Bricoleur and confectioner were only a few metaphors that came up at the BERA PG Symposium in Glasgow. The autumn symposium was one of the three symposia that BERA offered for doctoral students in 2013. The autumn symposium was held in the historic atmosphere of the University of Glasgow and ten brave doctoral students from a wide range of universities introduced their research projects and opened up a discussion around triumphs, troubles and challenges of PhD and EdD research. Those ten participants were from the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, the West of Scotland, Aberdeen, Manchester, Durham, Newcastle, and Birmingham. The research topics addressed issues regarding social justice, inequalities, teacher professionalism and classroom dynamics, and ended up in discussions around social theories, methodological choices, research ethics and access to vulnerable groups, minorities but also the challenges of being a PhD student and balancing the different roles that many doctoral students have. We were pleased to have Mark Murphy and his “academic voice” around that guided discussions throughout the symposium but also got several others involved via social media. Many thanks to Mark!
Above all, the symposium created a context where doctoral students became a coherent community with similar problems, challenges and even a similar sense of humour. It might sound terrifying, but it seems that doctoral students often face the same obstacles and they experience the same triumphs. For example, the questions “how do I choose a social theory?”, “how do I get access to specific groups of people or institutions?” or “how do I balance my time and life so that the rest of society won’t think I’m a freak with no life?” Also the experience of shifting the research focus or changing the research questions and title five times before even getting close to an actual interest look pretty normal now. I don’t think that any of us at the symposium were able to give single answers to those questions, but one is sure that these questions became less horrifying after hearing that everybody has experienced more or less similar issues. Furthermore, the recognisable voice “I really love what I am doing!” seemed to describe every one of us at the symposium. It even looked like doctoral students are unbreakable, extremely strong characters who don’t give up if somebody says NO or tries to convince you that what you are doing is a waste of time. It seems that doctoral students are born with a necessary survival mechanism, and if nothing else helps, there is always at least an opportunity for a good laugh!
The experience of organising the symposium made me think that we need more of these kinds of events that would help us to share our thoughts, to feel united, if you like. I know that Anna Beck raised a similar issue in one of her blog posts here on Social Theory Applied (see I am moving to Norway), but I think this issue cannot be emphasised enough. Undertaking a PhD/EdD can be quite a lonely journey and I am not surprised if many doctoral students think that they are the ones who face the challenges and everybody else is getting on with the research without any difficulties. It might even be a common belief, as we don’t have many opportunities to come together and to talk. If your best friend isn’t another PhD student, you might feel quite isolated with your problems. So I hope that we are moving towards “the culture of talk” in doctoral lives. I think the symposium made a great step towards it.
Oh yes, what about the bricoleur and confectioner? Before I finish with this piece of writing and get on with my own life, I want to introduce you to two new terms that we as doctoral students integrated into our vocabulary. We find bricoleur useful when speaking about ourselves in the process of moving between different paradigms, methodologies, methods and when we feel an urgent need to make up our own mixed paradigm or a sense of reasoning in order to approach our unique research questions (Joe L. Kincheloe’s work might be useful here to get deeper with this). The other term – confectioner – is a much sweeter one. Roger Wood, a PhD student from the University of Birmingham, described his experience in social theories via the metaphor of being a child in a confectionery shop and trying to choose the best jar of sweets. As he said, his supervisors recommended him to think big and to imagine himself as a confectioner who can choose and mix a variety of sweets for a most delicious experience. So perhaps we should become confectioners when thinking about our social theories and if it becomes necessary we should be open to many different theories in order to gain a similar experience. At least something to think about …