Are you just a student?

I have a friend, let’s call him Peter.

Like many of my friends, Peter is trying to finish off his PhD while simultaneously paying a mortgage and supporting a family. To do this he runs a successful consulting practice and teaches on a casual basis.

In fact, Peter has been teaching for a long time now – over 15 years – and he’s good at it. He is also a great researcher; widely published before he even started his PhD. Peter happens to be charming and funny as well; just the kind of guy you want to run into at faculty mixers.

All this is probably making you wonder why, despite numerous applications, Peter has never been awarded a scholarship or a permanent academic job in an Australian university.

Did I mention Peter is of African descent?

I might just leave that last point hanging because this post isn’t about possible racism in academic hiring practices. It was prompted by an email sent to Peter by his university graduate school, which Peter forwarded to me the other week. Due to all the circumstances I’ve described, Peter is now on his second extension and needs to complete his degree by next February or he will be classed as an ‘over time candidate’. The email was a signal that the university is becoming concerned about this possibility.

Let me take a brief moment to explain what ‘overtime’ means here. Peter is a ‘Research Training Scheme’ or RTS student, this means he doesn’t have to pay fees for his tuition. The Australian government will pay a large sum of money to the university if Peter completes his degree. This is a way of paying the fees in arrears, but if Peter doesn’t complete his degree the University gets nothing.

Essentially, by accepting him as a student in the first place, the university has taken a ‘bet’ that Peter will complete.

Some people may object to the way the RTS reduces education to money and ‘through-puts’, but I think the RTS is quite a clever way of funding PhD education. There’s a clear incentive for universities to help students finish on time. That’s the reason why research education professionals like myself exist at all. You could think of me – and this blog – as a form of risk management technology.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, back to the story. The email kindly offered Peter a special two day workshop in research methods, writing and ‘networking’. Apparently Peter was being offered this “great opportunity” because he has “passed confirmation and is now close to completion”. The letter cheerily pointed out that this workshop would help Peter finish his degree and discover what career options might be waiting for him after completion.

The email made Peter hopping mad, and I could see why. I remember being annoyed by similar letters when I was a research student.

Firstly the letter imagined all sorts of problems which don’t exist and didn’t offer help for the ones that do. The workshop sounded great … for a student who was new to research or who had never worked as a professional academic. But Peter doesn’t need a workshop, he needs money so he can temporarily suspend his other responsibilities and complete his degree.

I knew it wasn’t merely frutration at the offer of useless help that made Peter send the mail on to me. Although he didn’t put it this way, I could tell he was deeply and personally insulted by what we might call a ‘deficit model’ underlying the offer of help.

In the nicest possible way, the letter, by offering and encouraging him to take up some academic help, assumed he was a ‘troublesome student’ who needed to be persuaded to ‘do the right thing’ and attend class. By implying that he was in trouble with his research and ignorant of his career opportunities, the letter also managed to wipe out his years of professional experience as an academic.

What we have here is a classic example of what we research education scholars like to call an ‘identity conflict’.

Peter is acting like he is a professional academic who just happens to be doing his PhD late in his career; the university is acting like Peter is a student who is in need of ‘research training’. Here’s something to think about: is Peter a struggling student – or is he a professional academic? Well, he is both. He is a struggling student, but he’s only struggling because he is a professional academic without a job title and position to back it up.

You are probably wondering what point am I really trying to make?

Am I trying to point out that universities should be more careful about the way they try to help struggling research students? Well, yes, but I work in a Graduate School and I know that its actually quite hard for people like me to know how to help research students like Peter. Money is tight and academic help is all we really have to give, but it should respect our students’ prior knowledge and eperience.

I guess I am also trying to explain one of the reasons why being a research degree student can be terribly confusing. Identity conflicts may sound abstract, but they are the root cause of many practical problems PhD students face.

For example, I often encounter students and supervisors arguing about thesis content and direction. The problem is caused by the role each is being asked to take. The word ‘supervisor’ implies oversight, authority and responsibility for the outcome. At the same time one of the definitions of PhD level work is the demonstration of ‘original contribution to knowledge’ and ‘the ability to work independently of direction’. The student is being asked to act like a professional researcher – but the supervisor is being asked to act like a teacher.

Who should win the argument then? It’s not clear, which is why most conflicts of this kind have to be settled by negotiation.

Doing a PhD can be a deeply political experience. Recognising that some of the uncomfortable politics arise because you are being asked to perform two unreconcilable identities: “student” and “professional researcher” might help because this knowledge creates the possibility of resistence.

You don’t have to always play the role that is being asked of you.

Case in point was the wonderfully pithy reply Peter sent to this email. He started by pointing out  his many publications, which meant he didn’t need any help with his research. Then he tendered a list of the type of help he really needed. He received a quick, apologetic reply and an offer to discuss his circumstances.

A small victory, but sometimes only small victories are possible. So I’m wondering: have you ever experienced an ‘identity conflict’ like this? What happened? How did you deal with it?

53 thoughts on “Are you just a student?

  1. Jonathan says:

    Hello Inger, regarding “The Australian government will pay a large sum of money to the university if Peter completes his degree”, do you know what this sum is? I’ve tried to look this up and read through appropriate legislation but I’ve never been able to find this information. Just wondering what PhD students are worth to a University on completion.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I didn’t put the figure as it varies institution to institution, year by year and discipline by discipline. I will say it’s in the 10s of thousands and very substantial for the bench sciences.

  2. cmm21 says:

    Thought-provoking post. There are the ‘irreconcilable identities’ being asked of the student, the positioning of the supervisor as supporter / teacher (and a host of other roles), and the mixed messages that the university sends around student as individual and student as statistic and potential contributor to the funding pool. I’m aware of a lot of research on the first 2 of these, but not much on the third.

    • Kate says:

      Perhaps a re-labeling of ‘supervisor’ to ‘advisor’ would help position that role as ‘giving helpful advice’ rather than ‘overlord’?

  3. Lucinda Brown says:

    Thanks Inger – similar feelings in me at the moment – I am a professional academic – tenured and on 3 years leave without pay to complete my PhD. Only 6 months in but am very much feeling loss of identity, loss of being valued, as a team member, for my expertise and for my past experiences which are very pertinent to the research team I am working with but because I am just the PhD student not really taken into account! At least for me there is a light at the end of the tunnel and incentive – I know that I need to complete and have a job which I absolutely love, and which I am valued and respected at the end of the tunnel!!!

  4. M-H says:

    I would like to see these issues discussed more openly with both supervisors and students. There is too much confusion, and I believe that understanding how funding works might help with both giving students agency and motivating them. It could radically alter the supervisory relationship.

  5. Maree Livermore (@reezaml) says:

    I’d say identity conflict is a big issue for most mature age PhD students, whatever their past and likely considerable professional backgrounds. The loss of confidence that comes from the vertiginous drop in valuing and respect upon becoming ‘an apprentice scholar’ at a later age can be disastrous. Luckily for me I have a non-overlord supervisor. That actually feels like non-supervision, and ‘going it alone’, a lot of the time. But I’d choose autonomy – and undoubtedly slower progression – over being ‘ruled’ again. Do think policies about completion time and the notion of what constitutes ‘support’ could be more nuanced. I think also though that there is a lot of cultural/historical baggage in the scholar-supervisor relationship — indeed, it seems to me, in the entirety of the politics of the academic workplace — that is quite toxic. And this won’t be changing any time soon, I’ll bet.

  6. Judy Redman says:

    Picking up another point in your post, rather than your specific question – I was recently encouraged to see that my university actually offers 3 month ‘writing up’ scholarships for students who are close to submission but need time to complete the writing. One of the conditions is that you will be enrolled as a full time student for the 3 months and they are available both to students whose postgrad scholarship has run out and to those who have not previously had a scholarship. And Peter was right to be incensed!!

    • M-H says:

      What an excellent scheme, Judy. As a part-time student who works full-time I can’t remember when I last took annual leave, Easter or Christmas break or a long weekend that wasn’t split between ‘down’ days and PhD Days. I would love to have had three months on scholarship.

  7. Spiz Demetriou says:

    Dear Thesis whisperer I am a part-time student. I qualified for both a govt and university scholarship. Neither could be converted to part-time. This would have made my life easier. I work two jobs, and have sold an asset to enable me to study. When I commenced my Ph D I became a true part-time student by working three days only. This was unsustainable. I have put my case before the administrators many times. If not for me, for future part-time students. The message I receive is that university administrators do not value part-time students. Especially those in Humanities. Cheers Spiz

  8. Dale Reardon says:


    The type of help that was offered should be provided to all research students at the start of their higher degree.

    I find research methods the most confusing and difficult area and it is only now that I am getting some assistance with it.

    I am really sorry Peter couldn’t get a scholarship though.
    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  9. Just a student says:

    Even for PhD candidates who have come to a PhD more or less directly from undergrad and honours/masters studies, the identity crisis is a problem.
    Your PhD becomes your job – if you’re full-time, it’s the thing you go and work on (in theory) 9-5 every day, you hopefully feel ‘part of the department’ (maybe also through other tutoring and research work on the side), and you may start to think of other academic staff (almost) as colleagues more than ‘teachers’. And yet, you are still technically ‘just a student’ – and all the family and friends who aren’t familiar with the PhD experience will never quite get past seeing it as that! They wonder why you decided on perpetual studenthood when you could have just gone for a real job, and can’t understand why you aren’t any more available during the uni holidays, or why you can’t just take a day off to socialise, if there aren’t actual classes or assignments or anything. Meanwhile, you teeter on the cusp of ‘real’ academia, not even sure yourself which way you are leaning.

  10. jjourneys says:

    A subject coordinator for “Research Design” course at our uni told us that she never calls us as PhD student. She calls us at PhD candidate and we have to treat ourselves as colleague with other academic staff. In a good way, it ‘improves’ our identity

    But to what extent your supervisor treats you like his or her colleague? I think that’s what matters

    Also, really empathy for Peter. I’ve been through that similar problem and I know the feeling

    • Judy Redman says:

      There is a really interesting article about this written by a supervisor and one of her former supervisees. They argue that the supervisor/supervisee relationship changes over the course of the candidature. I will see if I can find the reference when I get home – don’t have it on this computer.

      • jjourneys says:

        I kinda know what you mean. Is that at the beginning, the supervisor knows more about the proposed research topic than the supervisee, and later that relationship has changed?

    • ingermewburn says:

      I took a whole slab of text out of here, but left this in purposefully. I wanted to signal there’s a whole other identity issue lurking here. I believe Ethnicity is an important part of this story, but I decided to pick up this aspect in a future post with a different person’s story, really to further protect Peter’s identity. Don’t worry – I’m going to get to it. And soon.

      • fiona says:

        We had a student from Botswana who spoke English as a first language but was made to sit an English exam. At the same time we had a Russian student with poor English who didn’t. It’s hard to think ethnicity doesn’t play a role in decisions like that…

      • Adan says:

        You know what…I think she looks ugly, cheap and a great icon of “M.K. girl” in Hong Kong! Her dressing & her face are telnilg us.”Hey guys, Come & get me! One night Stand is no problem for me!”BACK HOME LA, Bitch Carole

  11. Kelly Dombroski says:

    I totally sympathise with Peter — I was a researcher before becoming a PhD ‘student’ (by the way, our department of Human Geography, now gone, at the ANU used to call us ‘PhD SCHOLARS, UWS on the other hand calls us HDR Candidates which has to be the worst ever). I also have a family and was trying to support them (my husband is stay at home dad) on a scholarship. After it ran out I got a fixed term academic contract at another university — where I am treated as a grown up! While simultaneously getting similar letters to Peter from the university threatening me with $6000 fees if I didn’t finish on time. This inspired me to pay $1000 for an editor to check and copy edit my manuscript — I was *saving* money.

    I did get it in on time but I dont’ think the uni deserves any of that money for completion, since their main roles was threatening me and treating me like an naughty student, despite having birthed two children and holding down a full time job and having some publications. (All stick and no carrot, my colleague says). My supervisor on the other hand always treated me as a research professional and this inpsired me to perform as a research professional!

    • Judy Redman says:

      I know that the university’s systems didn’t work well in your case, Kelly, but a lot of the money that universities get for PhD completions go towards paying the salaries of the supervisors, providing library resources etc (and probably boring stuff like lighting, heating etc).

  12. Dale Reardon says:

    One thing I would like to see change is that the University should receive some RTS payment if you have to withdraw from your PhD due to illness. I had this happen to me and it was/has been really hard to get accepted back into a program as Universities are nervous about me getting ill a second time and they getting no payment yet again.

    Its not fair on the University either as it isn’t their fault if I get seriously ill and they should be compensated for the time they put in.

    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  13. Katrina Hunt says:

    I am in much the same position as Peter, having just recently got that email. My frustration is this. I started part time while teaching and convening two pretertiary programs at my university, moved to full time when I was awarded a one off half scholarship and reduced my teaching, and struggled throughout with serious depression which extended my candidature. The university was pretty supportive, I have to say. Then my husband was offered an amazing job in the Middle East. This had two effects.
    1. I was given my “parachute” suddenly I was unemployed and could concentrate on finishing the thesis.
    2. We had to move. It was unbelievably stressful. We lived out of suitcases for three months. My research papers were coming via airmail cargo, but we had to find accommodation before they could be delivered. I had applied for leave of absence, and found out after I’d left my home that it would not extend my candidature because there was no medical certificate (if I’d still been there my Dr would have slapped me round the head and given me a certificate). Anyway, I was finally granted that final extension and I hope to be submitting on 2 January (or else).

    My point is that it would be nice if the reasons for extension of programs could extend to something other than what a doctor can give you a medical certificate for. Apparently needing to be with my husband of over 25 years while he moved to a completely new country and culture don’t count. We’re not all young, unmarried and concentrating on one thing – even if we’re not working.

    I wish Peter all the luck in the world

    • Judy Redman says:

      Katrina, this must be a policy of your individual university. At mine, you can suspend your candidature for up to a total of 1 year full time or 2 years part time for any reason that the Research Committee deems acceptable – and moving house and changing jobs is certainly considered to be acceptable and not to need a doctor’s certificate!

  14. berlinickerin says:

    Wonderful post on a really important issue and – I can sadly assure you – not only in Australia. I can really sympathize with the identity conflict of ‘Peter’, even more so maybe, because here in Germany, the PhD is less supervised and more independent, so it’s all the more weird if you’re suddenly treated like a student again.

  15. Linda says:

    Thanks Inger for this post.
    In hindsight I can see that my supervisors resented my adult to adult approach to supervision and the advancement of my project. Like many other mentors in other careers they wanted me to experience the same deprivations and struggles that they had as students or juniors.
    However, I have already been the new kid in many workplaces, and as a single parent I can’t afford to waste time suffering, but need to progress and earn an income, and I want to do it cheerfully.
    Instead I was expected to complete additional (to documented policy) milestones to prove I was deserving of an upgrade.
    I asked for extended leave to improve my financial situation and was declined, so I withdrew.
    I still intend to complete, but you can bet I will be asking more questions of my potential supervisors first about how they can asssist me (what I really wanted was some guidance about theorists).
    PS What also smarts is that my supervisors are the same age as me, and both have professional partners on full time wages, and complained to ME about their financial situation, which would have to be around five times my income (which includes casual employment elsewhere). Their response to my decision to withdraw was a lame offer re increased casual hours where the real hourly rate is dismal, or to pay me $1000 to write a paper!

  16. louise says:

    Thank you for this post. I can really relate to the post as well as some of the comments posted, especially the reference to friends who can’t understand ‘why you can’t just take a day off to socialise’! I am by no means a ‘professional academic/researcher’ and have been a ‘research assistant’ for some time. However, I have a number of publications and am being encouraged to apply for lecturing positions. Maybe it’s a question of a confidence. I struggle to view myself as a ‘professional researcher’ rather than as a student. This is possibly not helped by titles such as ‘PhD student’ and ‘research assistant’.

  17. Karenmca says:

    Well, this certainly hits a nerve with lots of people! I totally agree about the identity crisis thing. I went from undergrad to masters to doctoral student, but rashly undertook professional training when I should have been completing the PhD. Which, I might add, never did get completed. Long story, which I’ve related before – all ended happily ever after when I started and completed a PhD on a different topic, a quarter of a century later. But I had a real identity crisis way-back-then, as it gradually dawned on me that an incomplete PhD is NO PhD, and I no longer had ‘doctoral student’ status at all. Working in an academic environment as a librarian, I simply wasn’t a researcher any longer, and no-one knew or cared that I might have been one.

    The second time round, working full-time and doing doctoral studies part-time meant another adjustment in how I perceived myself, but this time I was far more active in writing papers and publishing stuff, so I was visibly a research scholar even though I was still a librarian.

    And the good news is – I’m about to be seconded to be a part-time post-doc for two days a week over three years, whilst remaining a librarian for the rest of the week. Another adjustment in identity, but one I think I can handle. This may be as close to a “happily ever after” as I’ll ever get, but it’s better than I would once have predicted!

  18. Regan says:

    It’s not just in academic circles where this identity conflict presents itself – for people doing PhDs while in industry, you sometimes have to battle the perception that you have all the time in the world to take on extra projects, etc., as you’re “just a student” and don’t have the responsibilities of a Real Job.

    • M-H says:

      Great comment Regan. I think that people doing PhDs in industry can have really bad conflicts over identity, because industry only has a concept of ‘student’ or ‘worker’, and in a way you’re both, and you’re neither. It can lead to quite serious situations for the student, over ownership of their project, for example, or the direction that it goes in. These projects are easier if both the academic and the employer understands these issues, but I fear that’s rare.

  19. pikir kool says:

    if peter is doing his PhD part time, then the research training may offer him new ways of doing research to cut down the time required. he may have published significantly before, but that transpired without any *time pressure*.

    i’ve attended a couple of useful research training workshops. so now, instead of needing to spend 3 – 4 hours of research everyday for progress to take place, i can happily allocate about 30 minutes / day to move forward insyaAllah.

    i fully understand peter’s situation. i did my 1st phd part time and now i’m doing a 2nd one, part time as well. i do consultancy, lecturing and training casually. time is pretty scarce for research but knowing the right way to do it can really speed things up.

    peter should not be offended by the letter. they just wanna help. they may have perceived his situation inaccurately but that does not diminish their original intent. it would be a great if peter can acknowledge his time constraint due to work obligation and start concocting a strategy of doing research a lot faster to graduate on time.

    just my 2 cents 🙂

  20. Athena says:

    Sorry for being late to the conversation (RSS feed glitch), but here are my two cents:
    I completely relate to Peter’s position–I am a university lecturer who entered the PhD program as a “mature” student and struggle, as Peter did, with my many responsibilities and the resulting identity “crisis.” To be fair, though, my advisor struggles as well. She acknowledges and values my 12 years of teaching experience as well as my expertise as a researcher and writer, but she is also made to feel as if the buck (my buck) stops with her. She does not want to be on the receiving end of comments/thought bubbles such as “What? You let that crap slip through the cracks???” and so she makes me rewrite things over and over again instead of just letting me take responsibility for sending stuff out and dealing with the fall out as and when it comes. She trusts in my abilities enough to invite me to coauthor different projects with her, but thinks nothing of unilaterally slashing what I have written without so much as a by your leave. This type of micromanagement has destroyed my ability to assess my own work and has turned me into a passive “Here, tell me what to do next” kind of person. I can’t imagine that this is the type of scholarship that the academy wants to foster.

    • Karenmca says:

      Micromanagement? Not good. Could you appeal to her better nature, along the lines of, ‘You know how you could really help me? Could you let me stand on my own two feet a bit more, so I can find out for myself what works and what doesn’t?’

      • ingermewburn says:

        It takes a courageous supervisor to let go of the reins for a bit when they are constantly being watched and judged on their performance. It’s a tricky situation. Perhaps recognizing it is the first step – looking for small opportunities to assert yourself is the next. Seek ‘teachable moments’ to show your supervisor that she can act differently too – and best of luck.

    • pikir kool says:

      if i were u, i’d write a paper myself. something totally unrelated to the supervision offered, just to prove that ..

      hey, i can stand on *me* own two feet. 🙂

      don’t let anyone make you feel unworthy. she’s just being meticulous, well maybe a tad too meticulous, but i bet she never intended to demoralize u.

  21. kell@oncirculation says:

    I can empathize a little with Peter as I am a mature age PhD student, but I think I have a slightly different identity crisis. Being treated like a post-doc from as early as 3rd year undergraduate has its challenges, both good and bad. My issue however is the scheme where the university is paid AFTER completion. We have a ‘midterm’ examination which I believe is similar to the ‘qualifying’ but no one EVER fails. The weakest of weakest students pass as the school makes a commitment when the student signs on. If they are down graded to a masters degree, then the ~$50,000 payment for the science student is waived. Therefore there is clear incentive to push students through, students that ultimately take a lot of supervision, leaving very little time for the competent ones. I’ve seen many competent students made great with good supervision, but how do you compete for time when everyone knows you’ll ‘manage’ on your own… Do I sound a little bitter?

  22. citysenyorita says:

    My experience with supervisors was varied. There are roughly three types: 1) The first one holds your hands and guides you all the way while you are learning to walk. 2) The second just goes to the other end of the room and waives at you while he’s watching you fall and get up. 3) The third one stays close enough to intervene only when your fall might seriously hurt you. Otherwise, you are on your own. I find the last one to be the most helpful, but I guess the supervisor has to evolve from 1 to 3 and then 2 in the process. Of course, that depends on the Ph.D candidate in question.

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