The ‘so what’ of doctoral research
‘Doctoralness’. Yet another new and rather splendid word – heard at the Prof.D ‘student guidelines’ lectures in January 2018. What it means is a key test of the quality of doctoral research. ‘Doctoralness’ is about how the work adds to society’s knowledge and organisational practice, from both theoretical and applied perspectives, the latter so very important in the Professional Doctorate route,
In short, it is the ‘so what?’ question.
There have been points in the doctoral journey where I have got stuck at a crossroads and wondered whether the stronger methodological focus of the traditional PhD is for me. But I always come back to what really drives me – how we can create a better society. And although I believe that academic research has a huge role to play in that, it is agents which bring about change. Hence the importance of continually asking ‘so what?’
Legitimacy and legacy
During the lectures, we discussed how motivations can alter over the doctoral programme. For me, the sense of confidence, of life purpose, and also, my ‘legitimacy’ as a practitioner, and not just as an academic, have all intensified.
But what of having ‘something to prove’, often a motivation for later life doctorates, as the tutor explained, compared to young post-Master candidates. Thinking about my long Council career which ended with a kind of ‘fizzling out’ rather than at a high point, I have reflected on this and think there is much truth in my need at some level to ‘prove’ my intellectual capacity and capability. Legacy is important to us all but we can leave a legacy in many ways, not just by being promoted to higher positions in the staff hierarchy. So, having given several decades to local government, which I fundamentally believe to be a force for good, I care very much about making a mark in my professional field. It is just not me to walk away and make my mark in some other domain.
Reducing the expanding universe
I know that I face real challenges with my chosen methodological approach – discourse analysis – in how I will make my research meaningful to my professional field. Complicating things is that my field is wedded to positivist thinking, causal studies and quantitative analysis. At its simplest, the basic ideas surrounding discourse analysis – language in use and the meanings we ascribe to it – isn’t difficult, but like many concepts, it is in their theoretical application where things can become opaque.
At this stage of embarking on the thesis stage, I have what my supervisor cheerfully calls an ‘expanding universe’. I am reassured that this is normal for early stage doctoral students and one which, in time, will reduce to the admittedly tiny addition to knowledge which is feasible within the 4-5 year timeframe. It is small comfort to learn that some academics spend many years framing their proposal and working out a method which will address their questions.
But what we prof docs have as our key advantage, is the knowledge of our professional fields. That deep cultural understanding is one which can only be gained through work experience. Of course it also sets up our biases and ‘baggage’ but, provided we acknowledge this in stated limitations, it gives us a tremendous head start. I will hold onto this thought as I pick up my literature review again and begin to structure my chapter headings for the 60,000 words which lie ahead of me!