This post is by Associate Prof Martin Davies Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, and a Senior Learning Advisor at Federation University Australia. His most recent work (with Ron Barnett) is an edited collection entitled Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education (forthcoming, 2015).  His last book Study Skills for International Postgraduate Students  (2011) is presently being translated into Arabic. Martin did his SECOND doctorate at the University of Melbourne and is now working at Federation University. In this post he reflects on the PhD experience, the second time around.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 7.12.21 pmI am not unique in having successfully completed two PhD degrees I suspect, but it is rather rare.

We have all seen that annoying thing that authors of (American) pop-psychology books do in order to make themselves sound impressive: “…. By Dr XXXXXXX, PhD”.

They are fooling no-one. “Dr” and “PhD”, while not synonyms, usually mean the same thing—excepting, of course, if one happens to be a General Practitioner of Medicine, whilst also holding a PhD. For most academics, however, adding both titles is superfluous. It also makes you sound like a wanker.

But double doctorate holders can simultaneously—and legitimately—add both “Dr” and “PhD” to their names with no hint of redundancy. They still might sound like a wanker, but at least they are honest, accurate wankers!

The first thing anyone would want to ask someone with a double doctorate is: “Why? Why would anyone want to do that?” Fair question.

I’ll answer that question, but not before I outline what I learned from doing it.

The first obvious thing I learnt was how to manage a large project over a long time period, with an immanent deadline, and with virtually no assistance. This is no easy matter, of course, and—for the uninitiated—managing the PhD is half the battle for the first timer.

A plethora of books abound on managing and writing a PhD. These are devoted to helping people develop skills in large project management. I didn’t need any of these the second time around. That’s quite something when you think about it. Give this person a project and it will be finished on time, and without help. I expect that this is a skill that most employers would want.

Consider that if you start doubting the value of doing a PhD.

Moreover, doing a second doctorate made it palpability clear that I did not fluke the task the first time around. This built my confidence. I really did learn something of enduring value. My “supervisor” for the second doctorate was in another state and another city. I never saw the man, and I didn’t need to.

Nor did I require any of the normal support people and programs that universities typically provide (structured programs, bridging programs, learning advisors, and the like). I enrolled one day, and submitted my PhD by post a couple of years later. (The first one took five years; the second took two—there were efficiency gains as well.)

Germaine Greer once commented that: “one could do PhD down the bottom of a well if one had library books”. This was essentially the case for me, except that, with computer-based scholarship these days, I did not really need a library either—merely a point of access and a password. I could have done a second doctorate whilst living in the Antarctic (as it turned out, much of it was done at a holiday shack in Gippsland—which is much warmer).

The second thing I learned was how to write academically. My “supervisor” commented in a written reference for me that: “I didn’t have to teach Davies how to write Philosophy, nor do much more than watch as it poured forth in polished form”. This is flattering of course, but—under the circumstances—not something very special: if one can write a PhD one can write a second PhD, and a third, and so on.

I found that the second PhD literally wrote itself. There were times when I was in the academic equivalent of what sports people call “The Zone”: that wonderful time when everything seems to “flow” and without any effort. (Of course, as in the case with sports people, and musicians, one does not get into “The Zone” without a considerable amount of skill building and practice.)

In doing a second doctorate it becomes very clear how the skills developed in doing a PhD, i.e., academic literacy, constructing an argument, marshalling evidence, citing sources, and so on, transfer to anything else one does in the academic domain. Now, I am no longer intimidated by having to write an academic book between 80-120,000 words in length, and on any topic. Again, that’s no mean feat. (I’ve since published five books, and a sixth is forthcoming in 2015.)

The third thing I learned was that I could construct an argument on a unique topic of my own choosing—a “thesis” for my thesis as it were. Again, this is no mean feat, and—as all PhD students learn—it is neither easy nor natural. Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience that the second time around it is much easier—almost effortless. One can spot a good thesis statement from 3 yards away. Indeed, they jump out at you and the problem is that you see too many!

Of course, with the skills acquired in academic literacy and managing a large project, one can also quickly detect which of the array of possible thesis statement will be any good. One can, within a few weeks of working of a topic, “narrow down” to something manageable, and interesting, and focus. This is an incredibly important skill for a range of writing projects. Again, it has to be of great value in the corporate or public domain for a range of jobs that involve writing reports of various kinds.

So why did I do it?

Serendipity, as it turns out. I was under-employed after the first PhD, doing part-time lecturing. This was in the 1990s—and “the recession we had to have”. Universities were freezing academic positions left, right and centre. Despair was in the air. An elderly gentleman offered $22,000 tax free prize for a young scholar to write a monograph on a long-forgotten Scottish intellectual. I accepted the challenge and enrolled for a Master’s degree. It was upgraded … and the rest is history.

Thanks for telling us your story Martin! I have a deal with Thesis Whisperer Jnr that when he starts his first PhD I will start my second. Does anyone else have ambitions to do it all again? Or is once enough? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts on ‘ye olde academia’ – what was it like before the internet anyway?

Writing now and then

Researching now and then

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