Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dealing with derailment

Looking back over the past two years of this blog, the contents appear as an inordinately rational and analytical set of postings. This was partly deliberate given my original objective of focussing on doctoral ‘practice’ rather than ‘experience’. My initial foray into student accounts of the doctoral experience had revealed highly personalised doctoral narratives of the same genre—the ‘journey story’—replete with engaging but limited descriptions of agony and ecstasy associated with doing a PhD. Hence my aversion to documenting feelings and emotions on this site.

However, it is important to record that I have seriously considered withdrawing from my PhD program at three points. First, in April 2006 when a major health issue arose; second, in December 2006 when I hit a wall with my writing; and in April 2007 when the level of participant engagement with my research at two international conferences was less than anticipated. On each of these occasions I questioned the value of continuing—given that my career/future was not dependent on satisfactory completion; my research might have limited impact; and my energies might be better channeled into more productive endeavours. There was no shortage of justification for opting out.

Rather than plumb psychological depths, I’ll concentrate on practice,the mesh of doings and sayings that transpired, or selections thereof. It was important for me and others to acknowledge that I was experiencing derailment. This was easier said than done, especially when you regard yourself as a mature adult, an experienced professional or whatever—not to mention the impact that non-completion might have on other parties. During the past six months I have shared the issue of derailment with a few confidants—a couple of panel members and other academics familiar with my research.

At a personal level heartfelt understanding and moral support flowed freely. “Jim, this situation is normal—every candidate goes through it at some stage”. Such assurances were invariably followed by colorful recollections of their and/or others’ stories of doctoral trauma. A common suggestion was also forthcoming—“Jim, just keep at it—write yourself out of it”. Unfortunately, I was developing a propensity to write myself into holes rather than out of them. In mid-May as a last resort, I established yet another timeline—but in this instance as a form of contract with key individuals. If I didn’t have a working draft of a thesis by 30 June 2007 I would call it quits—and I meant it.

Well today’s the day—and yes, I do have a preliminary draft—which requires a good deal of further work. With a six-month extension secured last month, at last there is a coming together of the pieces—data, analysis, narrative, interpretation, argument and theorising—with literature embedded throughout the thesis. But how then, should this post be interpreted? Does it constitute yet another story or episode in the conventional journey genre? Do factors other than agency require further consideration? Have my guides and mentors been vindicated? Clearly, it is much easier to ask such questions than answer them. Despite having reached today’s milestone I remain deeply troubled that an educational process can become be so personally debilitating at times, yet continue to be accepted as par for the course.