“So what’s your PhD about?”

It’s an attempt to develop an explanatory framework through which personal changes over the life course can be explained retroductively in a sociological way. I’m using an empirical case study (two years of longitudinal interviews with 18 students taking different degrees over their first two years of university) to try and develop a practical strategy for explaining the changes people undergo over time in a manner which recognises the simultaneously psychological and social dimensions of such biographical transitions.

My approach proceeds through modelling the life events (a situated individual seeks to resolve an ‘issue’ and/or enact a project) through which people change in terms of iterative 3 stage movements between objective circumstances, subjective concerns and reflexively determined courses of action. In doing so I hope to preserve the subjective meaning and ideographic complexity which motivates narrative approaches while also offering causal explanations of empirically observable biographical transitions in terms of linked cycles of personal change ensuing from life events. In doing so it maintains fidelity to the lived lives of participants in research while also moving beyond them, utilising the continuities and discontinuities in the identified linked cycles of personal change as an emergent framework through which to generate middle range domain specific social theory.


9 thoughts on ““So what’s your PhD about?”

  1. Well, yeah, but it’s methodology. By its nature it’s neither interesting nor easy to communicate to wider audiences. I refer you to the million times I’ve talked about asexuality in the media as evidence that I can do this and enjoy doing it. I just see no reason to even try in this case :p

  2. “Interesting” is subjective! Informative is this, and I think it’s a great idea to communicate the methodology to expose the actual process rather than outputs. I hope to do similar in future too (when I know what I’m doing more), and wish more PhD students would do the same! 🙂

  3. Nah I disagree – would agree 100% about methods, though I think translation is required to make it worthwhile, I just don’t think the same is true of methodology. But it’s late and I’ve been writing for hours!

  4. Your research sounds very interesting, but I would question whether this is the most effective way of getting across the central message. I once got told that in response to the ‘what is your phd’ question you should be able to say something about your thesis that can fit on a tshirt as a slogan. For me, that slogan is “Austerity is a good idea”, which is deliberately provocative. I’ve discovered that is often works wonders because when I say that to someone at a conference, the person I’m talking to is so shocked that they invite me to elaborate (at which point I explain how its a “good idea” in the sense that a story about state overspending, debt, and the need to cut back is very resonant with how British voters make sense of the economy and their place within it, etc).

  5. I completely take your broader point but can’t see how I could apply it. There’s no way to make a quite specific set of claims about the empirical inadequacies of certain theoretical approaches seem contentious and provocative. Although the act of writing that sentence made me realise I’m not quite as sure of that as I thought I was and perhaps I’m underselling the topic.

  6. I can certainly see how you can apply it. Couldn’t you say something along the lines of “the PhD is about how people change when they go to university”? That seems like a good non-jargonist starting point to me, and then you can talk about how the theoretical stuff (that to even think about answering the question we need an operationalisable framework that is equally sensitive to objectivity, subjectivity and reflexivity, etc.) is the real drive behind the empirical focus.

    Your research sounds very interesting, by the way, looking forward to reading more.

  7. Point taken 🙂 I’m slightly touchy about communicating my PhD at this point, partly due to the cumulative total of 5 years and partly due to the fact that my other research (asexuality) is the easiest thing in the world to talk about with non-specialists.

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