What do I actually want from my PhD?

In all the 2020ishness (i don’t have another word for it) of the last 12 months i’ve not really put a lot of thought into this question. I finally decided to jump into a PhD program after several attempts because, well, this was the easiest way to do it. Foreign residency at faraway institutions sounded great, but the logistics of kids and jobs and whatever just never really made them possible. And the cost. The cost of this particular run is mostly covered by my institution. So, the answer to the first and easiest part of this question “why now?” is answered -> because it was easy.

But that is not really an answer to the question that my supervisors are interested in. My relationship with them has been excellent so far while I’ve taken the first two mandatory courses of the program. They’ve been supportive and hands off. Encouraging, but not in such a way that would complicate my position in the courses I was actually taking. So far so good. But we’re getting into the meat of the thing now. The place where we actually have to come to some kind of agreement about where this thing is going. And, given that they are committing their time to this process, i don’t think it’s an unfair question. What do I want to get out of the PhD?

As my supervisors are going to read this: you guys have been great. This post is not directed ‘at’ either of you. It’s just me thinking about what I want (and occasionally, don’t want).

A little preamble

A little preamble here, in case people coming across this post are not long-time (read: patient) readers. I’ve had some opportunities to participate in the conversation about education in a few different contexts. I had a string of a couple of years where I was very fortunate as to the time and place where I showed up, and managed to do a few things that gathered a little notoriety (like, in edtech circles, not like, in regular places). Through the people I met and the communities I worked in I managed to learn how to write articles, to do research and participate in the conversations about education that I thought were important.

I’ve also had some jobs (both job-type-jobs and as a consultant) in community colleges, k12 and university that have given me access to the other side of education. The planning, the policy and the strategy side of education have been a particular study of mine. As I am fond of telling my students (i’m not sure they’re fond of hearing it, but I do like the sound of my own voice) I have made mistakes all over education.

So. I’ve done some speaking. Lots of teaching. Some writing. Some admining. I am, as it were, a ‘mature student’. I am coming to a PhD exactly like dozens of those people I met all over the web talking about education. And. Well. They mostly hated their PhD. Not all of them. But most of them. So I came into the PhD with a certain amount of caution.

Research methods

I have things I could learn about different research approaches and the way they can be applied to different situations. Being an alt-academic for so many years, i have played to my strengths in any number of situations. I LOVE progressive coding for instance, and have stuck to it, taught it to other people and fallen back on it time and time again. I realize it’s not the only way to code data… but I like it.

Having switched into the cognition stream of the PhD program (note: i STRONGLY distrust the impact of cognition research on education), I have been opened to a pile of new ways of looking at research. I didn’t like all of it, but I did like some of it. I also enjoyed learning about the stuff I didn’t like. So that’s good.

But, i mean, I don’t REALLY want to learn LOTS about research methods. Everyone else in Higher Education chooses methods they like and stick to them, and I’m pretty much going to do the same. I’ve got a quant course this summer. Am I suddenly going to love quant instead of a 15 year commitment to the value of story in changing education. I mean… probably not. Doing the quant course will improve my anti-quant rants… which I’m looking forward to. It’s not that I don’t believe in quantitative research… I just think some of it is bad for education. Not all of it. But people like to count things, and I don’t think that learning is a counting noun.

So. Research methods… I’m probably good. I’m going to do some kind of story based research in my thesis or go back to it as soon as its done. I like story. I trust it. I want to pick one story based research method, nail it for the thesis, and wander off into the sunset. You could say “hey, you should get out of your comfort zone” and i would reply “really, how many researchers actually do that? Why wouldn’t I use the approach I believe in?”

I would love support on nailing that research method and doing it well.


I’m never really ever working on my own. People who’ve worked with me will tell you that I basically can’t think with my mouth shut. I have been fortunate in finding smart and patient learning friends.

And I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the people in my courses last summer and this fall. They are, some of them, new nodes in my broader community of learning and knowing, and new nodes are always good for learning. While excellent to meet new people, I did not come to a PhD to ‘find’ a community. I am lucky to have several that are willing to have me.

Learning about ‘being an academic’

This is a bit more of a touchy issue. The experience of my colleagues entering the PhD process has often included a couple of myths about higher education that seem mostly reserved for the PhD process (speaking mostly for North American PhDs). I’ve certainly heard it from some faculty over the years, and during a very long meeting over the summer, heard it from an instructor who told me I would never get published if I didn’t start ‘thinking more like an academic’. Whatever that means.

The pure beauty of higher education and, I would say, its strongest strength, is the diversity of approaches that it contains. We could use lots more diversity, that’s for sure (and WAY more acceptance of it), but even as it is, it’s kind of amazing that all those people work in the same location. You can go to two consecutive classes and have one person claim, with absolute certainty, that if you can’t count something, it’s not worth researching. Or, as i heard it once put by a Stanford Researcher -> it will be in the quadrant that the NSF wont fund. You can then cross the hall and be in a room where someone (say me) tells you that learning is mostly about people, and people being different, you can really only learn about people.

I mean. That’s amazing. But it also means that there aren’t any ‘rules’ about how to ‘be’ an academic. There are rules about getting tenure… but not like… rules… about what is the right way to do it. It’s like the myth of the sanctity of blind peer review. I once left a peer review journal committee where someone said something like “well, we all know who really wrote that, so we’re pretty much going to have to publish it.” If I get sent a rhizomatic learning paper to review, there’s a 50% chance I know who wrote it after skimming it. I’ve been asked to review stuff I totally don’t understand (and thereby given the authority to judge it). So… yeah.

I’m not saying I have a better system. I love the chaos of it. To me it represents what knowledge is… a big mishmash of differing beliefs.

I don’t want any nonsense about purity in higher education research. It’s a simulacra. Doesn’t exist. Never existed.

I mean, I might want a job in an academic department someday, but I’m not really sure about it. I’ve worked with enough departments to understand how they work. I currently have an ancillary faculty position. I like it. I might go in for an admin job. I dunno. But what I need for those jobs is a credential. So that’s something I want too.

What am I willing to do?

I totally get that this is someone else’s process. I chose to sign up for this gig, and I knew what i was getting into. I’m going to have to do the lit review, and the comps and the whole writing and defence business. I’m wary of putting my existing work into it (rhizomy stuff), because i’m not crazy about putting it in for a ‘yes/no’ judgement. I can just imagine the struggle around “defining rhizomatic learning” something I’ve happily refused to do for 15 years.

Happy to do the work though.

What do I really want?

I’d like to complete the research that I’ve started in the PhD so far. I want to attach the cognition literature on ill-structured domains to how faculty learn to teach online. I think there’s a really interesting pattern there, and it seems to answer some questions I’ve had for years. I think there’s a story to be told that could help people see how the digital has changed whatever relationship they could have had to information and knowledge. Maybe it has made it clearer? I want to tell that story.

And maybe do a little future of higher ed strategy. But that’s probably a bridge too far, and I can always do that in my spare time anyway.

I’d like to work with peeps (you guys) and my supervisors to make that research project as good as it can be. I want to tell a story with more than my voice. I mean, I’m probably going to try and recruit half of the 12 people who read this post. One of the suggestions that my supervisors made was to do some blogging to get feedback from the community on the process. This… is a start.

I’d like to figure out a good way to do it (three paper, interpretive dance… i’m open to it) that will make the research useful for people. Useful. For people.

That’s what I want my PhD to be. Useful.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

5 thoughts on “What do I actually want from my PhD?”

  1. i am one of the six.

    noble expectations – manage any disappointment by understanding what you have asked for.

    create more spare time to do what you are good at and remains useful.

    do the work for the singular reason most would agree with.

    finish. please. higher ed will benefit. some will not.

  2. Yup. Also, there’s nobody above me in the org chart without a PhD. So, unless I want to stay in my current role for another couple of decades, it’s pretty clear that I need to finish my dissertation…

  3. dave reading this and knowing that you are on this crazy journey too makes me happy 🙂 I live in hope that one day I will remember why on earth I started this flipping thing in the first place … keep swimming 🙂


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