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!

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