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


Author: becomingaphdsupervisor

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Deakin University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s