The Metaphors That Research Students Live By

We Melbournians are privileged enough to get a public holiday for the Melbourne Cup. Your tireless editor took a couple of days off so this week’s Monday post is a little late, but I hope it’s worth the wait.

This is a guest post from Rod Pitcher, a PhD student in Education at The Centre  for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. I asked Rod if he could make a summary of his doctoral work as it sounded so interesting – what metaphors do research students live by and what does it tell us about research degree study?

There are a number of ways of finding out how students think about their work. I chose to use metaphor analysis of the responses to an on-line survey. In responding to the survey the research students were asked to describe their work as they would to an undergraduate student who had some interest in pursuing a doctorate at some time in the future.

There turned out to be five types of metaphors used in the survey responses. The types should not be taken as absolutely clear cut and independent, as most of the responses tended to overlap two or more categories to some degree.

Metaphors of Space

The largest group of metaphors found in the responses related to space. The largest single metaphor that occurred was ‘field’ followed closely by ‘area’.  Metaphors of space suggest that the students using them see their research as opening up or developing into new areas of knowledge. They refer to their research as being in a particular ‘field’ or ‘area’ which is part of overall knowledge. Other metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘regions’, ‘frontiers’ and ‘byways’, all of which relate to areas and give the impression of openness and somewhere into which to develop the work.

This type of metaphor gives the reader an image of research being an investigation of a space, like a field is an open area of land. Thus there is a feeling of openness and space.

Metaphors of Travel

The largest single metaphor referring to travel was ‘steps’ which occurred multiple times in nine responses. Similar metaphors are ‘journey’,  ‘path’  and ‘track’. Metaphors of travel suggests that the student sees her or his research as a movement, as travelling towards some goal. Other metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘flow’, ‘wading’, ‘embark’ and ‘sprint’ all of which indicate a movement. The destination may not be clearly known but movement in some direction is part of the research.

This type of metaphor gives the reader the idea of exploration, of opening up new areas of research, of heading off into the distance to find new knowledge. It suggests a sense of movement involved in research, that research requires a lot of action to bring it to fruition, that nothing is found by sitting still, only by moving into the unknown.

Metaphors of Action

There was a large variety of metaphors for action. These varied from descriptions of research as ‘constructing’ knowledge, from research seen as ‘struggling’, to research seen as ‘scratching’ for results. All these metaphors refer to actions that might be taken to conduct research. Similar metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘working’, ‘delve’, ‘reap’ and ‘combing’, all which refer to some action involved to make the research develop in the desired direction. The metaphors of action give the reader a much more earthy feeling about research. It seems that the person undertaking it has to get their hands dirty and actually work hard at it.

Metaphors of the Body

There were a number of metaphors that related to a human or animal body. There was ‘body’ itself and ‘corpus’. Also in this category might be ‘virgin’ and ‘drown’. This type of metaphor suggests that the student sees his or her research as manipulating a ‘body’ of material as a body of a person or animal  might be manipulated. Other metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘infancy’, ‘struggling’ and ‘grasp’ all of which refer to some bodily function or action.

This type of metaphor gives the reader the idea of research being constructed in some way like a body, where many different parts come together to achieve some outcome. There is a sense that research is not a simple isolated field but is related across and between disciplines as one might consider the parts of a human body to be a composite of interrelated parts.

Metaphors of Ordeal

There were a number of metaphors that referred to research as an ordeal. One student twice referred to research as  a ‘marathon’ with its intimations of a struggle against the odds and the persistence required to complete the ordeal. Another referred to the ‘struggle’ of research. Other metaphors that appeared in this category included ‘crushing’, ‘drown’, ‘fighting’ and ‘safety net’ all of which give the impression that the research is not easy and involves suffering to make progress.

The metaphors of ordeal give the reader the impression that the student is struggling with the research, that the research is like a marathon race which tests the staying power of the student to the limits, and that the ordeal of the research is something overpoweringly strong that has to be overcome to achieve the doctorate.

It is plain that research students show a wide range of conceptions of their work. Their attitudes vary from the more or less positive view of those who see their work as travelling to some destination to the more negative view of those who see it as an ordeal to be suffered. I suggest that this attitude might also be reflected in the student’s approach to his or her work and commitment to completing the doctorate.

Many thanks to Rod for sharing his research. I what metaphors would you use to describe your thesis and research work? Some people find it helpful to focus on an object which can help them generate metaphors. For instance, if your research was a car what sort of car would it be? I hope it’s not like the car pictured above!

Related posts

The loneliness of the long distance thesis writer

Do you need an academic coach?

20 thoughts on “The Metaphors That Research Students Live By

  1. I’ve always pictured mine as a jigsaw – like those ones of jelly beans – but with 100,000 pieces, and I must assemble it in the dark!

  2. Best metaphor I was EVER given was by a supervisor who likened the PhD thesis to a bus journey with a very dim tour group. You had to start by telling them your destination, and exactly how you were going to get there. You then had to justify which bus you were on, and why you were taking the route you were taking, and which stops you stopped at. You had to point out the significant locations as you went past them, saying why it was significant and the house next door wasnt. When you got to where you were going, you had to explain to them again where you had been, what you had seen, and why you went that way.

  3. I’m curious if the metaphors might also be stage related?
    Im beginning to notice i am creating space from mine, I have John Laws ‘hopeful monster’ analogy in mind with a visual image of one of the monsters from where the wild things are.
    I think this has a lot to do with being closer to an end.
    ailsa

  4. Can’t resist sharing my analogies (with some inbuilt metaphors).

    Firstly, I did a slideshow depicting one of the analogies I got carried away with: How a PhD is like Alice in Wonderland: http://www.slideshare.net/Jayelem/how-a-phd-is-like-alice-in-wonderland

    And secondly, here’s a blogpost on why I made a twitter account for my thesis, which includes a brief overview of various metaphors and analogies: http://jazzlinguist.blogspot.com/2011/09/why-i-made-twitter-account-for-my.html Some colleagues of mine talked about their research as a pregnancy – in the early stages you sigh and rub your tummy and draw attention to it, and eventually you’re swollen with knowledge and rather fed up.

  5. The metaphors might change with the stage of the PhD, but I don’t know. I haven’t checked. My work has since gone off in a different direction where I’m critiquing the method of metaphor analysis, using a method called MIP, the Metaphor Identification Procedure.

    For Jeffrey. I have two papers on the above written and submitted. I’m waiting for a response. I’ve been waiting months now, so something should happen soon, I hope.

    Thanks for all the comments. It helps to know that I’m not the only person who sees metaphors everywhere. I’ve always been interested in them and what they mean.

    Rod Pitcher

  6. I heard one at a seminar today: “My PhD is the dead elephant in my living room.” And someone once told me that doing a PhD (especially the last stages) felt like being locked in a cupboard, and no-one knew or cared whether she would ever come out.

    These are all rather negative. Mine feels like a hilly climb at the moment: the summit is in sight but not in reach.

  7. I heard one at a seminar today: “My PhD is the dead elephant in my living room.” And someone once told me that doing a PhD (especially the last stages) felt like being locked in a cupboard, and no-one knew or cared whether she would ever come out.

    These are all rather negative. Mine feels like a hilly climb at the moment: the summit is in sight but not in reach.

  8. While I was on maternity leave/suspension partway through I thought about being in a tunnel in a broken down train, waiting for spare parts. I sort of knew how long it would get for the parts to be brought in, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, butI didn’t know how fast the train was going to be ableto move once it was fixed.

  9. Pingback: OK I’ll just go home now | undergoer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s