By Susan Carter

It’s undeniably a huge amount of work producing doctoral writing. But attending the Postgraduate Supervision Conference in South Africa also reminded me very strongly of the great privilege it is for those of us who are able to take up this challenge. In addition, it was a rare chance for the three of us DoctoralWriting SIG editors to get together and to meet up with international friends and colleagues.
Cally, Susan, and Claire, Stellenbosch 2015

Cally, Susan and Claire at the Spier Hotel conference venue

This post draws on notes from the conference held in Stellenbosch, on 24-27 March, 2015. Although we attended numerous informative sessions, here we’ll just reflect on a few salient points raised here and there. In one session, intriguingly, David Plowright called for a moratorium on ‘the Q words’: qualitative and quantitative. He suggests that we use ‘narrative and numerical’ instead, but more importantly, draw back from being locked into a rigid methodological grid. It is a nice critique, and I so agree that slavish adherence to methodologies can be rather narrow, but perhaps for most doctoral students, sticking within well-recognised frameworks gives security when the gate-keeping examination process lies ahead.

Student well-being was raised by Lorna Moxham, who noted that undertaking a research degree should be pleasurable, and yet often is not. Her data reported on student perceptions regarding revision of writing drafts—sometimes the work sounded lonely and difficult. Martie Mearns speculated that the internet turned us into ‘produsers’: people who both use and produce the resources, and this led to the fact that research itself and thesis writing does just this too, as it draws the literature in as useful support and produces something new into that support structure.

Relevant to the South African background struggle for transformation and equity, Jeanette Maritz and Paul Prinsloo pointed out that research adds to social capital where ‘social capital is not gained through a one off event…it is an endless effort requiring time and effort.’ Arguably the doctorate process entails accumulating social capital and as such it takes a huge amount of patient ongoing effort, and yet we are the lucky ones who can engage in this effort.

Maritz and Prinsloo reminded us that gender, race, language capital and first generation status are disadvantaging: ‘We bring our past and our present as we enter the field.’ For many doctoral students, the knowledge that ‘we bring our past’ can be a source of strength and inspiration too—the doctorate feels like an endorsement of past selves. Many doctoral students find perseverance strengths from keeping in mind how proud the previous generations in their family will be.

Keynote Michael Samuels’ point that doctoral education is about making a profit, about wealth, an elitist notion that enables climbing up the social ladder, when it should be about social justice seems especially relevant too. Arguably, when first in the family students find success that’s a democratizing influence in itself. And it was clear to us as outsiders just how hard South African academics are working in the interests of social justice.

Keynote Johann Mouton investigated the tensions between desire for quality and desire for quantity in a context of efficiency requirements. These are tough issues for institutions to resolve. At a more grounded level, Claire Aitchison’s keynote speech anatomized the purposes, practices and pedagogies of doctoral writing in contemporary times. She noted the accountability agenda’s eying of doctoral writing as ‘output’, and the resulting pressures and inflections. The need for communities of practice round writing reiterated the theme that doctoral pedagogy was strongest when supervisors were not solely responsible for writing development.

There was interest in the increasing types of doctorate: with by or through publication; structured; integrated; and practice-based. That the doctorate is changing implies imperatives to link research to the needs of the world as well as to the future career of the candidate. Gina Wisker and Gill Robinson added the complexities of the doctorate with creative performance, considering the relationship between creative work and the written component.

Several themes recurred quite often, then. Concern about careers after graduation, and the need for transparency about this and for training for non-academic careers kept surfacing. Thesis with publication was seen as a sound career-addressing route to completion. The proliferation of practice-based doctorates provoked interest in the ways this influenced research and writing. We gathered the sense that the doctorate was changing in an era of credential inflation to better prepare candidates so that they might find rewarding work outside of academia . The urge to move beyond the dyadic supervision relationship to ensure support from peers, learning centres and other academics was another ubiquitous theme. These recurrent themes suggest a new realism around the doctorate and forums such as this conference offer mechanisms for debate and exploration of ways forward.