Stories from the trenches: An overview of the Ph.D. journey

I am pleased to share that I successfully defended my dissertation entitled ‘Transformative pedagogy in physical education teacher education.’ Since completing my studies several weeks ago, some have thought I am on vacation! This couldn’t be further from the truth and I have realized that unless you share your journey, people are none-the-wiser! So I thought I would share a few moments from my Ph.D. journey to inform others of the process, but also share another doctoral students experience (of a close friend) for some catharsis – so do read on if you already know the process and read the anonymous narrative [in italics]!

Assistantship – throughout my studies I had two assistantships, the first included teaching undergraduates in our field and the second (still currently in) includes advising faculty and graduate students in qualitative research. Assistantships are typically 20 hours a week at my institution and you do this alongside your studies. Typically they mean a tuition fee waiver (most of it.. not all) and a small livable monthly salary. Investigate this before you start as these depend on where you go. I have a friend that has a large disposable income in her salary – this is certainly not the case in a lot of doctoral programs (in sport pedagogy).

Classes – for the first two years of my program, to help decide my dissertation topic, I spent each semester immersed in graduate classes. These were a mix of required courses in sport pedagogy, research methods, and sociocultural foundations (my concentration). I learned a tremendous amount. It was the qualitative and sociocultural classes that challenged my thinking the most and they helped question my assumptions, perspectives, and experiences. These classes shook me to my core and after each class, I would leave feeling like there was so much equity work to be done in society and so much more knowledge to acquire. Doing their purpose, my worldview changed and I felt more attuned to what I wanted to study at a deeper level. Each program has a certain amount of classes you can take and often people take 3 years of classes. I was on a tight timeline (visa) and was adamant I wanted to complete my studies swiftly… that meant taking 5 graduate courses (3 hours each) a semester. It was certainly busy as each hour of graduate studies requires 3 hours of homework a week, so for one class, it was 9 hours work a week. I was extremely busy is the only way to describe these years. It is really important to remember the time you take should not be compared to others, some people take 8 years plus to complete their doctorate and that is completely fine – the amount of time it takes is not indicative of work ethic so if you finish sooner or later don’t compare yourself to anyone or think they worked harder or not as hard as you did to get it done. It is hard for everyone I am sure! Depending on your context/location you may not even take classes. For example, in the UK most people take a couple of graduate workshops or seminars but largely they read read read and decide what they want to do based on their own research. This is worth checking out if you know exactly what you want to do or if you are happy working independently from the off (with advisors/faculty member support).laura-kapfer-429073-unsplash

Comprehensive exams – after taking all the required courses, as per my department we were required to take comprehensive exams. This included 3 full days answering 12 broad questions related to the field of sport pedagogy. It was a nail-biting experience and I certainly felt immense pressure throughout. Exams were never my strong point, but I successfully passed after creating huge revision boards and studying the handbook of PE edited by Cathy Ennis (2018) from front to back night after night! Every department does comps exams differently so if you are going to embark on a course do check the requirements beforehand.

Proposal – once you have passed comps you can propose your dissertation topic and studies (or study) to your dissertation committee (typically you choose this). Once passed, this is the ‘go ahead’ to begin your research. During this process I frequently heard ‘don’t reinvent the wheel,’ ‘don’t make it hard on yourself,’ ‘use theories already out there.’ My advice is find something you are passionate about, do something unique, and remember that research can change and evolve. The best proposals I have sat in on were ones where people are doing something different and not regurgitating knowledge and studies we already know about – reproducing the same findings. Essentially, do what you want to do, answer the research questions you think are suitable from your literature review and commit to a journey of learning. I did a 3 study article dissertation, some folks can do one long study and write something similar to a book. Neither is better, decide what works for you or in some cases it is what your department allows.


Data collection – once you get the go-ahead (and after review from your institutions’ ethics board) you can begin collecting data. During the course of my studies, I learned a tremendous amount from each of my participants in each of my three studies. I would not be where I am today without each of their commitments to my journey and will be forever indebted to each of them for taking the time to share their knowledge with me. My participants or more preferably I like to call them co-collaborators, allowed me to peer inside their transformative perspectives and practices allowing me to change my practice based on what I learned. Importantly, I learned that employing transformative pedagogical practices and having a sociocultural goal toward education means that you are frequently the sole faculty member or teacher in your school advocating for equity. Thus, this task will always be hard in a conservative political climate. I shan’t share too much more as soon enough I hope these papers will be published!

Writing the dissertation – once you have finished collecting data you can start analyzing and/or writing up your finished product, this depends on your method of analysis, but it was the case for me. Once completely written, expect several changes and rewrites as writing is a process and having your first draft perfect – without changes is a utopia in higher education (sorry)… someone will always have something they want you to change, it’s the all ‘part of the process.’

patrick-tomasso-71909-unsplash.jpgDefense – when your advisor thinks your final written dissertation is ready then you will defend it to your committee and anyone else who wishes to attend. This was the most nervous I have ever been in my entire life, standing in a room full of peers, colleagues, and professors presenting and then defending my ideas/work. After roughly 45 minutes of presenting (the professors had already previously read my papers), you fend off questions and support your ideas. Typically (at my institution) just the faculty members ask questions but some of my peers also asked questions too. As someone advocating for equal participation in a democratic system, I welcomed these… even if they were a surprise on the day! When finished, you wait outside the room until the faculty decides your fate. I am fairly certain my legs were shaking, though much less compared to before the defense itself. A good pep talk from Dillon Landi helped right before I went in the room! Thank you, my sweet friend! After hearing I passed and the ‘congratulations Dr. Lynch’ I felt relieved and happy that the years I spent towards my studies were complete. In the coming hours, I did feel a little sad that my journey was coming to an end, but I quickly remembered that learning never stops so I will always be on my journey!

karen-lau-653956-unsplash.jpgPost defense – I thought I was busy before the defense, but after the work really began. Still working in my assistantship, I also began work on the papers that were neglected during the defense period, I finalized my future job role (more to come in another blog), I spent some time reading papers that have been on my ‘must read’ list since the beginning of summer and I have been taking part in a number of service activities and workshops to prepare me for my future role. For example, Wednesday I have been invited to sit on a graduate panel sharing information on my job search for future graduates in the job market. Thursday sees me advocating and sharing my dissertation findings for a podcast and Friday I will partake in an invisible disability workshop to enhance my knowledge.

Whilst this reduced timeline might seem a breeze, I acknowledge and want to share that it did not come without its challenges. There are a number of individuals who embark in this journey purely for the title ‘Dr,’ they are quite easy to distinguish and often are in programs for the wrong reasons! Second, women in higher education are still exposed to sexist thinking and practices within the institution. Yes – someone did say to me once ‘wow you’re a woman and getting your doctorate.’ Also, I did my doctorate in a different country, where I had to learn very different academic requirements and cultural discourses. For this reason, the next few paragraphs are shared from an anonymous doctoral candidate who has been in their program for 5 years. Our journeys share some similarities but also some differences. It is intentional that this student is kept anonymous to protect her identity as she finishes her program. I want to personally thank her for being willing to share a small piece of her story with readers, I know you will appreciate it too:

Being a doctoral student is a luxury. After you’ve graduated high school, college, received one (or two) master’s degrees, is it really all that necessary to go for further education? Some think so and don’t see it any other way. They are more comfortable within the walls of an academic setting, never venturing outside to any other reality. Some may just enjoy learning. Some may start out with best intentions to make an impact but then get bogged down by the hierarchy and politics within this somewhat elitist system. It can seem like a bad fraternity; you’re stuck in a hazing period where, no matter what you do, you still feel like you’re constantly blindfolded not knowing what task is going to jump out at you next. The other people around you, whether they’ve been there for 2, 4, 7 or 10 years seem to be in that same boat. Despite all the universities policies and procedures regarding the rigors of academic requirements as a doctoral student, the light at the end of the tunnel, if there even is one, is never a linear path.

After receiving a master’s degree, I thought for quite some time about the use of going further. I enjoy school. I had something specific I actually wanted to work on that I felt could make more of an impact with the help of an academic institution. I have a support system, both financially and mentally, who were encouraging me to take that next step. And, it has opened up new doors. I have learned a great deal, read more than I thought possible, and explored different areas of my field all within the first year. However, that light at the end of the tunnel seems to be farther away. 

I sit in a weekly doctoral seminar. I am bored, frustrated, frightened and annoyed all at the same time. There is the guy who thinks he knows it all, simply nodding in agreement with the professor every time a statement is made. He discusses how lucky he is to have such wonderful advisors and is quick to criticize the work of his fellow classmates. There is the student who sees nothing except life in a lab. He arrives at school at 7:30 am and stays till 9pm. He thinks he is doing the world a favor through his research on some obscure specified topic on an “at-risk” population. I want to scream, arguing how does any of this show us anything? They often pay the people they actually manage to recruit for the study. And, when the study is complete, are the participants going to continue with this new behavior if they’re no longer being paid their $50 a week? Are these participants, who are basically passive agents in the world of quantitative research, going to take anything away from this research? You can’t say that though. A student like this is on a mission to save the world. He is smarter and more ethical than the rest of us, sitting in the throne of his laboratory as he and his advisor pat each other on the back for the contribution they are making to the world. Then there are the students who have been there 6+ years, since I was a masters’ student. They still don’t seem to have a clue of what direction their research (or life) is taking them. It is frightening and disheartening to see someone who has been there that long talk in front of a class with so little confidence and so much doubt regarding their own work they have been focusing on for 6 years! Will this be me? Are we always going to be blindfolded? And finally, there is the professor who sits with a sneer on his face like we are not worth his time. Is he your advisor? A mentor? Or does he just remain in this academic setting because he feels more powerful after having gone through it himself? This is his reality. The power and hierarchy within the world of academia and publishing papers is paramount. He is also the hazer now, enjoying the caustic comments he can pass along to his students each week because we are all just peons in his world. And if you don’t want to go down his path, you can forget about any advice at all. You should really just keep your mouth shut and listen to those who live and die by each paper they publish.

When I tell people I’m receiving a doctorate, the first thing they ask is how much longer? My first year in (as a part-time student with a job still in the real world), I often answer 4 years. That seemed like a reasonable number. 2 years to complete the rest of my class requirements and then 2 years to work on my dissertation. I really have no answer to that question. I try to keep faith in the process. I enjoy school and have found it useful in opening up new avenues or possibilities of thinking for the work I want to do. Yet, in my doctoral seminar each week, we are often encouraged not to explore. You need to put your blinders on and focus on a topic so obscure and specified that no one else will even understand what you’re actually talking about- probably even you. (Not that you would ever admit that.)  I have always thought that the more you know, the less you know. You’re in school to discuss possibilities, make connections to the world and figure out how you can make an impact and perhaps help others. It is a luxury and one that I hope will be worthwhile. I struggle with this. The more time people spend in an academic setting, the farther they move away from a reality of bridging research and actual practice. And, all I know right now, as I sit there in my doctoral seminar each week, that light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting dimmer and dimmer. Or maybe then it’s because I can’t help but squint my eyes because I’m just trying not to fall asleep…  [from anonymous doctoral candidate]

I stress that every single doctoral journey will be different. If you are considering joining a program reach out to other graduate students, friends, and family to support you in your journey, find a mentor you can be honest and open with – who is supportive and encouraging, investigate all funding options to support you, and lastly, GO FOR IT if you decide it is the best course of action for you!

Feel free to reach out at any time and ask questions and/or share your experiences!

Images from unsplash – thank you photographers!

Written by Shrehan Lynch – October 30, 2018

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