The DIY PhD and the transformation of intellectual life

As so often happens, a post by Pat Thomson recently caught my imagination and left me thinking more deeply about an aspect of my own academic experience. There are lots of reasons I find the mechanics of postgraduate education interesting, foremost amongst which is probably the fact I’ve been one for rather a long time (and don’t feel like I will have stopped being one until my viva in September). But this personal dimension to my interest goes hand-in-hand with an intellectual fascination in the process by which postgraduate education is responsible for the reproduction of disciplines (or failure thereof). It has a similar importance for the university as an institution (today’s graduate students are tomorrow’s academics) and to actually existing HEI’s as organisations (today’s graduate students are today’s underpaid teaching assistants and tomorrow’s precariously employed lecturers – not to mention financial assets). When we look at this nexus (intellectual disciplines, higher education and specific universities) and the manifold tensions within it, it’s important not to forget the individual lives unfolding through it, as reflexive individuals try and negotiate a way through circumstances which may not be what they expected prior to choosing, drifting or being placed in postgraduate education but nonetheless constitute the reality they find once they are there (so basically S-A-C to anyone familiar with the latest realist lingo). Some of them may already know each other, they meet many others, develop enduring friendships (or resentments) and coalesce into networks which incorporate into and extend beyond the existing structure of social relations they initially encountered within these organisations and disciplines. They develop commitments to shared projects and values, unite around share identifications and even sometimes organise collectively (though usually not). They experiment with (and within) existing institutional forms, organising events, supporting certain norms (often implicitly propagating others) and both aggregatively and collectively begin to contribute to the reproduction or transformation of this complex system within which they were once so starkly peripheral, in spite of their notional centrality to the life of the organisation.

My point is that the way in which higher education changes is very complex but that the converging movements of graduate students into the system is crucial to understanding the dynamics we find within it. The issue patter’s post raised for me, which I’ve obsessed about from time to time but struggled to articulate clearly is: are graduate students becoming more reflexive and, if so, what are the implications of this for higher education? For younger graduate students, I’d argue this reflexive imperative reflects a broader set of social processes, though would certainly accept the reality of social inertia being facilitated by privilege. I’d argue that pursuing education at a later age is inherently reflexive (see the late John Alford’s PhD thesis which I’d love to help get published at some point). But does higher education itself lead to an intensification of this reflexivity and, if so, what are its implications for the system itself? This is where I found patter’s post so thought provoking and helpful. The post is definitely worth reading in full.

The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQPhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis WhispererDoctoral Writing SIGExplorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.

We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere.

As someone who is engaged in this DIY field with books, blogs and twitter, it seems pretty apparent to me that something is happening here and we (collectively) don’t know what it is. It’s largely outside the normative audit oriented training processes that Green and Lee were so concerned about. It’s a field which is fragmented, partially marketised, unregulated and a bit feral. But it’s big, it’s powerful, more and more doctoral researchers are into it, and it is profoundly pedagogical. I’m concerned that British universities are generally (and of course there are exceptions, but mostly this is the case)not helping supervisors to think about this DIY supervision trend and what it means for how doctoral education is changing – and crucially, what the implications for their supervision practices might be.

I find the implications of this fascinating. If DIY educational practices are becoming a dominant feature of postgraduate education then what are the implications of this for how disciplines reproduce themselves and how higher education reproduces itself? I think there’s important work to be done both in mapping this trend empirically – clearly the social media sphere is integral to this (it has been to my own DIY PhD) but it extends much more broadly. Are there more reading groups, informal seminars, DIY conferences than have previously been the case? Do universities support these activities or are people creatively using the affordances provided by social media to organise outside of their institutions? Is the nascent industry of online coaching and training likely to grow and what are the implications of this? How do ‘para-academics’ and ‘alt-academics’ figure into this trend?

To what extent do precarious working practices explain this tendency and to what extent are they reinforced by it? If it’s becoming more common (note the if, I’m conscious of the risk of assuming a linearity to a change) to work as a research assistant outside the context of your doctoral education then how does this change your orientation towards your PhD itself? Does the reflexivity made imperative by a precarious labour market devoid of full time work (let alone ongoing contracts) for postgraduate students inculcate a greater degree of reflexivity about their studies? Is this intensifying the significance of peer socialisation in doctoral education and, if so, could we securely say that this is a good thing? What are the implications of these trends for intellectual quality and endorsement of the (conflicted) norms in virtue of which we seek to assess that ‘quality’?

There are lots of fascinating questions here. Not for the first time I find myself frustrated to realise that there’s another topic I’d like to do serious work on but, only having so much time and energy, I can’t given my existing commitments. Reflecting on my own experience (and resisting the urge to dignify it with the epithet auto-ethnographic) I think that a DIY PhD has proved inimical to specialisation. The range of experiences it has encompassed have expanded my awareness of intellectual variety (things to do, stuff to read, places to go, people to talk to) in a way which makes the necessity of patiently focusing upon one topic a deeply frustrating one. I wonder what other people’s experiences of a DIY PhD have been?

(and don’t even get me started on the politics of the DIY PhD….)

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