This post is a little unusual for this blog because it is somewhat more personal than most posts (with some exceptions [e.g. link]). In it I want to briefly reflect on my own doctoral studies and related choices that doctoral students make.
One of the prompts for writing this post is a provocative short book I read earlier this year entitled The Engaged Scholar by Andrew J. Hoffman which argues for ‘the emergence of a more publicly and politically engaged scholar’ (link). In one chapter Hoffman explores the arc of an academic career and the states the following regarding doctoral students:
As a doctoral student, we need to ask foundational questions about what kind of academic scholar we want to be and what kinds of issues we wish to devote our lives to addressing. This must be a process of deep discernment, since the choice of dissertation topic is highly consequential, setting the course that will guide much of our career and ultimately decide if our work will contribute to society” (p.118).
There’s much to reflect on in the above passage. As a doctoral student, I didn’t ask ‘foundational questions’ about what kind of academic scholar I might want to be because I wasn’t strongly focussed on becoming an academic scholar and felt fairly ambivalent about academia and an academic career. The sort of PhD thesis I went on to produce constrained my ability to later become an academic scholar when I started to take this option more seriously (which I reflect on further below to draw out lessons for others). But for me the aspect of this passage which stands out the most is Hoffman’s assertions about the consequences of one’s choice of dissertation topic. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years and most intensely over the past 6-12 months.
We could debate to what extent dissertation topic choices – and related important intellectual decisions made during your candidature – are determinative, or need to be so, but I can relate to this. I will try to explain some of the reasons why I can relate to this and also outline some broader reflections on dissertation choices.
I’ll start with some fairly obvious aspects and then move on to other considerations related to my own experiences. An initial obvious point is that as an early career researcher you will frequently be asked about your dissertation topic and why you chose it. Furthermore, early career researchers often have few (if any) other academic outputs like journal articles so your thesis is the obvious reference point that others will use (sometimes it is the only one) if they want to understand the issues and questions you’re interested in or your emerging scholarly contributions and research direction(s). So, as an early career researcher you need to be comfortable discussing your topic and why you chose it. In my case, over time I became less enamoured with my topic and thesis and, if I’m honest, I tried to avoid having conversations about it. This was quite limiting because it made me avoid academic small talk and probably hampered my ability to make a positive impression on others.
Other recent experiences of mine point to a broader ‘long shadow’ of our dissertation choices. Despite feeling less and less enamoured with my doctoral research and thesis it feels wrong to completely abandon such intellectual projects and their results. This has a couple of key dimensions: firstly, in order to have a coherent research trajectory and/or career trajectory I want my next moves to have some connection to my dissertation topic and thesis (along with other professional work I’ve done over the past decade or so); and secondly, it feels much better to find something of value in past work and try to build on that, rather than mostly throw past work in the bin and basically start over.
For me this has been an ongoing inquiry over recent years. I’ve searched for something meaningful and valuable in my dissertation and related choices which might have broader relevance and as part of this I’ve tried to connect themes from my research with other things happening in the world (such as a global pandemic!). I’ve sought to identify practical and theoretical themes I might be able to take forward in new ways, and this inquiry is still ongoing years after finishing my PhD. I’m wary that these activities and the considerations noted above may promote the solidification of a trajectory akin to path dependency: that is, the idea that choices made at an earlier point in time can set in motion self-reinforcing processes which constrain future choices in often unintended ways.
Indeed, Andrew Hoffman is an institutionalist and I think part of what he is getting at is the potential for self-reinforcing processes. From this theoretical perspective, something to keep in mind is the potential for path dependency to emerge in academic careers. Aspiring scholars need to consider how their early choices may have unintended future consequences where/if these choices have the effect of altering the perceived costs and benefits of potential future choices and thereby limit their range of future actions. For example, the emotional or broader psychological costs of abandoning certain ideas or lines of research may be so great so as to keep researchers on a particular trajectory.
There are no simple answers here. We need to commit to ideas and lines of research and argument, otherwise we cannot move forward. But when we frame our doctoral studies, conduct our original research and then begin to write and structure our dissertation we may not fully understand the potential future implications of our myriad choices.
I’d also add to this a few aspects which specifically relate to completing a doctoral degree.
Firstly, I feel pressure to have learned something significant during my doctoral studies that shapes what I’m doing subsequently. This is partly irrational because I know that a single study (including multi-year doctoral research projects) can only at best make a small dent in terms of adding to knowledge, and/or altering pre-existing understandings, and I know that all studies have flaws and limitations, but it’s impossible to logic your way out of such feelings. This feeling may shift if/when my future research (and/or other work) progresses and my doctoral research feels less central, but for now it’s a strong feeling.
Second, emerging and aspiring scholars take intellectual positions (e.g. epistemological positions, methodological positions, etc) and form related scholarly identities, as well as commit to specific ideas. In the context of PhD thesis writing it is essential to deeply inhabit these intellectual frameworks and ideas – otherwise we cannot complete our thesis – and we potentially emerge as a different person afterwards. This may in turn affect our lines of thinking – and potentially our future choices – in ways we might not be fully aware of. To the extent that this is true we are setting a course that will shape our future intellectual career (and probably our life more broadly), much like Hoffman argues. Thus, aspiring scholars should think about how their intellectual choices may be shaping the person they are or become, rather than just being a reflection of who they are now.
As I write this one thing that occurs to me is that the last paragraph is most
applicable to the social sciences. In the social sciences scholarly identities are often strongly integrated with intellectual choices (e.g. a sociologist may be known to be a social constructivist, or to have adopted a critical realist position, and they may be introduced to others as such – ‘have you met X? S/he is a critical realist’). Additionally, I’ve often observed at scholarly conference and meetings that scholars who have adopted similar intellectual positions and/or embraced the same ideas frequently congregate together and form research networks and collaborations which may set in motion (or reinforce) their future trajectory as a scholar. I don’t expect that the early choices made by, say, aspiring physicists or biologists have quite the same future implications (I may be wrong about that), though no doubt academic positioning and related intellectual choices are still factors.
Thirdly, the choices we make regarding the practical relevance and/or theoretical focus of the questions we are asking also have implications for our future paths and the impact of our research. In The Engaged Scholar Hoffman articulates a related critique of academia: he argues that “academic research is becoming increasingly irrelevant” (p.xi) and that there is a need to amend “the types of questions we ask in order to blend rigor and relevance” (p.x). He calls for both doctoral students and more established scholars to better balance practical relevance and theoretical rigour in their work and focal questions, whilst also recognising that the reward systems and norms of academia don’t currently support this. If I think about my own doctoral research, I began with a very practical focus but over time I gradually shifted towards a more theoretical dissertation which has less practical relevance. I must take ownership of these outcomes but I recall that I felt the need to situate my thesis (and my contributions) in academic debates that tended to be theoretical in nature.
There are potential lessons in each of these themes for aspiring scholars: try to keep things in perspective (better than I have!); second, try to be aware of the ideational commitments you’re making and how they may shape your future agenda, and try to hold these ideas lightly even when you’re proposing particular theories or concepts and/or you become widely known for them (a challenging balancing act!); and, thirdly, be aware of the institutional pressures that exist in academia and proactively consider how these pressures may be influencing your intellectual choices and emerging research agenda (hint: keep your original research objectives front of mind and try to actively track and reflect on any deviation from these objectives that may emerge during your candidature).
Before concluding I’d like to also share a few thoughts that go beyond dissertation topic choices. In my experience the actual dissertation that you ultimately write also has consequences. What I mean by ‘actual dissertation’ is the text itself – i.e., the structure of your dissertation, its related sections or components, etc – and the basic type of dissertation you choose to write, including decisions about whether to produce one long monograph or a PhD by publication. In my experience all these choices can also be consequential for your ability to develop a strong publication record and position yourself for academic roles and promotions which are based, in part, on standard academic performance metrics. Such choices can also have consequences for the transferability or relevance of your work outside of academia (should you wish to pursue other career options).
For example, in my case I developed a dissertation that is difficult to translate into discrete shorter publications (e.g. journal articles). Though I have some other publications this was a downside of my thesis which I didn’t give enough attention to during my PhD. Over the medium-term I could try to turn my thesis into a book (as one examiner suggested) but this would take a lot of work and would likely require substantial rewriting.
Ultimately, I produced a doctoral dissertation which is both extremely difficult to translate into publications and of limited interest to scholars in specific academic fields. This means that I made some poor choices with respect to developing an academic career unless I can find ways to build on the research I did in ways which would be of greater interest to specific academic disciplines or fields and/or which might be the basis of a fundable research program (which for me is an ongoing project and challenge I hope to make more progress on). At the time of doing my PhD I wasn’t especially interested in becoming an academic scholar but I perhaps ought to have made choices that would have given me a greater range of future options if I later decided to pursue an academic career.
Aspiring scholars thus ought to think long and hard about the long shadow of their doctoral studies in ways that I didn’t do during my candidature. This includes detailed reflection on your dissertation topic (as emphasised by Hoffman), consideration of how the form and structure of your doctoral dissertation may have consequences for your publication record, and consideration of the relevance of your work both within and outside of academia.