The Shibboleths of PhD study

There is a point in the doctoral student experience where one ceases having ideas and begins having notions. This is a shibboleth. I’ve seen this discursive acquisition again and again, and I am beginning to feel that this shibboleth marks a significant change. While we might joke about having notions instead of ideas, hedging one’s arguments is a sign of a gradual progression towards a new way of thinking, and I dare say a different disposition. A scholar’s discourse is often hedged like this because they have learned to limit their claims. The idea has become too strong a term or something like that.  

Scholars hedge

Little by Little Poem
Artwork by 愛怜夏 age 7, crayon and digital editing in MS Paint. She knows how to learn.

The change happens little by little, and the change is far deeper than the milestones toward degree completion might suggest. Hedging and limiting claims is the discourse of a scholar, and is an honest sign, in the signaling theory sense. It signals that the learner has changed in identity and behavior, and more importantly, in how they think. This idea of gradual progression is not new, or profound. My 7-year-old artist’s illustration is spot on. We know pretty early on that we can do it, and doing it takes a long time. However, by the time most people get to doc study, I think they forget what they learned when they were seven. I know I did. I felt I knew far less about many things when I graduated than when I arrived at doc study. Inside you, it changes, little by little.

It’s not about the credential

Making big changes in the way one thinks is not why people come to Ph.D. programs. People come for a credential. If one works hard and is lucky, change happens, but I don’t think people come to Ph.D. programs to change. In fact, I think when they come to Ph.D. programs, they need to be pretty resistant to change because of the grit it takes simply to get this far. However, attaining a Ph.D. credential, and learning to think and talk like a scholar are very different things. They only coincide if the learner eventually accepts the change. That is not easy to do, because what they came for was the credential, not the change.

Therein lies the rub. The value of the credential lies in the likelihood that this change in thinking and disposition has taken place. The change includes attitude, intellectual curiosity, and grit. No one hires a Ph.D. not to do critical research, and critical research manifests in publication. Of course, the context of the research might change, and the publishing process might manifest in different forms, but the essential thinking remains.  These attitudes, curiosities, and grit result in an ability to write with precision, consider and reflect in multiple ways, and rewrite until a difficult task is complete. This part of the curriculum is all hidden, and at the same time, the skills that will eventually convince those who work with this newly minted Ph.D. whether or not the skill accompanies the credential. A Ph.D. is not about learning how to write a dissertation; a dissertation is a teaching tool used to evidence that someone has learned grit, intellectual curiosity, persistence, tact, and all the other things we hope the credential will carry. 

We should celebrate learning, not credentialing

We take pictures at graduation, when we should take them in research group, or the moment a doc student finally figures out how to set up their own study. Ph.D. programs should scaffold the hidden curriculum governing how to be a doc student when we see the shibboleths, not when the administration verifies one has jumped the hoops. If we find ways to recognize the more pivotal aspects of change when they become visible, we can connect to learners with more immediacy and let them know we’re invested in their learning. It is sad commentary that the nuts and bolts of Ph.D. milestones tend to garner the most recognition if any recognition happens at all. Convincing a committee that a study is worthy of investigation, grappling with all its complexity, and negotiating the politics of a work environment during this process– these are all unreasonably difficult yes important aspects of Ph.D. study that are the real determiners of sucess. The attitude, initiative, disposition, and perspective that the student acquires in this process are the real learning strides. These take place while learners have full lives with all the other complexities one would encounter. Doctoral candidates have spouses, parents, and kids. Their lives are complex and more intricate than one can manage to create by the undergraduate years. Programs attempt to resolve this with one-credit doc seminars meant to scaffold progress early on in the degree program, but I think that serves as more of an orientation than development. What should happen are high-fives in research groups, or advisor-student research meetings when the students start having notions about what they are studying. Celebrations should sometimes happen when the student takes the initiative on a research task or carefully negotiates how something might be accomplished strategically. We would be wise mentors to recognize these shibboleths from time to time if we hope to support our doctoral students. 

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