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From zero to hero: Anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate

David Morris David Cudworth

Dave and I met in 2004 when we both moved from teaching to become senior lecturers. We also embarked on our doctorates at the same time, and ended up keeping close company during our studies. The day Dave told me that he had passed his viva he reminded me – in the same sentence – that he had achieved this having left school at 16 with only an O-Level in woodwork. Interestingly, I passed my viva around the same time, having also experienced a chequered education. We had both failed our English O-levels, hadn’t even gained a maths qualification between us and, like Dave, I had also succeeded in the crafts and gained an O-level in ceramics (read: ‘working with clay’).

We could end this blog right here. Wood and clay. Clay and wood. So what next? They are both building materials, but what inspired us through this conversation was to think about how successfully completing a doctorate is not just down to being academic. Coming from low starting-points post-16 – and hence lifelong learners – we both recognise that the qualities and attributes needed to complete a doctorate amounts to more than this. Indeed, the ‘anxiety’ about how to get things written down rather than ‘up’ has been well documented (Kamler and Thomson 2006), and Smith (2015) has optimistically chartered a kind of magical ‘yellow brick road approach’ towards successfully publishing PhDs using excerpts from examiners’ reports as well as testimonials from successful candidates.

But hang on – things are not as they seem. Smith’s journey in relation to how students may arrive at self-publication takes up almost 200 pages and, as recent doctoral students ourselves, we felt that this was perhaps too lengthy and over-involved. From our own experiences of doctoral ‘journeys’ and those on them, the message was very clear. Sometimes support and advice is required immediately. The call from those we knew who were on the doctoral journey concerning advice was: ‘Give it to me quick, and give me the best materials. If I am to build a house other than one made of straw, then I need the wood and the bricks. Now.’

The literature on completing your PhD is awash with references to ‘the doctoral journey’ (Batchelor and Di Napoli 2006; McAlpine and Amundsen 2009; Wellington et al 2005). While Dave and I recognise this analogy, we find it hard to accord with Trafford and Leshem’s notion that completing the doctorate can be paralleled to echo T S Elliot’s Four Quartets, and that ‘the beginning is often the end’ (2002: 1). To extend Trafford and Leshem’s (thinking is to conclude that, when we finish, we come ‘to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. In all honesty, if Dave and I did arrive where we started, then we concurred that we would never have known that, because the place of arrival had in fact changed beyond all recognition.

‘Together, we felt that there were five key factors that determined our doctoral success.’

Attrition and low completion-rates on doctoral programmes in higher education are widely recognised (Elgar and Klein 2004; Valero and Ferrer 2001; Willis and Carmichael 2011), and although Dave and I were fortunate to have had excellent supervisors, we know of colleagues for whom the support mechanisms were not so good. However, Dave and I believe that successful completion amounts to more than having a supportive place of study. Together, we felt that there were five key factors that determined our success. We sum them up as follows.

  1. Having a ‘critical’ friend.
  2. Adopting a master chef approach to studies.
  3. Having a handle on time: sacrifice and resilience.
  4. Having a secure and safe place to conduct the fieldwork.
  5. Managing the last half-mile and getting home.

Before finding a travelling companion, belief, purpose and passion are needed if the ‘journey’ is to be successful. The sparks for our theses came from earlier life experiences. Dave’s experience of having a father in the armed forces meant that he was constantly on the move, never staying in one place for long – hence his thesis on the travelling community. For myself, the combined experience of growing up in the 60s without technology, and working in IT in industry before entering teaching, led to a thesis that focusses on pupils teaching their teachers IT skills. We also felt that our master’s degrees naturally seemed to pave the way for our doctorates, and there was already purpose and passion there. A healthy obsession and an unshakeable belief in what you are researching doesn’t guarantee success, but we found that they helped. Finding something rooted in experience that excites and ignites will be surer to motivate and sustain the research – we have seen first-hand how a lack of interest, motivation or focus can lead to crossing the road early and taking the bus back home.

We hope to serialise this blog so that we can look more closely at each of the five key factors that we set out above. For those readers who are about to start, or are already undertaking a doctorate: watch this space.


References

Batchelor D and Di Napoli R (2006) ‘The Doctoral Journey: Perspectives’, Educate 6(1): 13–24

Elgar F and Klein R (2004) ‘What You Don’t Know: Graduate Deans’ Knowledge of Doctoral Completion Rates’, Higher Education Policy 17(3): 325–336

Kamler B and Thomson P (2006) Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision, New York: Routledge

McAlpine L and Amundsen C (2009) ‘Identity and agency: Pleasures and collegiality among the challenges of the doctoral journey’, Studies in Continuing Education 31(2): 109–125

Smith S (2015) PhD by Published Work: A Practical Guide for Success, London: Palgrave Macmillan

Trafford V and Leshem S (2002) ‘Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones’, Higher Education Review 34(1): 31–49

Wellington J, Bathmaker A, Hunt C, McCulloch G and Sikes P (2005) ‘Learning on the Doctoral Journey’, in Succeeding with Your Doctorate, London: SAGE

Willis B and Carmichael K (2011) ‘The Lived Experience of Late-Stage Doctoral Student Attrition in Counselor Education’, The Qualitative Report 16(1): 192–207

Valero D and Ferrer Y (2001) ‘Departmental Factors Affecting Time-to-Degree and Completion Rates of Doctoral Students at One Land-Grant Research Institution’, The Journal of Higher Education 72(3): 341–367