The PhD journey metaphor


After reading Professor Pat Thomson’s critique of the journey metaphor for doctoral study, I have tried to avoid using ‘the PhD journey’. I’ve discussed her post with HDR students and struggled with it in my own work involving posthumanist theory- for feminist posthumanists trying to flatten the human figure into the landscape, the kind of conquering, masculinist hero celebrated by the journey metaphor is deeply problematic. This links to Pat’s critique of the individualistic nature of the journey, and the way it can limit analysis of structural forces beyond a student’s control, and the institutional workings of the doctoral process.

Then recently I heard Dr Robyn Heckenberg (2017) and PhD student Sadie Heckenberg (2017) speak about their use of the Indigenous metaphor of wandering in their work, as mapping their paths on to cultural and spiritual memory. This made me think about the multiple ways the journey metaphor is constructed across cultures, and the need to be aware of this and to think deeply with students about metaphor, remaining sensitive to its cultural manifestations. What about diverse understandings of what metaphor even is?  I’ve written with Ben Whitburn (McKnight & Whitburn, 2017) about metaphor as fetish, and the importance of interrogating the metaphors we use in research.

This is also an opportunity to think about what cultural assumptions inform our critiques of metaphor. The search for a better PhD narrative may involve not only finding different metaphors, but exploring diverse cultural constructions of the ‘journey’. Will I be receptive and sensitive to my students’ proposed metaphors for the experience of research, and for research itself? How will this align with being constructively critical about metaphorical entailments? And also, what about issues of appropriacy and appropriation when students seek to use metaphors or understandings from cultures to which they do not belong?

Read more suggested metaphors for doctoral supervision posted by the Supervision Whisperers.


Heckenberg, R. (2017). The journey-man. Paper presented at the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Group 19th Research Symposium, University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, QLD.

Heckenberg, S. (2017). My wandering heart. Paper presented at the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Group 19th Research Symposium, University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, QLD.

McKnight, L., & Whitburn, B. (2017). The fetish of the lens: Persistent sexist and ableist metaphor in education research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. doi:

Thomson, P. (2015). Is the PhD a journey?  Retrieved from

Composing a supervisory panel… with a paint brush


The key to a successful PhD supervision panel is composition, or rather, design. What are the principles of good panel design? Who should be on the panel and why? As a transdisciplinary academic artist and writer, I think the arts provide us with some good principles re composition for still life. So we can think about:

The student as focal point of the arrangement. Relationships between panel members and their interpersonal or professional issues must never dominate.

Background and foreground need to be clearly defined. Panel members’ agendas and preoccupations should not skew the student’s project.

The negative spaces. Those composing the panel need to be aware of what is invisible that exists between and around them, and how this might affect a student.

Agreement on what needs to be sharply defined and what can be blurred. When one supervisor wants to let a student roam free and another wants a contents list updated weekly, disaster lies ahead.

Theoretical harmony. Panel members’ theoretical influences need to harmonise and work together, not violently clash. In a painting, for example, artists create harmony with related (not identical) shapes that sing against each other.

Rhythm is important. In art, rhythm is movement, and (in painting) a visual beat. Projects need to progress with a rhythm to which everyone on the panel can move. Meetings need to be held regularly. Reliable and stimulating patterns of submission and feedback need to be established.

This last point is perhaps the most controversial one. Elements of a painting should not be of equal size, or on the same plane. There should not be equal divisions on a canvas. A focal point should not be exactly in the middle, but off to one side. Not everyone on the panel can have the same degree of influence, nor should they. Striving to achieve equality here is not helpful. It is likely that some advice will prove more influential, and panel members need to be collegial and generous in recognising this.

These are quite traditional principles, and in art, of course, all rules are meant to be broken! These ideas may be useful as a starting place though. How often are panels composed without reference to any principles, and just based on who is available?

The five Spice Girl supervisor types: which one are you?


The literature around supervision offers countless models and styles of supervision. Based on the multiple narratives I encountered while doing my own PhD, I simplify this here into the five iconic adviser types for all genders.

  1. Busy Advice

This is the one who is always overseas at conferences and sends students emails casually mentioning that thesis draft feedback is now five weeks beyond the agreed date because they have been “busy with important matters”. Accessories include carry on wheelie suitcase.

  1. Scary Advice

This is the one who can decimate a conceptual framework with the raise of an eyebrow, then really get stuck in. Students take frantic notes and then can’t understand them afterwards but are too scared to ask for clarification. Accessories include anything by Deleuze and/or Guattari, if in the arts or social sciences.

  1. Matey Advice

This is the one who tells students all about how difficult it is having old plumbing replaced, and a big book deal happening, and a cat with plaque and then, oh, look, what a shame, the hour is up. Accessories include mobile phone that is always on.

  1. Creepy Advice (this one highlighted in the spirit of #FEAS)

This is the one who wants to have a drink after a late supervisory meeting. Hmmmm. Accessories include a copy of Kate Millett’s The prostitution papers (1975), with certain sections pertaining to graduate students highlighted. Surely the worst eg. ever.

  1. Keeper Advice

This is the one who is clever and kind and supportive and collegial… and then gets a fabulous job on the other side of the world. Accessories include downloaded and dog-eared papers on best practice for research supervision.

How many supervisors actually talk with prospective students about their supervisory style, their planned absences, the limitations of their theoretical preoccupations, their careful observance of work/life boundaries, their university’s sexual harassment policies, and their immanent career trajectory? Which one of the above will I be, or will I be all of them at once (surely not the creepy one)? Have I made any glaring omissions?

Millett, K. (1975). The prostitution papers. New York: HarperCollins.

Power and thesis feedback


Research supervision training should include some critical discourse analysis of sample feedback on thesis drafts, so potential supervisors can grasp how the apparently neutral discourse of “comments” enacts social practices and power relationships of supervision.

Take this example, written beside a paragraph in a thesis chapter draft:

“I will consider allowing you to do this.”

We can ask (Fairclough 1992, 1995):

  • What is represented here?
  • What interpersonal relationships are set up?
  • What is the textual work taking place?

“I” as the active opener and dominant subject of this sentence is the supervisor. This “I”, coupled with the strong modality of “will” embodies supervisor power and agency. “Consider” feigns a softening, yet also implies condescension. The student, the “you” addressed passively, must await the uncertain outcome of the supervisor’s deliberations. What poses as receptivity and responsivity on the supervisor’s part is actually a controlling, delaying and destabilising gambit. “Allowing” sets up the supervisor  as authority, policeman, gatekeeper or parent. The student is not understood to be expressing ideas, but seeking permission for the expression of those ideas, which is a different matter entirely.

This is just a beginning, but demonstrates the ideological bases and goals for the language chosen by supervisors in comments. Where and how does the language you use position you in relation to your students? If you would like to post a sample in the Comments below, I am happy to analyse it for you!

Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Media Discourse. UK: Edward Arnold.

Are you a supervisor of choice for mature age students?


What are the specific strategies you put in place to support mature age students doing a PhD? Are you up to date with the resources, such as social media groups, that your university offers? When I was doing my PhD I started collecting screen captures of my university’s home page, looking for representation of people like me (middle-aged woman). The only time I saw someone similar to myself represented was as a parent, visiting the campus with a young adult student, as if in an orientation week. Being a mature age student can be a very lonely experience.

The range of backgrounds of mature age students can be enormous, too. Recently, in an undergraduate program, I taught a student who had never used a computer mouse before, and needed to develop a whole new set of motor skills.  Mature age doctoral students may be thirty or more years away from their last experience of study and have a whole set of study-skill and technology-related needs. How do you help prospective students evaluate their readiness for a return to study and share with them what the university has in place to support them? Does your Higher Degree by Research website have specific advice and info for mature age students, for example? What does your library offer? What special welcome does your student union provide?

Most importantly of all, this post on Professor Pat Thomson’s blog patter reminds us to celebrate mature age students and everything they have to offer.