Friday, 9 April 2021

The Doctoral Journey

I recently read an article that instigated a call to my Scottish friend who works in Hong Kong. A long time Twitter buddy, I finally met Paul at an ICSEI conference in Marrakesh. While virtual conferences are the norm during COVID times, the face to face conferences provide the opportunity to really connect with edufriends. Paul is Primary School Leader and like me, a Doctoral Candidate. He is at the University of Glasgow,  and I’m at University of New South Wales and while he is edging towards the finish line, I’m meandering through the messy middle. 

Generating this chat was this AARE article, ‘I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting’, by Pretorius and Macaulay. Those who have trekked this path share how isolating and grinding it is, yet numerous emphasise it as a rewarding learning experience. Often curious questions arise at the most inopportune time. Fortunately, friends like Paul, provide space for dialogue. I shared some findings from the research and expressed my wonderings. Paul provided reassurance when he told me he had asked himself the exact same question. Others validating your curiosity builds your confidence.

Gordon Training International 
(employee Burch, N., 1970s) 
In the article, the notion that you don’t know what you don’t know was highlighted. This creates a feeling of unease and at times, you wonder what you’re missing. I positioned this statement within the Conscious Competence stages. As a learner, I often reflect on my current level, which depends mainly on my previous experience of the topic and the availability of support or scaffolds.

In unconscious incompetence, the learner isn’t aware that a skill or knowledge gap exists. When you commenced your doctorate, did you really know what was involved? In conscious incompetence, the learner is aware of a skill or knowledge gap and understands the importance of acquiring the new skill. I often find myself here and spend hours searching for knowledge and reading. Learning begins in this stage. 

In conscious competence, the learner knows how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires conscious thought, practise, and hard work. It is at this point that I chat with my supervisor, who provides a good balance of autonomy with structure and support. As a learner in the research context, I venture from being self-determined to self-directed, depending on the need and circumstance. 

In unconscious competence, the individual has enough experience with the skill that performing is easy and completed unconsciously. However, at this level, you may falsely assume that it is ‘easy’ for all to achieve. This level of unconscious competence reminds me of the video clip Peer instruction and why assessment is a killer of learning. Eric Mazur, a Harvard professor, shares what his colleague, Steven Pinker calls, The Curse of Knowledge. The false idea that “the more of an expert you are, the better positioned you are to teach it’. Mazur claims that the better you know something, the more likely it is that you’ve forgotten what the struggles are of a beginner learner.

Pretorius and Macaulay believe that by listening to stories of doctoral students, we can better understand their journeys and consequently, ‘improved educational experiences’ can be designed. Similar to a painting, your dissertation is distinctive. While the basic components of a painting are colour, tone, line, shape, space, and texture, each artwork is personally created by a solo artist. Comparable to the artist, a researcher is influenced by others, but it is your journey. How can this doctoral process be so frustrating and liberating at the same time?

“There are so many different aspects to learn about and it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. This leaves you always wondering whether you are missing something. There are also many different perspectives offered by others – everyone’s experience is so different that it’s hard to work out what advice applies to you and what does not.”

Reflecting on Mazur’s peer instruction, Pretorius and Macaulay's article and the Stages of Competence, I wonder how to further support candidates during the doctoral journey? Could doctoral candidates support each other as peers, along with their supervisors? I intend to reach out to those who influence me and hopefully influence others on their research journey. I'll keep you posted...

39 interviews with the most amazing, generous, and thoughtful academics- Thank you! #ConnectTheDocs


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