best from technical support staff, or how research funding can shape the outcomes of research. Many learnt how to apply the principles of project management when collecting data, or how to compile data in order to write a very big document. Some might have learnt how to work with an absent supervisor or on an international project.

Here’s some of my pedagogical moments:

  • I’ve learnt that I can walk into the offices of even very senior academics and they will be interested in my work and generous with their time. This has made me feel much more confident about my paid work at the Uni as well.
  • I’ve learnt that when I do presentations, sometimes people respond critically. I listen and respond, but they might still not be satisfied. Sometimes this has to remain unresolved - and I can’t fix that.
  • I’ve learnt that people may appear enthusiastic about a project, but it can be very difficult to get them to actually engage. I’ve learned to judge when to give up!

When you finish your PhD you’ll probably be looking for employment. I’m told by the Careers Service at my Uni that many people with sparkly new PhDs, coming to the job market, find it hard to articulate the skills that they’ve gained during their candidature.

So ask yourself: what you’re learning that you didn’t expect to? What are you learning that might be contributing to your own professional and personal growth as well as your thesis? It could make all the difference when you’re looking for work later.

7 thoughts on “What are you learning while you do your PhD? (maybe not what you expected!)

  1. Matt’s great diagram is about what you learn in your discipline. I’m hoping to get people to think about what else they learn – what life lessons and life skills they pick up in the process.

    • I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of days and I reckon I learnt one key thing:

      Academia is in a constant state of war that is so polite that no blood is shed.

      Oh – and I think I just got an idea for my next post!

    • So true. It’s hard when they’re boasting about their sales as a mark of suesccs and you’re looking at your paltry numbers in shame as they don’t move anywhere or they bounce around the chart like a ping pong ball.There is so much advice of what author’s should be doing and not enough of it is practical for authors.

  2. The engaging piece by Mary Helen reminds of something I read recently by Assoc.Prof. Andrew Martin on what he calls ‘connective instruction’ which supports a student to fully engage academically and create ‘academic resilience’ something vital for a successful PhD student.
    There are three levels of connective instruction -
    the singer (the interpersonal – connection between the student and their teacher/supervisor)
    the song (the substantive – connection between the student and the subject matter and the substance)
    the singing (the pedagogy – connection between the student and the pedagogy)

    I think the singer, song, singing metaphor grabbed my attention and that with reflection the way you sing a song can change the more you know the song, the more confidence that is built up, the more…

    ‘Pulling students back from the brink: the roles of academic resilience and good relationships’. SPELD news. Volume 40, No. 4, November 2008)

  3. Pingback: Is a PhD like a reality TV contest? « The Thesis Whisperer

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