PhD Prison, or Letting the Bird out of the Cage?

I’ve just read a blogpost by a young researcher called Marcel Hofeditz, who is an academic writer and management thinker.  In his ‘How to get out of the PhD prison‘, he asks why people use the metaphor of a prison for their doctoral studies, and suggests ways of meeting the challenges that the PhD poses.  It’s a great, cogent posting, and I’m not about to write as long and well-reasoned a piece in reply.  Nor am I going to rip it to shreds!

However, it made me sit up and think, because I never once considered myself to be in any kind of doctoral prison.  If I could suggest a different metaphor – which I experienced personally during my PhD – for years I had suspected that my hearing wasn’t too good, and in 2007 I got hearing aids.  Suddenly I could hear the birds sing again!  They hadn’t gone away, but had been there all the time and I just hadn’t been able to hear them.

Likewise, when I decided to have a second attempt at a PhD, having failed to complete one a couple of decades previously, I embraced my research with a sense of coming home, and finally having the chance to become the scholar I always knew I was.  Like the birds in my garden, my scholarly leanings had been there all the time, but had become hidden behind the routine day-to-day stuff that we all have to do, and it took the discovery in  2002 of three old music books from Dundee, for me again to hear the siren call of musicological research.

I chose to have another go at doctoral research entirely of my own free will, and continued to work full-time.  As the main breadwinner with three sons to look after, I needed that salary!  Time with my books or visiting libraries was a privilege, even if I ended up half knackered as a result.  Since completing, I’ve done all the usual things – given papers, written articles, turned the thesis into an Ashgate book, and been invited to participate as a postdoctoral researcher on an AHRC research project.  Far from a prison, the five years doing my PhD represented time practising flying before I could spread my wings into the varied things I’ve had a chance to do since then.  I do still work as a librarian, currently part-time while I’m doing the postdoctoral work, and I can’t predict what might happen in the future, but I know I’m fortunate not to be in the semi-permanent state of uncertainty that afflicts many new doctorates.  I know many would envy my comparatively safe uncertainty!

So, was writing my PhD an emotional experience?  It was challenging, but I wouldn’t have chosen the word, ’emotional’ to describe it.  I was never reduced to the depths of despair.  I never doubted I’d complete it, either.  I’d failed to complete once before, and there was absolutely no way it was going to happen again, even though the second attempt was part-time as a working parent, compared to the carefree, full-time research of the singleton the first time round.  Sometimes I think we need constraints in order to bring out the best in us.

I was lucky with my supervisor.  We got on fine, and there were no wrinkles there, either.

Marcel writes about the implied threat of, ‘Publish or perish’, and I can’t argue with that.  If at times I write like a creature driven, it’s because I’m conscious that my published output is my evidence – it’s what other scholars see of my research and how it will be judged.  I’ve blogged before about the peer-review process, so suffice to say that I don’t disagree with the principle, but I do sometimes wish the ‘peers’ would try to imagine how their critiques come across to quiveringly new scholars trying to establish their professional reputation.

And, lastly, I certainly agree with Marcel about celebrating milestones – it’s hugely important.  I’m certainly not a party animal, and I hadn’t planned a party since our wedding many years ago, but we had a very memorable party when I got my PhD, and my institution allowed me to plan a rather ambitious book-launch when the book came out.  Bagpipes in the library?  That was just the start!


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