Dreams are made, disrupted, and... remade: Professional and personal trajectories of two working PhD students

Year: 2019

Author: Nguyen, Linh, Santos, Lucas

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Contemporary universities have offered more access and widening participation for university graduates to be trained in a doctoral programme, and then pursue a career in academia. Yet what does it mean for an individual to earn a doctoral degree? What does it mean for a higher education institution to house doctoral students? And what does it mean for the society when a PhD student and then a PhD holder enter the workforce?

This paper addresses these three questions by providing the perspectives of the two authors, both of whom have held multiple university positions while completing their PhD. Though their theoretical stances are different, one draws on critical cultural awareness (Holliday, 2011), and the other on practice theory (Bourdieu, 1988), the authors share strong interests in narrative-based inquiry, reflexivity, and praxis. They analyse their reflexive practices and autobiographical narratives to make sense of their professional and personal trajectories in the Australian higher education.

The authors have found that they started their candidature with intellectual curiosity and a dream-making mindset. Their candidature was entangled in learning to conduct research, taking work positions, and offering community service. Along the way, their intellectual curiosity was scholarly supported by supervisors, mentors, and colleagues. Concomitantly, their dream-making mindset was disrupted by standards-based education, commodification of higher education, overwork, job insecurity, and career uncertainty. Their interpretation of their own professional and personal trajectories disclose their vulnerability, and at the same time, empower them to situate themselves in the field of higher education and remake their dreams of more inclusive, equitable and socially just universities.

This paper contributes alternative approaches, besides the solid pathway of PhD-completion-leading-to-guaranteed-academic-jobs, to navigating one’s way through PhD candidature. The paper argues for PhD candidates’ capacity and courage to push intellectual boundaries, tackle academic norms, and demonstrate professional resilience in this tough time of post-truth, neoliberalism and unforeseeable political changes that can profoundly affect mundane micro-aspects of academic life. It is hoped that the paper will provide prospective PhD students with more insightful perspectives, and have implications for PhD supervisors and those who manage postgraduate research programmes in universities.