Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Time for a great leap forward

So I've been at this PhD thing for two years and nine months now - very part-time, and generally fitted in between work commitments, the demands of a full family life and, more recently, my own first forays into academic teaching. Even now, I'm updating this while waiting for someone to fulfil a request for information on a corporate intranet site I'm writing/editing copy for. Up until very recently I was motoring on at my own pace on the PhD, reading everything in sight, covering dusty second hand books in sticky book marks and highlighting searing insights across dozens of learned journal papers.

I would have been quite happy being locked in a dusty room for a few years while I pulled everything together into a satisfyingly heavy thesis with just the occasional surfacing to sit at the feet of my supervisor and make the necessary course corrections to ensure what emerged actually had some scholarly merit.

But my university doesn't work like that any more. There comes a point where all Brunel researchers have to be 'confirmed' in their study - what follows may be beatification or even canonisation for all I know, but what matters now is that I have a hurdle to get over before I can set my sights on writing up my core chapters and defending my view of the world - or at least Eisenhower's decision making around the policy issues of outer space.

This new step was rather dropped on us in May and probably caused more angst than it should - not least for those in the cohort whose draft theses were more or less complete and who had their sights set more on an external viva than an internal approval of their work. I'm not quite there yet, but I've set a target of having my thesis complete by the end of 2013. I just want to get on and spend my days writing up my two research trips and pinpointing the gaps that will probably lead to a third trip to the US next year before I can finalise my not-so-grand opus.

But now I find that I have to go through confirmation and quite soon - September 17 is D Day for a suite of documents ranging from my abstract, methodology and outline to a substantial piece of work that I'll have to defend internally. No doubt it will be good practice for the real thing, but coming on top of a Research Presentation event and Annual Review, it feels like a bureaucratic chore.

It also feels like a devaluing of the student/supervisor model that seems to work pretty well. I have two supervisors, meet with one regularly and get good arm's length feedback from the second. The last two years has been a little like peeling skin from an onion: I started with one idea which has been refined, nuanced and focused so that what I'm now working on bears some resemblance to the original research idea, but has a more workable scope, and goes deeper rather than wider into the subject.

I'm uncomfortable with the confirmation process. It appears to be, to some degree, arse covering for the university - a process where they can reassure themselves that research students are going to complete. But shouldn't that control, that accountability and that sense of whether a research project is worthy of a PhD come from research supervisors? This new process seems to imply a lack of trust that supervisors can judge the students they're supervising with sufficient objectivity. For me, 40-something, self-funded and with a passion for my subject, I will complete. However, I feel I'll do so in spite of the system, not because of it.

No comments: