The Lifecycle of a PhD Butterfly

There are PhD metaphors everywhere, on blogs and even academic papers, but none have really resonated with me. Sporting events like marathons are outside my experience (and my comfort zone); I have never been one for artistic endeavours like sculpture or weaving, I don’t think of it as a journey or a quest. Even architecture or construction images, which ‘should’ work, in terms of my topic and background, didn’t really click. Somehow a passing remark about a chrysalis rang the bell for me, and nagged in my mind until I finally got it written down.

However, given my tendencies towards “academic procrastination”, I have now discovered a great deal more about the lifecycle of a butterfly than I knew before! Did you know that caterpillars go through several phases (called instars) where they shed their skins – which they then eat? Or that butterfly wings a
re mostly colourless, but look so vibrant and beautiful because light is refracted on microscopic structures on their wing scales? So fascinating!

Perhaps more usefully, I have also learned a lot about the role of metaphor in teaching and learning. Plenty has been written about metaphors and their usefulness (or otherwise) in the PhD process. Frances Kelly suggests that the metaphors that are chosen influence both the process and the product. I am not sure yet how this metaphor affects/will affect my conceptualisation of myself as a student or the outcome for my thesis, but surely the fact that I felt so strongly about it “means something”? Probably it shows that I am more concerned with my own development as a researcher, than in the findings and outcomes of the research that I am doing.

IMG_5442Rob Pitcher categorises metaphors into five types – space, travel, action, body and ordeal. My metaphor fits his “body” category, with elements of “ordeal” – it can be seen as the coming together of disparate parts, with a bit of a struggle involved – but I think the idea of transformation that is the essence of my story, doesn’t fit any of his categories. Again, I think that may be because I am more interested in the process rather than the product. I am sure these ideas will keep ticking over in the back of my mind, but in the meantime, I have become obsessed by butterflies!

And so, my metaphor…

For quite a while, the thought of doing a PhD sat dormant at the back of my mind. I had too much else going on, there was no ‘real reason’ to do it, it cost too much, it took too long, my ideas had no substance; conditions were not right and I was not ready to commit to making a start. But gradually my resistance eroded, or my enthusiasm built, and I decided to stop dithering and get on with it. And so the caterpillar hatched from the egg…

IMG_2054A newly hatched caterpillar is tiny, and very vulnerable. I started out hesitantly, feeling uncertain and hopeful, and grew more certain and less hesitant as I learned more about the environment I found myself in. Having emerged from the protection of my familiar roles and experience, my sense of vulnerability continued; I was exposed and fragile in this new world. But the caterpillar is a consumer, and so was I, devouring everything I came across that would help my PhD self to grow. Library courses, learning skills workshops, software training, talking to people in my industry and in academia, in my field and in related areas, attending seminars and conferences; all were food for thought and fuel for growth. I was reading research reports, industry reports, journal papers, blogs and books, research methodology and philosophy (though some of that I found very indigestible!) Then like a caterpillar I went through a change, maybe not shedding my skin exactly but moving into a different phase of my caterpillarhood. I began to collect data, pursuing participants and conducting interviews with the same voracity that I had worked through the literature. My project grew and grew, increasing in scope and scale, and I amassed a vast quantity of data.

And now I have formed my chrysalis. The insatiable seeking has stopped, and I am processing and readjusting as I work through the next stage. From the outside I may look composed and tranquil, but inside there is a muddled mess of chaos and complexity. All the potential of my reading and my data collection is there, but it is floating around in a state of flux. It takes a lot of time and energy to work through it, to structure the analysis, to develop the ideas, to see what goes where and figure out how the accumulated parts come together to become a new whole. I have in my mind the image of what I want to become, but currently it is difficult to see how I get from here to there. I feel a different kind of vulnerability now, fear that I don’t have what it takes to get through this stage, that what I have done may not be enough. Gradually though, transformation is starting to occur, and perhaps soon some vague forms may be distinguishable to the careful observer.  (And I have learned that for some butterflies, pupation may last many months or even years… I am not sure whether that is reassuring or frightening, at this stage!)

Even once the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, there is still a stage imageof development that follows.
Although fully formed, the crumpled wings have to go through a slow process of expanding and hardening, and they need time to dry before flight can take place. I am keeping in mind that when I think I finally have my analysis formulated, and my ideas organised, and my thesis draft completed, I will still have to refine and extend, revise and expand, before my ideas are ready for the world.

And finally, although at the moment it is sometimes hard to imagine, I try to remember that it is all part of the lifecycle, and that the time will eventually come when I can spread my wings fully. Maybe I won’t be as big or as beautiful as some of the other butterflies out there, but I will have gone through the same process, and I will fly out for my day in the sun.


About Kathryn

PhD student; lecturer. Wife; mother; daughter; friend. Reader; photographer; traveller; arts consumer. Hedonist and eudaimonist (and lover of big words).
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One Response to The Lifecycle of a PhD Butterfly

  1. Pingback: Webs & chrysalises: Metaphors for learning & connection | the édu flâneuse

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