Doing a Ph.D.: A process of becoming and belonging?

Since I started my Ph.D., almost a year and a half ago, I’ve often wondered what a “Ph.D.” really is, what it actually means.

June 10, 2012

Since I started my Ph.D., almost a year and a half ago, I’ve often wondered what a “Ph.D.” really is, what it actually means. 

When I started, someone told me that a Ph.D. is simply a degree in becoming a researcher.  Later, one of my supervisors described it as like writing a really long application to join the academy.  In their paper about ‘how to’ textbooks on Ph.D. writing, Kamler and Thomson call the Ph.D. a process of “both becoming and belonging” (Kamler and Thomson 2008: 508).  To me it seems that this is true – during the process of undertaking a Ph.D. you are both learning how to do research, and learning how to be part of the academy (as well as, perhaps, learning about your academic self in relation to your non-academic self – doing a Ph.D. is a journey full of ups and downs and highs and lows, and one you must, in the end, take alone).  But this seems to raise interesting questions about what it is to be a researcher – and a Ph.D. researcher at that. 

One of the criteria of a successful Ph.D. thesis is that it be rigorously researched and original.  In undertaking a Ph.D. there is an expectation that candidates will conform to the established conventions of the field, the discipline, and the academy while at the same time produce original work that moves the field forward.  Ph.D. students are therefore faced with the combined and perhaps even contradictory challenges of being both original and conforming at the same time. 

By accepting an institution’s offer of a place as a Ph.D. student you have agreed to participate in the conventions of the Ph.D. process under the rules and regulations of the academy. But what if some of those conventions go against your emerging values and beliefs as a new researcher?  How do you find a balance between those ideals and your identity as a budding academic, both a part of and a product of the academy? 

For me, I have come to feel a tension between these forces of becoming and belonging, because they seem to pull me in different directions.  The values that are emerging for me as significant in my newly-formed researcher identity are sometimes quite significantly at odds with those conventions long-ago established in the academy – gradually, I have come to question the usually accepted norms of social science research. 

For instance, why should the researcher keep an objective distance from the participants, and indeed how can they if, as often in Ph.D. research, the topic is something they care deeply about?  If they are open and honest and clearly state their position at the outset, does lack of objectivity necessarily make the research any less rigorous? 

Also, what about the voices of both the author-researcher and the participants in the research?  A number of authors have criticised the “traditional” stance of research in which the researcher’s voice and views are more powerful than that of the participants.  Fine (1992), for example, describes this stance, as ‘ventriloquy’.  But there is also the question of the researcher’s voice and the question-mark over the use of “I” in academic texts.  Richardson (1997: 15) calls the ‘single, unambiguous voice’ of much research ‘a major pretension of science’.  Why shouldn’t the personal voice of the author be heard in a text – does it necessarily make the writing less “academic”? 

My evolving identity as a researcher has been heavily influenced, and greatly inspired, by the writing of people who have “done things differently” (see, for example, Kouritzin et al’s 2009 book, which led the way for me): people who have sought new ways to conduct and write research, who acknowledge the value of indigenous, non-Western and alternative ways of knowing, and who have found creative and imaginative ways to have a deeper understanding of the world.  But not all of these approaches and ways of knowing are in synch with the traditions of the academy.

So, I wonder, how far can a Ph.D. student go to challenge the conventions of the academy in order to be true to her/himself, whilst still adhering to the regulations that they have agreed to?

Laura Graham-Matheson is a Ph.D. Candidate at York St John University in York in the U.K. She can be reached at [email protected]



Fine, M. (ed) (1992) Disruptive Voices: The possibilities of feminist research Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. (2008) ‘The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing’ Educational Researcher 37: 8, pp507-514

Kouritzin, S. G., Piquemal, N. A. C. and Norman, R. (eds) (2009) Qualitative Research: Challenging the orthodoxies in standard academic discourse(s) New York, NY: Routledge

Richardson, L. (1997) Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press


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