Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Exploring doctoral narratives

There are many ‘stories’ of the PhD experience. Some are written by candidates, some by supervisors, others by researchers/authors. They take various forms including journals, articles, books, blogs, websites and learning landscapes. Various genres are employed—narrative, journal, dialogue and so on.

For example, in her role as a doctoral supervisor in the UK, Salmon (1992) draws on the experiences of ten of her students to outline what’s involved in achieving a PhD. Reimer (1998) makes his own doctoral experience a central theme of the book Confessions of an Accidental Academic. A recent publication by Vilkinas (2005) describes the experiences of ten PhD students from the University of South Australia and their supervisors. Entitled The Thesis Journey: Tales of personal triumph, this 66-page publication contains “students’ personal accounts of their research passage”. PhD Weblogs is currently recording the experiences of over 300 people enrolled as PhD candidates across the globe.

Many conventionally published narratives are rich with description, and often provide critical insights and helpful tips for those who are—or are about to—embark on their PhD. The language is often highly metaphorical—taking journeys, making voyages, climbing mountains, scaling cliffs, giving birth, paddling canoes, conducting pilgrimages, being forged in fire—to mention just a few. At the same time however, many of these narratives focus primarily on the highs and lows, the trials and tribulations, the agony and the ecstasy associated with ‘doing a PhD’.

While personal narratives certainly have their place, they can sometimes include therapeutic, confessional or evangelical overtones, and be limited in terms of scope. Hence, I am keen to locate and explore a wider range of stories and approaches to writing about contemporary doctoral practices. I am particularly interested in the concept of poly-vocal narratives and intertextuality. To that end, I would welcome leads, suggestions and feedback with regard to identifying a more comprehensive range of PhD stories and innovative approaches to writing about doctoral practices today, for example,

- by a variety of authors—e.g. individual candidate, peer, supervisor, researcher, writer, employer, partner, friend ... as well as other forms of authorship ...

- in a variety of genres—e.g. narrative, thesis, case study, fiction, dialogue ...

- in a variety of contexts—e.g. disciplinary/multidisciplinary, full/part time, individual/team, world of work, commercialisation, globalisation ...

Friday, August 05, 2005

Representing postgraduate students

It was exactly three months ago today that this blog was launched. In terms of quantitative measures, there have been 501 hits, 6 posts and 4 comments. As far as quality goes, well ... that’s another story. On reflection, a useful aspect of this blog is simply to record the nature, extent and diversity of my own doctoral practices. It seems to me that much of what PhD candidates actually do, who they interact with and how they work remains undocumented. Our practices are implicit rather than explicit.

The focus of this post, therefore, is on aspects of my involvement with PARSA (NB a new website is imminent). There has been a flurry of activity in this association over recent weeks, with meetings and various campaigns underway on Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) and student accommodation, as well as ubiquitous social events. One of my roles in PARSA is to co-chair with Steve, the Education and Advocacy Committee (E&A). There is a another committee that deals with social activities and outreach. Both groups meet at least once a month to discuss current and emerging issues and formulate policies and strategies. These committees do much of the groundwork, while the PRC (Postgraduate Representative Council) is involved in coordination and decision-making. There are PARSA representatives on over 30 university committees, and I’m a member of two major policy committees on research that meet five or six times per year.

Not surprisingly, the task of engaging postgraduates in contemporary issues facing their community is as much a problem for student associations today as it is for most member-based organisations in any field of endeavour. Invariably, a small number of committed individuals volunteer their services for the common good—whether that is in an education, work, recreation or neighbourhood setting. Given my 30 years' experience with professional associations, I can confirm that most office bearers tend to get out as much or even more than they put in.

As a mature age student (read self-appointed elder statesman in PARSA), I relish the vitality and enthusiasm of the PRC and its Executive, although the extent to which times have changed for students over the past 30 years, is brought home with ever-increasing frequency. If you are a young postgraduate student today, simply keeping your head afloat financially as well keeping on top of your research and life in general, constitute major challenges. Make no mistake; for most young people this is a high-stakes environment with regard to research, training and career trajectories. So compared with most of my PRC colleagues, I have the advantage of having established a career, collateral and so on before embarking on a PhD.

Hence, I am extremely concerned about the negative impact the proposed VSU legislation will have—especially on rural and international students and those with special needs—not to mention the community, the economy and Australia's standing internationally. I do hope that PARSA’s efforts to oppose this legislation will succeed in order to maintain a quality system of higher education in this country.