One facet of my PhD is looking at how the narratives of my participants reflect their professional identity. Alongside the narratives of lived experience, I am finding that there are a lot of what Georgakopoulou (2006) refers to as ‘small stories’. In effect, these are catchphrases or slogans that have come to represent a much larger narrative. In many cases they represent someone else’s experience or agenda that a participant has ‘bought into’, rather than developing their own personal understanding of a particular situation. I have found it interesting that these adopted narratives, although they may be argued passionately, often clash with or even contradict totally the narratives of lived experience. It can be easy to let catchphrases, cliches and slogans become part of our descriptions of what we do and how we do it, but figuring out how they apply personally, and what we really mean by them, can be a slippery business…
I am still working through that can of worms as I progress through my analysis, but it got me to thinking about a few of the slogans and catchphrases that I’ve heard recently about the PhD process and academia in general.
It’s only a PhD, not a Nobel prize: This is a catchphrase that I have been hearing a lot recently. The wider narrative involves a student who is worried about the quality or value of their work, trying to cover everything that could be covered within the topic, or putting
a huge amount of time and energy into their studies. The supervisor or concerned other thinks the effort involved is disproportionate to the value of the doctorate, and is encouraging them to set their sights lower or reassuring them that a smaller amount of work will suffice. While it can be useful to keep in mind a pragmatic view of what you need to do to complete, the catchphrase also implies that the research is not significant or valuable. But not even Nobel prizewinners were ‘doing a Nobel prize’ when they were doing the work that led to the eventual award. Who’s to say that the work done by that PhD student is not the start of a line of research that will culminate in that famous medal for outstanding work, just like some of these famous PhDs? And even the high likelihood that your work won’t be considered worthy of a Nobel prize (given that only 900 people or organisations have been awarded Nobel prizes, ever) shouldn’t diminish the significance or substance of the research you are doing.
A PhD is training for research: This is a common assumption, rooted in tradition and frequently encountered in universities’ descriptions of their PhD programmes. Granted, a PhD is the entry qualification for appointment in an academic or research institute. But that’s not all it is good for. This is a limiting narrative that ignores the many reasons why someone might want to do a PhD, and the many possibilities that stem from the experience (and/or the qualification). The Economist, in a 2010 article, went so far as to say that because academic positions are limited, doing a PhD is a waste of time. That presupposes that every PhD student is driven by the desire to become an academic or independent researcher, and overlooks the wide range of transferable skills that a PhD develops. In the variety of people I have met doing their PhDs, there is a vast array of different reasons for undertaking the study. Yes, there are some who are young researchers aspiring to an academic career. However, in the course of my research I have interviewed several early career PhDs working in industry, who used the PhD as an opportunity to develop a specific area of interest or expertise more deeply. They found themselves in more challenging and rewarding jobs as a result. Others, like me, are well into their careers rather than embarking on it (PhD OWLs), and are taking the opportunity to explore an area that will help them to develop their practice. Others are pursuing a fascination with a particular subject purely for the joy of learning. Learning the research process is just one reason of many for why to PhD.
Academics don’t live in ‘the real world’: I find this narrative very interesting as it is frequently academics and students themselves who are the narrators, and I’m guessing it dates back to the ‘town and gown’ divide of medieval universities. However, the notion that earning a living by studying, teaching, researching and other academic activities is somehow different from doing it by selling insurance or building railways, or whatever else might constitute a real world occupation is very odd to me. As we explored in the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC, modern academia still maintains some of the trappings of the historical universities, but the day to day reality is vastly different. Family life, part-time or full time work alongside study, community and other responsibilities, not to mention the basics of shopping, commuting, etc. all mean that we are in the ‘real world’ whether we want to be or not.
To be fair, my life as a full-time PhD student, as I have been living it this year, has been very much a fantasyland for me with lots of travel, complete flexibility, and very relaxed deadlines… I know that my progress has suffered because I have not been as disciplined as I should have been about treating it as a serious occupation, and I am also aware that my experience is not that of the majority of PhD students. This year of living the easy life will be coming back to bite me in a couple of months when I return to the real world. Hmmm. Maybe this is one narrative fragment that does match my lived experience! Except that for me the ‘real world’ is still academia, but as a teacher rather than student…
There are many other catchphrases and slogans that we often take as read, without critical consideration of how they relate to our own experience. I have found that unfolding the narratives that lies within these ‘small stories’ can help to identify conflicts and clarify expectations in how I view the world.
Georgakopoulou, A. (2006). Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis. Narrative inquiry, 16(1), 122-130.