PHD journey

The PhD as the Heroine’s/ Hero’s Journey

“This could backfire.”

“It’s 50/50. But it’s hard to know how they’ll react. It could blow up in your face,” my assistant replied.

I lugged in the trolley loaded with boxes of Lego of all shapes and sizes. I was much more nervous that I usually am when I have to give a lecture or paper at a conference.

Sixteen PhD students were seated in the seminar room – not bad for 10 am on a Friday morning. It was 10 years since I had finished my PhD and as a way of paying it forward I had volunteered to give a two-hour workshop on everything I had learnt in the 15 years since I had first started the PhD rollercoaster.

After a round of introductions and ice-breaking small talk I noticed a woman at the back of the room by the window. She was angsty in that foot-tapping, shuffle-in-your-seat-bottled-up rage kind of way.

Clearly I was part of the problem as she duly made it a point of haranguing and interrupting me, challenging and cajoling me as I started into the workshop.

To say that the mood in the room was aggrieved is to put it mildly. The anger, frustration, and a certain lostness hung in the room like bad BO. Because details of the workshop had been sent out through the institute’s email list I was seen as one of the enemy – the established University Mandarin class. An unwitting scapegoat. The jacket and crisp blue shirt probably didn’t help, but I wanted to look professional not the casual homeless look that seems to be popular now at academic conferences in the Humanities.

“What are you doing to change the system?”, Linda* (not her real name) asked.

“Yeah, we’re now expected to teach for nothing”, chimed in another.

“That’s a way bigger issue that I can deal with”, I replied. “What I’m talking about here are processes and steps to help you finish your PhD and get your thesis done. Changing the academic culture is another ball game entirely. But I hear you.”

We then ran an Ideation session with Post-Its where everyone brainstormed some of the solutions that would help them in their PhD research. “Peer support”, “Better supervision and support”, “More effective use of my writing time”, “Need motivation”, “Better working environment”, “find a way to rest; in order to read/write, “free mental access to psychotherapist”, “support for writing”, “help with structure” etc. 

Then it was time to break out the Lego boxes. This was my first time facilitating a Serious Lego Play session after having been introduced to the methodology some months before. SLP is a facilitated thinking, communication, and problem-solving technique based on the concept of “hand knowledge” and can be effective when used in groups. Participants are asked to build and create stories in response to a question that should be clear yet open ended.

The question I posed to the group was “If you had a solution to assist you in your PhD, what would it look like?”

The energy in the room was transformed as each participant had 10 minutes to build their own model. The sense of play, creativity, some bemusement, and fun was evident as everyone dived into building their own model.

I looked at Linda – her whole demeanour and attitude had changed.

Afterwards I asked if anyone felt like sharing their model and talking us through it. Linda volunteered and we all gathered around her table as she shared her story.

Linda’s Story

Linda is standing on a platform with her cohort of PhD colleagues surrounded by an ocean. A rickety ladder stretches across the ocean strewn with the remains of her friends who have dropped out. Her access to the bars of gold which symbolize the goal of achieving her PhD is blocked by a tyrannical king – her supervisor – who has placed an obstacle in her path. To her left a bridge leads to a luscious garden with the fountains of knowledge but again the bridge is blocked by a wicked University administrator. Again she feels unsupported and blocked by the university authorities who should be there to assist her.

Her solution?

She identifies with the green turtle who has embarked on the lonely and slow task of entering the ocean herself and swimming around all the obstacles until she can reach her goal.

No wonder Linda is angry and frustrated. She beautifully and powerfully captured her story in this model.

Everyone standing around laughed, applauded, and empathised with her story. The energy in the room had been completely transformed.

Linda’s model is archetypal in describing the heroine’s or hero’s journey of the PhD that sadly so many students experience. Her story is not unique. Linda’s model had revealed a mythic journey – the classic hero’s journey of the road of trials with all the monsters and dragons that it entails.

Like Perseus in the labyrinth of the Minotaur, could a thread by found that could accompany the heroine on her journey without feeling like a slow turtle going it alone?

To my relief the SLP had worked out and everyone really engaged in the process building their own models and sharing their own story.

The final part of the workshop was where I presented one solution that would hopefully serve as a kind of roadmap or GPS system that could assist them as they progressed through their research.

Was there a way to deconstruct the PhD with its key components that would be applicable to most disciplines and that could serve as a dashboard that would guide and orient the researcher, a way to capture their research journey on one page?

I wanted to build a system that would start with the big picture overview of the research project and then get more granular so that the researcher would have a greater sense of direction and control of their work-flow.

The result is the PhD Model Canvas, a one-page blueprint for your PhD.

While I knew that I could not deal with the systemic issues in academia that so many of the students were rightly indignant about and which I myself have experienced, at least I could offer a process-driven system that might help them avoid the fate of Linda’s less fortunate cohort who had floundered on the PhD sea of despond.

As I lugged the trolley of Lego back across campus at least the gamble had paid off.

Does Linda’s story resonate with you? If you’ve had similar experiences, I’d love to hear from you. We’re creating a supportive community on the life raft and we’d love to have you on board.