Doctoral education: new and critical perspectives

by Dr Karen Gravett

What it means to be a PhD student, and to do a PhD, is changing. Student numbers have increased, demographics have diversified, and there has been a flourishing of new routes of doctoral study. In this recent article I reflect on this changing context in order to rethink what we mean by doctoral education, what it might involve, what doctoral texts might look like, as well as thinking differently about researcher and supervisor identities. My article forms part of a special issue in Teaching in Higher Education that offers critical perspectives on a contemporary doctoral world that is ‘more diverse and fractured than ever before’ (Carter, Smith and Harrison 2021, 283).

In this article, I explore how the literature and guidance present doctoral study using metaphors such as pathways, journeys, or crossings, in order to depict researchers’ progression along their doctoral trajectory. Aims, rules and expectations are often fairly clear and the assumption is that the doctorate is a homogeneous, linear, process, with submission of the thesis signifying a distinct endpoint. Metaphors matter. And the idea of a linear journey or pathway has become ingrained in our thinking. However, I suggest that rather than thinking about doctoral study as a journey towards an endpoint, doctoral students can usefully be understood as experiencing multiple and ongoing becomings, evolving and changing throughout a doctorate and beyond.  Specifically, I employ the idea of the rhizome, a concept based on the botanical rhizome, as a helpful way of thinking about the twists, turns and multiplicities of the learning process.

This article was inspired by my own experience studying for a PhD by published works. During my doctorate I found the idea of the rhizome useful in enabling me to reflect upon what connections could be drawn from the interweaving of a collection of publications through the doctoral thesis, and thinking about my own messy and nonlinear experience of learning. However, I believe that the value of conceptualising doctoral study (and learning) as rhizomatic, with tentacular twists and turns, dead ends and red herrings, can offer value to all forms of the doctorate. For staff and students, thinking differently about doctoral pathways might include recognising the value of fostering opportunities for play and experimentation, creating safe spaces for researchers to make mistakes, and encouraging the use of creative methodologies and experiments with theory. It might include supervisors and examiners asking new questions of doctoral students: what has surprised you? What have you most enjoyed? What dead ends have you experienced, and how were these valuable to you? It might also include seeking opportunities to disrupt power hierarchies between supervisor and student through finding ways to learn together, via collaboration and co-authorship.

A change in perspective may mean that what counts is not the smoothness of the path, or the speed in which students are able to ‘complete’ their learning, but the opportunities for connection and creativity along the way. Indeed, some educational researchers, for example Guerin (2013) examine the value of thinking about supervisory relationships as ‘rhizomatic academic networks’. Guerin (2013, 138) suggests that ‘the principles of connection, heterogeneity, and multiplicity encountered in today’s rhizomatic academic networks are central to understanding what kinds of research and researchers will be needed by the academy’.

Of course, researchers’ experiences are political: durable systemic factors and constraints continue to shape individuals’ experiences of research and work in the academy. And yet, there remains a need to unsettle normativities of practice, creating openings (however small) for the relational, and for creativity, surprise, and emergence, within the fast-paced world of ‘successful’ outcomes and linear pathways.

Dr Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the Surrey Institute of Education. Her research focuses on understanding learning and teaching in HE and explores the areas of connections and the relational, student engagement and transition, and the impact of discourses and narratives in higher education. She is co-director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, co-convenor of the SRHE Learning, Teaching and Assessment network, Associate Editor of the Higher Education Research and Development journal, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education.

Further references

Carter, S., Smith, K. and Harrison, N. 2021. “Working in the Borderlands: Critical Perspectives on Doctoral Education.” Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 283-292.

Gravett, K. 2021. “Disrupting the Doctoral Journey: Re-imagining Doctoral Pedagogies and Temporal Practices in Higher Education.” Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 293-305.

Guerin, C. 2013. “Rhizomatic Research Cultures, Writing Groups and Academic Researcher Identities.” International Journal of Doctoral Studies 8: 137–150.