Know your limits

This post is by Sue Watling, Senior Lecturer in Educational Development in the Educational Development Enhancement Unit at the University of Lincoln, UK. Supporting teaching, learning and the student experience, Sue also promotes the development of digitally inclusive practice. You can read more about Sue’s work and Phd journey here.

I’ve always had problems with boundaries. Control is achieved through strict routines around food, booze and exercise. A bit OCD but it worked well until I began my PhD. A late starter, my first degree was after the children, after the divorce; I was full of life-experience but not of the academic kind. In spite of two MA’s, doctoral research was a mystery. I was an educator not a researcher and it showed. There were also confidence issues. As a widening participation student and older female this goes with the territory. The PhD cracked my insecurity walls wide open.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.50.41 pmIn a new research study group, I tried to explain my fledging research plan. This was to raise awareness of digital exclusion as a new 21st century discrimination, further disabling those already marginalised and disempowered. A mature male student looked (literally) down at me saying loudly ‘…and your point is?’ I withered. It was a struggle to put across my ideas and he didn’t seem to get it yet I’d experienced vision impairment and knew how inaccessible the internet could be. The theory of accessibility was so far removed from practice I wanted to make legitimate claims to knowledge in this area. Instead, my inadequate public explanations seemed to reinforce what I suspected. I wasn’t good enough for doctoral study.  The reality was I simply didn’t have the language to express myself and he was a dork. I left the group and never went back.

My new supervisor was an educationalist with a lot to offer but left within my first year. The next supervisor had strong political persuasions. I’d decided to research VLEs but it was suggested I critique their adoption instead. Everything came back to Marx.  Another year passed. The pile of books and papers increased. It was suggested I use action research, rather than all that positivist stuff and I dived in head first with Freire’s critical pedagogy and the principles of PAR. It was a useful and valuable experience.  Then my supervision changed again.

The next supervisor seemed concerned at my lack of progress so I took a photo of the piles of books and papers on my floor to prove I was getting on. The Japanese have a word for it. Tsundoku. It means the books you never get round to reading. The paper piles were to play a part in my progress but I didn’t know this at the time. I’d read so much about research paradigms and ontologies I tied myself in epistemological knots. I’d written a thesis in note books twice over but was still bobbing in a sea of information with no boundaries. It couldn’t carry on but didn’t know how to stop.  I had to read everything. All references were followed in case they provided the resonance I was looking for. I blew my photocopying budget and ordered so many journal articles through inter-library loans when I accompanied new colleagues on a library tour I discovered staff in the back office all knew my name.

In spite of the literary chaos, I’d managed to collect data. Masses of it. Did I say I had problems with boundaries?  Using action research I’d tracked the development of an online course I’d written from inception to a PG Cert in Digital Education. Every word was hoarded from forums, journals, emails and I interviewed all the participants too. As I drifted off into discussing my masters in gender studies in supervisions (boundaries again!) I realised I was still fluent in critical discourse analysis and slowly some of the pieces began to come together. I wrote a paper on e-teaching which was accepted for ASCILITE.  Kindle and suitcase ready, 48 hours before the flight I stepped on a pile of papers on my living room floor. It slid out from under me and my ankle snapped as I hit the ground.

During the weeks of enforced inaction which followed I read even more and discovered the Action Research Dissertation by Kathryn Herr and Gary Anderson*. I was struck by the simplicity of their description of the action researcher’s aim i.e. to study themselves ‘… in relationship to the program [they’ve] developed or to fold the action research immediately back into the program in terms of professional or organisation development…’ (2015:42). This described my research perfectly. The book was full of references to texts I already had and guidance I’d already followed. For the first time I recognised what I was doing as legitimate academic endeavour. In that moment of resonance the boundaries I’d needed to confirm and validate my research fell into place.

With hindsight I can see my PhD suffered through lack of personal confidence alongside more experienced supervisors and researchers. This was reinforced by the isolation of the part-time doctoral candidate. I had enthusiasm in buckets but no way of containing it so headed off into irrelevant directions. Had I come across the Herr and Anderson book at the start I might have found my research position sooner. Had my floor not been covered with so much paper, I might have presented at ASCILITE. Learning curves hide in unexpected places. The lesson was it’s quality not quantity which counts and while still a massive project, a Phd might ultimately be smaller than you think.

*Herr, K. and Anderson, G. L. (2015) The Action Research Dissertation; a guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

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28 thoughts on “Know your limits

  1. I agree, great post. I certainly didn’t anticipate how isolating embarking on a PhD as a mature-aged female would be–or that having a supervisor who didn’t seem to respond to my (lateral) approach would shatter my confidence. It wasn’t until I started collecting my data and immediately having flashes of insights that I’ve been able to rebuild my confidence and understand that while my approach might at times be unorthodox, it works for me. I’ve also changed the way I view my supervisor relationship, so instead of coming away from meetings deflated, I now acknowledge that, okay, she doesn’t think like me but, along with her experience, that very difference is a valuable resource.

    • Your view of the supervisor relationship is a good one – there’s value in having to defend your beliefs (although as you say it can also be depressing when you are first starting out) but it sounds like you’ve found the balance – good luck with your studies 🙂

      • Just started grad school, a woman, age is 40. Thank you for inspiring me. There’ are … I’m sure a lot of women out there, whom just like me are, lost, unsure of themselves, intimidated and who definitely wants out. Going back to school is definitely step 1.

  2. It’s amazing how our bodies tell us about what we need to do. Your post highlights the importance of being kind to ourselves and realising self doubt is part of this doctoral journey. I plan to study my papers this morning! Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Um, I read this then read it again – I thought it was me for a minute. But then realised no – my experience is similar in so many aspects. Even down to the broken ankle (for me), it was missing out on first family European trip. During that ‘forced inaction’ I completed two units of my masters. I am also a teacher and have come to PhD as a 50 year -one year in part time. Prior to this I completed a post grad in ed research and loved it and so here I am.
    I wasn’t suggested action research but went to meet potential supervisors after having an epiphany that my then supervisor supported, offering suggestions of who to see. The first said “no, no, no…” and I left deflated, took me weeks to gain enough courage to seek out the second – she said yes and said it with a smile and “I can see it…and if I can see it – you can do it!” I haven’t looked back and can’t wait to get my teeth into PAR although I do have my ups and downs and currently lots and lots of articles sitting in messy piles on my bench along with a hundred books clogging up my study space and bedside table and here I am sitting at the dining room table – with more articles, a book and two personal journals fllled with copious notes, a couple of highlighters and 3 pens, empty breakfast dish and coffee glass -oh and a nutella jar and spoon left beind last nigth by number 2 daughter who was also trying to get through an under grad paper due today! I too have been reading Freire and critical pedagogy.
    Now attempting to field a lit review -no luck yesterday but today is a new day. I am currently enrolled in MOOC #survivephd15 with Inger et al. and am loving the social media platform on which it is delivered. It has kept me sane these last 8 weeks and I almost miss it already -given we are almost at the end. This is how I found this particular post Thank you for sharing your journey you have made my day, my week and I will not give up!
    I very much enjoyed your post Sue.
    Thanks Inger!

    • Thanks Joprestia – sounds like you are making progress and I could ‘see’ the description of your space! Online networks like Thesis Whispherer are so helpful, it was only by reading the posts on here last year that I realised I wasn’t the only one struggling so it’s great to know my own experience is having a similar effect 🙂 good luck and follow your research instincts

  4. The PhD is presented as a multi-year package that one ‘does’, rather than a project that one participates in as the principal contributor. It’s so very easy to get lost along the way.

    I got so lost some years back that it’s only now, after 3 or so years, that I’m able to consider trying again. Hopefully, this time, I will ask different questions – possibly more relevant questions for the way I work, the way I do things – and hopefully will get past some of the roadblocks I came across last time.

  5. Pingback: Know your limits | reflectedd

  6. I want to know what happens in the end and how Sue made it through the thesis writing and final stages (as I also struggled with the misalignment between academic research and practice and I’m feeling its impact through into the corrections phase). Sue?

  7. I also had the same struggles during my first year. I had problems with my former supervisor and I found it really difficult to narrow down my topic. I also received the question: “and what’s your point?” more than once. I read an incredible amount of literature that year. In vain, because one year later I changed supervisor and topic.
    I’m really glad you found your guide and motivation to pursue your phd in such an interesting (and important) topic.
    I think that phd student should receive specific instructions on literature review.

    • These books might be useful Agnese. Doing Your Literature Review by Jill Jesson, Lydia Matheson and Fiona Lacey and Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review by Andrew Booth, Diana Papaioannou. Good luck with the research.

  8. Thanks so much for the tip, Sue: as my supervisor is recommending that I take an action research approach to my research project, your post and book tip have come at a perfect time for me (as has Inger Mewburn’s MOOC on edX). I have now got the book. Thanks so much! And, like Ella above, I would LOVE to hear how the story ends 🙂

  9. I am currently working on getting a PhD in biology and I felt the exact same way when I first began. The enthusiasm and the enormous amount of information can be baffling at the beginning and it created a lot of stress and insecurity for me. Having an advisor who expected me to be independent and didn’t have an idea of what she wanted me to work on also did not help. This post resonated with me and made me feel comforted that feeling insecure is part of the process. I know that by the time we get to the PhD we have all been overachievers or mostly successful at what we have done, so having so many insecurities can definitely be a struggle. I wrote a bit about my graduate school experience thus far in my blog.

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