Doctoral Journeying – Staging Posts
It feels good to be starting year four of the Prof.D and I’m excited to be about to present at the annual student conference this coming January week. I have written a draft literature review, an introduction and an outline summary of my proposed methodology. Much new reading has been done. My focus is much clearer. And I have my University ethics approval. At the end of 2017 after submitting the research proposal (Professional Development and Design Module), my research questions and methods still felt rather fuzzy. So, what has helped me move forward in 2018? In a word – conferences! I am not always as disciplined as I should be but boy, does a conference focus the mind.
Academic conferences have different purposes from the practitioner events I am used to. Both are about networking and meeting up with friends and peers. Both concern hearing about and discussing new ideas, listening to interesting speakers, contributing to personal and professional development and even enhancing personal profile. But in academia, the testing and hopefully validation of the researcher’s work that conferences offer is a much more significant motivator. I have however also tried to integrate my academic work into my professional life; translating it for the practitioner audience. For example, in September 2018 I presented on inclusive growth (my thesis topic) at the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference.
Here are the ‘big push’ events of 2018:
January: Prof.D Student Conference to present a research overview to peers; this experience made me realise that I was overly concerned with rationale and that the focus wasn’t clear; i.e. my summary failed to connect with most of the other students who didn’t really understand what I was trying to do – never a good place to be!
April: International Research Society for Public Management (IRSPM) conference in Edinburgh; presenting a first stage literature review to the Implementation Stream; this was a brilliant opportunity to present at my first formal academic conference on an international stage; I have posted separately on this but in essence it forced me to get some good writing completed and introduced me to the concept of translation.
July: Interpretive Policy Analysis Methods Summer School (IPASS18), Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, Amsterdam: although not a formal conference, this again forced some writing and discussion in a supportive environment of doctoral students from other countries; it also prompted a rigorous look at methods; introduced me to practice theory; and introduced me to an informal academic advisor and a new policy network.
September: Public Administration Committee (PAC) Committee conference, Northumbria University, Newcastle: this conference required me to submit a section of the thesis – for which I chose the Introduction chapter; the event offered critique and peer review from other students and academics; it made me think about the ethical issues connected with researching in my own field; and it introduced me to organisational ethnography as a complement other methods.
Doing the Doctorate in Good Company
Conferences alone don’t do the job of nudging the thesis forward though. I owe a large debt to many people for emotional and practical support: family and friends, my supervisory team; my doctoral colleagues – both on and off the course; other academics – both inside and outside my institution; plus the bonus of online resources. The two co-founders of the Professional Doctorate Society (of which more below) have been a help and inspiration throughout and the session we had together for reflection and review in October was hugely energising. I don’t take any of this for granted and am glad that I never feel alone. No wonder some people begin to write their thesis acknowledgements well before time!
Choices: Practitioner or Academic?
This last year saw me getting into some very deep discussions with other doctoral students and academics about what it means to be an academic. Am I about becoming a practitioner-academic rather than academic-practitioner? I started to wonder. I am reasonably good at lecturing; I actually enjoy theory; I relish in-depth discussions which don’t necessarily have to lead to ‘actions’; I revel in ‘making the familiar strange’; and I am in my element with all kinds of reflective and philosophical endeavours. And I have made some wonderful academic friends. But it’s in the professional environment where I find my greatest satisfactions; the business of ‘making a difference’ to society – motivations which have driven my career in the public sector planning and economic development spheres.
At the IRSPM conference, one academic opined that I simply cannot ‘have it all’ and must choose between the practitioner and academic life. In one sense, I agree. I have spent decades building up my knowledge, expertise, contacts and profile in my professional field. In the academic world I could only ever be a minnow. However, this doesn’t mean that I can’t play a part in the academic community too; but it will need to be a tailored role where I can really add value. After all the deliberations, it was reassuring to be able to confirm that the ProfD/DBA pathway is the right one for me.
The Profdocker Identity
The Northumbria PAC Conference was an excellent means of gaining feedback and reassurance, and have some fun along the way. But it revealed something else about which I had perhaps only been dimly aware. That something is the ‘life experience’ gap between ‘mature’ doctoral candidates (i.e. folk like me) and youthful PhD students not far from their first degrees. It’s not a question of what’s better, just what’s different. I realised how much more I had in common with fellow mature students in employment, compared to other younger students studying a similar topic or method. Why? Because despite the shared interest in thesis subject matter, the peer understandings were much deeper with practitioner students.
That said, the inescapable reality is that there is no-one else like fellow doctoral students who want to discuss doctoral study in quite the same navel-gazing manner! After all, it’s the thing that binds us together. It is this reality which has prompted the development of the Professional Doctorate Society which three of us on the course founded and are now evolving in collaboration with others. The Society could potentially go beyond peer student support within our institution to the reaching out to fellow doctoral students worldwide who are combining work and study. The endeavour is thus as much about practitioners as doctoral students; and goes to the heart of debates about the purposes of university education.
I am looking forward to presenting my work to my fellow Profdockers in January 2019 and discuss further how the Professional Doctorate Society could develop.