Entering the Fire - My PhD Journey

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Along with bungee jumping, travelling around the world alone, and climbing a mountain, doing a PhD has to be considered one of the hardest things anyone can do. Borrowing from Joseph Campbell’s notion of the hero and his journey, PhD study has often been called “a baptism of fire” due to its ability to radically change a person’s view of life.

The beginning

When I began my PhD Writing journey three and half years ago, I was ready for a long hard slog, and I haven’t been disappointed. Initially, I applied for a full scholarship from funding associations in Australia. The Swinburne University of Technology entered my name for a chance to be offered one of the following awards:  the Chancellors Research Scholarship, Australian Postgraduate Award, Swinburne University Postgraduate Research Award, and the Tuition Fee Scholarship Research Training Scheme. Unfortunately, as I am not an Australian citizen and, as my thesis would not directly relate to or benefit Australian life and or culture, I was unsuccessful.

I was fortunate in that a practice-led PhD Writing by Publication doctorate had already been introduced at Swinburne’s Graduate Research School two or three years earlier. As I had completed the MA Writing there, one of my lecturers suggested I apply for it. She told me that they were quite likely to offer me a non-fee-paying scholarship on the strength of my high distinction award for the MA Writing. No small surprise then when, feeling dejected from the recent news about failure to secure funding from the full scholarship, I received an email informing me that I had been successful in gaining a non-fee-paying scholarship to begin my doctorate at Swinburne University of Technology. Finally, in July of 2006, the journey or “baptism of fire” began, and I set off on my intellectual journey of discovery.

Entering the fire

Lee and Williams, in their compelling 1999 article ‘Forged in Fire’, make the point that the PhD process will almost certainly involve ‘distress’ – that is its nature. Most PhD candidates are forced at some point to confront the fact that they are undergoing a life-changing experience – termed by one supervisor as ‘permanent head damage’. Lee and Williams suggest that this is part of a larger process that, while it appears to be something that will involve major distress, should nevertheless be understood as something positive and productive. In other words, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, so something has to give before the new can be ushered in.

Despite having a difficult time getting to grips with the inherent problems of creating, for example, an artefact (see below) almost, as it were, from thin air, my own experience has been relatively easy. I have been able to go at my own pace and I have not been forced to get involved with the usual requirements of a doctoral program (giving presentations to colleagues, writing papers, and attending conferences among other aspects). This is because I am classed as an international student living in Thailand and, as no money was made available for me to satisfy any of these requirements, I have been left relatively free to get on with my doctorate as and when it suits me, work commitments aside.

 The role of the supervisor

It has been said that the relationship with a supervisor is of critical importance. I am going to be slightly controversial here and say that I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think it depends on the kind of PhD you are doing. Let me explain. My doctorate is entirely different from the traditional PhD, sometimes called a PhD by research. As my doctorate is practice-led  (at least for the initial period), I was required to come up with an idea that I believed could be examined in a form other than academic writing exclusively.

 Because of the inherent subjectivity of my thesis, I believe the relationship with a supervisor is not of critical importance. A supervisor cannot have much input into a project that is heavily dependent upon the creator’s ideas in the artefact. Since the ideas are not something that can necessarily be researched per se, as they are by their very nature not “fact” based or “scientific” in any way, it follows that they are much more subjective and thus only have relevance and meaning to their creator, e.g. the candidate him/herself. Therefore, a supervisor, no matter how many years of teaching and supervising experience they may have, cannot really offer any tangible help at this stage of the doctorate.

For example, my original title for the doctorate was “The Role, of the outside in Storytelling” with a special emphasis on the notion of the outsider or the terrorist. This became an artefact story about a young Pakistani man who is coerced into helping a group of terrorists perform a terrorist act in order to save his family from penury. It presents a moral problem and, in some sense, is a classic tale of being put in a situation where you’re “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”, which is the basis for so much drama in the last few hundred years of western literature.

The artefact stage

This stage is essentially concerned with the production of a piece of art and represents 80% of the overall mark. It can take many forms, e.g. a life history, a memoir, a collection of songs, a novel, or a screenplay. Indeed, anything that would normally be classified under the auspices of “art” or art production falls into this category.

This type of degree has a long and varied pedigree. It was initially used for PhD by design doctorates in the 1970s  who wanted to be a pottery or art teacher or a leader in a fine arts department. They would have first designed something and then produced an artefact - a new way of creating something, and the textual aspect of the doctorate would have been written up and produced as a document even though the main bulk of the thesis itself was mostly concerned with the non-textual production of a new design. Many design-based doctorates in Scandinavian and Australian countries follow this dynamic nowadays as well.

The exegesis stage

The exegesis stage deals with issues like the problems encountered, how they have been overcome, and what has been learned through the experience of engaging with the arfetact’s problems. Indeed, it includes the whole gamut of what formerly would have been called the “research dynamics”. It is at the exegesis stage that I believe a supervisor’s help with the doctorate is vital, but it should be stressed that this is only worth 20% of the overall mark for the doctorate so in that sense it has somewhat limited value.

Here the candidate is required to take the ideas from the reflective journal, along with those of the artefact, and shape and mould them into a dissertation type document with references, a bibliography, citations, and the full range of analyses that would be found in any traditional PhD. The supervisor would most certainly be able to help with the ideas and their presentation, and with the use of appropriate academic language in order to enlighten the audience of the processes used by the candidate. In a practice led PhD, it is this interplay between the artefact and the exegesis components which enables true knowledge production.

Hopefully, by the end of my PhD journey, I will not have endured too much “permanent head damage” and the journey will have been a fruitful and eventful one.

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