19th April 2012: Lies of the Academic World/Myths of the Real Degree



I recently re-read Don Webb’s essay ‘Lies of the World/Myths of the Real’ on the criterion for initiatory systems and schools. Webb identified six important aspects of initiatory systems from his study of the anthropological literature.


Below are some initial comments in the context of a PhD program:


1. Process. Each field or discipline has its unique PhD process. It can range from creative work and historical archives to scientific laboratory research. The PhD is also an unfolding process: research classes; identifying initial research questions that identify a knowledge gap; writing literature reviews; doing interviews and field studies; write-up and editing; and oral defence. The goal is to make an original scholarly contribution to a field of knowledge.


2. Exchange. This can occur in several contexts. The PhD committee can act as a mentor-mentee exchange in which the PhD candidate is socialised into the norms and practices of particular disciplines. Many programs now encourage cohort-based peer learning. Conferences and symposia may create the suitable conditions for Exchange to occur.


3. Real-world testable. Universities and other employers have different expectations of the PhD graduate. For instance, out-of-work physicists ended up on Wall Street in the 1980s as quants and financial engineers. Knowledge transfer across different domains and contexts — such as from universities to policy work, or into business consulting — can provide unexpected medial and daemonic outcomes of PhD research. This is also the domain of research management and collaborative research consortia. Knowledge use has unexpected generative, real-world and self-transformative consequences — why it is useful to read the intellectual histories of a discipline or the anthropology and sociology of its knowledge.


4. Transmission. The PhD committee acts as a locus for initiatory Transmission between academics and the PhD candidate. The quality and specifics of this Transmission depends on the initiatory depth of the committee and how they approach their tasks. One secret of PhD work is to give oneself the self-permission to engage with the best quality academic research that you can find, irrespective of your current life circumstances, or the local conditions at your university. Hence, Transmission can also occur when the PhD candidate immerses herself in reading the best journals in their field; examines past PhDs that have made a significant impact; or uses award-winning work as the model to begin their own research design. Transmission can fail if the PhD committee is unfamiliar with the areas that the PhD will explore, and is just supervising the candidate to get workload points.


5. Troth/Truth. One of the PhD’s goals is to show that the PhD candidate can conduct independent, high-quality, original academic research. The PhD is thus a truth process, a discovery process involving Runa (that extends the Unknown in a field as new questions arise — usually discussed in the ‘further research’ section of the final chapter), and as a vehicle for Self-change and initiatory growth. It is also the PhD candidate’s major encounter with Troth in an academic context and it may dramatically shape their subsequent career trajectory. Through exploring a topic in-depth, the PhD candidate grows as a researcher and is able to network nationally and internationally with a community of practice. They are able to engage in Socratic dialogue with other senior and emerging scholars, and to join the relevant professional associations.


6. Specialisation. The PhD topic enables the PhD candidate to specialise in a particular field, discipline or sub-field. People who embark on academic careers may start with wide-ranging interests but they usually specialise in specific topics that make their worldly reputation. It is common for project scope and focus to change as the project unfolds, and as new insights emerge. It provides a launching pad for the PhD candidate to further develop their career and emerging research program. There may be initiatory or quest-like aspects to the specialisation in which the PhD candidate learns and embodies particular epistemes and norms. The PhD’s goal is in part to advance specialised knowledge in a field or discipline.


Photo: willg/Flickr.