with Allen Johnson
Some notes on the transcription…
I wanted to provide a transcript of The PhD Life Raft podcast episodes to make the material more accessible.
I have used an automated transcription service to produce this document. These, as we all know, are not 100% accurate. Please excuse the odd typos and grammatical mis-translations. I hope that you will find the documentation of this conversation useful.
You can find the full interview here: https://thephdliferaft.libsyn.com/
so lovely. As people who if you listen to the podcast then you will recognize and then we’ve had a couple of conversations before this is because we work together a lot. And we were together last night because we work on PhD circle we co facilitate that. For me, it’s always a joy to talk with you because when we met it was this sense of finding someone else who has this. It the same approach to attending to PhD researchers and the process that they are engaged in and so it’s lovely. I asked you to come back. It’s lovely to have you back. Thank you for being back. Yeah,
I’m glad to be back so
today we’re gonna talk about the PhD as a journey. And I think a lot of the time we talk about doing the PhD like it’s a thing and actually it’s it’s a range of processes and you go through different phases and we’re going to sort of unpick that a little bit because it does tend to trip people up and we thought it was worth just unpicking that a bit of people. But before we do that, I always ask people about their own journey and we’ve we’ve already quizzed you all on that. But to talk about the different phases that you came across within your journey, so can you tell us a little bit about that? salutely
and thinking about it now, I realized that on all of my previous times in the podcast, I’ve spoken about primarily post PhD journaling, or spoken about my actual PhD journey, very short, brief terms and I’ve never really spoken about the journey itself. I think the best way to describe my own PhD journey was that there were loads of different forks in the road along the way and different decisions and opportunities and challenges that ultimately created this really unique story. This really unique path that I followed that I couldn’t have seen at the beginning. I couldn’t have imagined the ultimate destination from the outset. But there was a there was a sense of trusting and each step along the way, because my accent gives away that I’m not from England originally and I did my undergraduate degree in the US in English and art history. And I loved both subjects. Equally and really oddly perhaps my passion in English literature was British modernism. And my passion in art history was South Asian bronze sculpture from the Chola dynasty. So completely different geographical, completely different time periods. But I had this really really strong passion in these various specialist areas and I knew I wanted to carry on for graduate work, initially an MA and then hopefully a PhD after that, and I was applying for MA programs in art history and in English literature. I didn’t really know how to make my, my decision. And then there was there was one day where I don’t know what happened the sun was was out and shiny and I just really, really felt that English literature was the right way to go at that moment. I had to make that decision. I had that fork in front of me and I chose one routes. I couldn’t press the other and I could have been in a very different place, but I’m glad that I did and because I was so fascinated by British literature, I wanted to come to England to do my MA and the original plan. was always that, you know, I’m going to just go go to England for nine months back then MA programs were nine months long, and they were about two years long in the US so it was substantially shorter and be a time to live in England for nine months. But at the end of that I would I would definitely come back to America. Yeah, probably do. A PhD or maybe I wouldn’t do a PhD. So then I was doing the MA and I had this new fork in front of me and and then I started applying for PhD programs and it became clear to me that I did want to carry on for the PhD. And I was applying in North America and in England and you know to sort of equal options, both of which seems completely viable and exciting to me. And then in a very similar way to that sort of moment of realization that I had as a final your undergraduate student, I thought, no, why don’t why don’t I stay in England? And and I did and and that began my PhD journey, which was a journey in all sorts of different ways. And the things that stayed with me most through that journey is the recognition that some of the biggest pieces of the transformation within me on that journey wasn’t just me sitting down and writing my research or wasn’t just me, talking to my supervisor. There’s something that happens during a doctoral journey. There’s something almost alchemical when you are with your colleagues and speaking about their research or going to a seminar. Or learning something new outside of your area, hearing that guest lecture from the visiting professor. There’s that sense of the ideas of your own discipline being recreated within you. And that journey isn’t something that I really understood no one described to me at the outset, how that alchemical process of doctoral training work, so it was something that I was observing along the way, and I was realizing, well, this doesn’t really look like or feel like how I learned as an undergraduate and it doesn’t even really look like or feel like how I learned as an MA students. There’s something here that is much more embodied. It’s much more all encompassing, and it’s something that even though it seems very solitary, my journey through the PhD wasn’t solitary at all. It was me writing my own thesis, and I work in a discipline where we don’t regularly collaborate all that often to discipline that. Even academics generally, write only single authored articles and monographs. But even in spite of that, there was this real sense of the the growth within me and the growth of me as coming through that community and being in that community of knowledge. And one of my early mentors after my PhD and my first academic job, she said something to me one switch, really stuck with me and I say to all of the new PhD students where I teach at the moment, that doing a PhD, will break you apart in order to build you up stronger and more powerful than you were to begin with. And it’s taken a few years for me to really understand what she meant by that because the the journey of the PhD is something that is necessarily unchartered territory. None of us know what to expect when we go into it. But others have been through that journey before and I think that’s the important thing. Well, it’s unfamiliar to us. We do have those, those guides those mentors around us who have been through similar journeys and can leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind perhaps or lead some useful clues and support along the way.
Oh, I love this so much. And I think I love the way that you’re putting it in terms of the kind of the alchemy of the doctoral program and maybe ease you know, talk about that a lot here on the podcast in terms of this is a personal development journey. And not everybody realizes that when they’re signing up, so I’d like like you like your, your mentor said this sense of being broken apart and that actually you will change the doctor you is a very different person, to the person that you set out as, and that’s part of engaging with, like you say, with your peers, with your colleagues, with the material that you are diving into, but it also is about engaging with yourself and as you say, the the forks in the road, the choices that you make and the directions that you it takes you in.
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that it can become so easy for us to become fixated on the external indicators of the PhD across the stage without floppy hat and tassel and getting the the letters after your name and all of that. And those are the really important really valuable external indicators of the completion of a doctoral program. But that floppy hats in that velvet gown and graduation day that isn’t the the physical object that somehow magically transforms you. It’s a process of transformation that you’ve been through and successfully completed. That that title and that special academic gown represents. It’s one of those letters. It’s the process that gets you there that makes the change.
Absolutely. And I think it also is also along the way as well, isn’t it? I think we can get obsessed with word count. Whereas actually, it can be about sitting with the material that you’re with sitting with the process that you’re with, that’s what’s going to get you there. I say actually, the external indicators are not always the ones that are important. Absolutely the one simple
story because I I studied karate when I was young and not for many years I wasn’t particularly good but I suddenly really stuck with me in the my karate teacher said because the you know, I grew up in a karate system where you have different colored belts, you begin with a white belt and then you go to a yellow belt and a blue belt and a purple belt and onward and all different color systems and different traditions of martial arts. But I remember my teacher telling me and I was young that that’s a really recent invention that people training in martial arts previously would begin with a white belt and then after years and years and years of practice and dedication and commitment to their work into their craft, that that white belt would become so dirty and dingy that it would become a black belt. You literally overtime or a day and I can’t attest to the veracity of that story. That’s a story that came to me from my karate teacher. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. But I think that the the suggestion behind that, that we we earn we earn things such as qualifications or degrees or, you know, that floppy hats or whatever it is we earn that through that regular showing up to that process and that commitment to our practice of growth within an intellectual community and contributing to new knowledge.
Yes, yes, it is that sense of you truly do earn your doctorate. earn your stripes here. And so, you and I are very interested in excited about evangelical dare I say it even about the fact that of this, this as you say the the alchemy of the doctoral journey, the sole work of the doctoral journey, the mythical elements of the doctoral journey. And so that’s why we wanted to talk today about this, this kind of this sense of the journey of the PhD of it being almost this kind of this hero’s journey through through. So I wonder if you could start to articulate that, because as you’ve just said, Actually, nobody knows what’s going to happen when you sit out and that’s part of it. But we can we can identify particular elements that may be part of the journey. So I wonder if you can just tell us a little bit more about that model of understanding.
This is very much where my own academic research comes into it because I mentioned that I specialize in English literature, but I specialize in specifically comparative mythology and the study of esotericism and the the study of narrative form. And there was a really, really interesting observation made by a Victorian anthropologist called James Fraser. And he pointed out that quite a lot of the the myths around the world, from all different cultures, all different time periods, shared a number of really, really significant and really telling features that it wasn’t that all parts of mythological history told completely different stories, but that they were seemingly tapping into some innate part of human experience. And we saw these, these myths emerging in many different places. And then shortly after that, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung became really fascinated by this as examples of archetypes that the stories and myths from the past are examples of the archetypes that that our mind expresses itself through. And I think we’re all these ideas really began to, to converge is in the middle of the 20th century with someone called Joseph Campbell, who wrote a really, really influential and wonderful book called The Hero with 1000 faces. And in that he picked up on what Fraser had looked at around 60 or 70 years before and recognize that in lots of different stories and myths from the past, we see a similar journey of a hero or heroine from a place of being in the ordinary, everyday world through going through a series of challenges and difficulties and overcoming those challenges and difficulties to then return home having been changed as a person and see the type of narrative in lots of different ways and quite a lot of contemporary playwriting, and screenwriting textbooks actually talk specifically about the hero’s journey so draws on someone inspired by Joseph Campbell called Christopher Vogler who pinpointed these 12 steps in the hero’s journey, and that’s many, many screenwriters are familiar with this, and they will actually plot their films based on this, but what Vogler did when he condensed some of Campbell’s longer and more complex and slightly more esoteric terms, he talked about how journeys begin in the ordinary world, and then the individual that hero or heroine gets what Vogler called the call to adventure. That’s that sort of that hints that whisper that there’s something more that there’s something different that there’s a challenge that might lie ahead. It’s kind of like that fork in the road that I described when I was an undergraduate when I was thinking, Okay, do I do English literature or do I do art history and, and I had that call to adventure, and that ultimately took me abroad to country that I live in now. And Vogler carries on to talk about the the remaining nine steps, there’s usually that refusal to that call that sense where the individual feels that maybe that call is too much for them, or their call is too dangerous, or it puts them in a position of risk, and what tends to happen Vogler. And Joseph Campbell pointed out when the individual tries to refuse that call, and suddenly a mentor comes along. And the English term mentor comes to us specifically from Homer, on the character of mentor in the Odyssey was that first archetypal mentor who was able to encourage and support to limitless as he was in search for understanding of himself and the role that he played in the world. And of course, homers work in the Odyssey in particular, is a great example of this hero’s journey. So we’re called to challenge your call to adventure we meet a mentor, we cross a threshold we are challenged and meet new allies. Then we we move to what Vogler calls the the innermost pave or what some other traditions of theology referred to as the dark night of the soul, the moment in the journey where everything seems impossible, and I’ve supervised many PhD students who say,
there will be a lot of people going Yep, yeah.
Absolutely. And I’ve supervised many PhD students over the year and without fail, there’s come a time and a different point for all of them. Where they’ve said to me that you know, this feels impossible. I can’t do this. I’m, you know, losing steam. I don’t know where to go. And every single time they say to me, I can look them in the eye and very, very honestly and truthfully say to them, I am so glad that you gave voice to that. Because this means that you are about to come out of that innermost cave or that dark night of the soul. Because everyone goes through that and when we recognize that we are in that point, that’s the moment when we begin coming out of it and then we begin moving toward that final reward receiving those letters after our name and the the sense internally or externally of the value that that means for us and then are able to take all of that learning and the transformation that we gained on our journey back with us into the ordinary world, the the world that the hero in the hero’s journey returns to even though it’s their own homelands, or it’s their own ordinary world so to speak. They realize that the world has changed but because they have changed, and what they bring back with them after the hero’s journey is what makes that ordinary world different to them because suddenly they are able to bring more to offer more, to understand more to to care more, and to perhaps be that mentor on another person’s journey along the way and to be that person who says, you know, I see that you’re going through this moment of complete worry and panic. We all go through this and we are going to come out of it. Because that’s the next stage in the journey we’re going through
no face and I think this is why we wanted to talk about this model because it can be so frightening and so difficult. The PhD journey really disorientating, really lonely, and and the kind of take home message is trust the process. But if you don’t have a sense of what that process is or what might be happening, it can become more anxiety provoking. Absolutely. This this model gives us a sense of what this process might be about. Because I say it’s easy for us to say oh, it’s all about self development itself. It’s like but what does that mean? And knowing that there’s a dark night of the soul coming or being in the dark night of the soul is totally normal. It’s part of the process. It’s a conductive part of the process, indeed, can be really helpful to in terms of understanding what’s going on and to be able to trust the process because when you do trust the process, it can open up energetically is very different and it just opens up different possibilities for you, doesn’t it?
Yeah, it’s an interesting and the process, which is so important. And what’s so valuable here is that this this model of the hero’s journey isn’t something that I created. It isn’t something that Joseph Campbell created. It isn’t something that Christopher Vogler created it is what story after story and myth after myth from culture after culture has embedded in the the narratives that they choose to treasure most and share with future generations and it’s something deeply human and deeply humane. And it reminds us as well that, you know, when Odysseus was going off, he was fighting monsters and and demons, you know, big, big challenges, but the PhD is a big big challenge in the same way that the hero’s journey of the the great heroes of the classical mythical tradition and all of the other mythological and folkloric traditions around the world represented to embark on the journey of a doctorate to to accept the call to adventure is to become the hero of our own journey to become the hero of our story. It’s, it’s big stuff, but there’s a very long very ancient, humanity’s tradition of understanding the structure and understanding what steps might come along the way in this journey. And the journey looks different to everyone. So the hero’s journey that we all follow these 12 steps, or Campbell actually gave 17 steps along the journey. We don’t all follow these sequentially in order and we don’t spend the same amount of time in each of these so we’re not able to get out our diary. This is something that I would love to do, because I’m such a planner and a list maker, able to get up my diary and say, right, there are 12 steps in this process and that my 15 is gonna be three years so I’m gonna spend three months in each of these stages. It’s much more fluid than that and we might return to certain earlier stages over time, or we might skip to a later stage early on, only in order to need to return to the stages that we missed previously. So it’s not a sort of a a set definitive structure. It is a it’s a model it’s a guide, and it gives us clues and waypoints along the way. And it gives us a sense of what we might be able to expect but also recognizing that our journey is not going to look like Odysseus is in the same way that our journey is not going to look like the person that shares an office with us who’s doing a PhD. In the same topic.
Absolutely. That’s that’s a really important thing as well, isn’t it? It’s your journey, and it will have that kind of unique experience, which is brilliant and also deeply troubling at the same time because it’s like what what what I think this sense of really this sense of it as a mythical journey as an as an adventure, and it’s so much more than just a job. Because I think people are told often in a way that I think is a bit confusing that right well, this is your job now. You don’t expect necessarily to go through this these kind of big chemical processes as part of a job. And that is what is that’s what’s going to be part of this experience. So having a sense of an understanding of it as a as a bigger process, hopefully will be helpful to people as a sense of a as you say, is a sense of a guide, but also as a sense of permission giving that you are on an adventure.
And none of us go through this, this journey, this hero’s journey structure once in our lifetime. This is something that we do at different stages. In our life. The very nature of growing up the ages of sort of three to seven are profoundly transformative for a young person. And we go through the hero’s journey then as well as we’re learning to interact with the world around us and we learn to understand our own sense of identity and we learn to understand the identities of those outside of us and then in adolescence, we go through a similar journey, the struggles of adolescence finding out who we are and how we fit into society and then in university and then during the the doctorate as well. And, you know, let’s everyone in a secret after a doctorate, this journey can begin again in a new way because you find yourself having returned to the ordinary world changed for the better and have an opportunity to maybe look for new journeys, whether that is an academic journey or it’s moving into industry with your research or using your research. In the other ways our life is filled with almost limitless opportunities to continue to journey and adventure and to listen for that call to adventure and to to accept and believe that when we approach the call with openness and honesty, and authenticity, that we will be met by mentors along the way who have been in their journey before and will, will support us and guide us and point us in the directions when we need it or
not. And again, on the podcast, we get a lot of shout outs for amazing people who and the mentors are not always just the supervisors, they’re your you know, your your they’re your non human teachers, at the ferry research assistants, then colleagues, they’re the peers, they come all around you. And I think what comes through really strongly in terms of what you’re saying, and I know that because we are very keen on this as a process of kind of, to zoom out and see it as a bigger see this PhD in a bigger sense, rather than I think often the culture is to push on through, get on with it, push on through, and actually a lot of what we’re doing in circle, and in what we’re going to be doing in the planet film, which we’ll do again at the beginning of the year is this sense of reflection, stepping back, having a look at it, understanding it as a process and reflecting on what’s happening in order to be able to serve yourself in that process better. And so the sense of reflection is really important and and acknowledging and processing what is going on as part of the journey, as well as being concerned about word count.
There can be a real over emphasis on what we call time management that yes, large projects can be can be organized in in a completely watertight concrete way which time management is a very, very important skill for doctoral researchers, of course, but what we don’t talk about often enough is energy management. Yeah, and the fact that if we, as researchers attempt to just go flat out at our research running a million miles at it, we probably aren’t going to achieve the same quality of outcomes and in the same length of time as we would if we recognize that we’re really managing our energy there as well that we really need to allow ourselves time for reflection. We need to allow our saw selves time for turning inward for thinking at the same time that we need to allow ourselves opportunities for radical expansion. And those those weeks or months where we are absolutely on fire and are turning up page after page and are having great ideas. Those moments come as well and we can learn how to do that particular energy, but acknowledging to ourselves that there’ll be times afterward where we do maybe just simply need to read for a few days or a few weeks just to think and to reflect and I think that’s what the the hero’s journey is really reminding us about that the hero’s journey is it’s not a structure that moves through at a set pace. There are peaks and troughs there are moments of speed and moments. Of Silence. And of course, that’s where we talk a lot about inCircle as well because we we always have the seasonal practices which are aligned to the different seasons that we’re in and you know, we’re in the season of autumn and almost winter in the Northern Hemisphere. And we’ve been talking a lot about what it means to think about rest or to turn inward now to say, a way to retreat from our work. It’s not about giving up in our work. It’s about filling the well. It’s about building and restoring those stores of energy and insights so that when a different time comes a different stage. In the hero’s journey, we have that vitality and we have that inspiration to really bring through the ideas that have been brewing in us during a period of quiet and calm. I love
that. I love that. And I think again, that can be very confusing for people because we talk about the PhD and as you say people expect to set off at a pace and just keep going. And then when the the the the energy changes and the pace of work changes. Especially when you go into that missing middle phase people. It’s I can’t do it anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s got really slow and it’s like yes, exactly that you’ve gone into a new phase. This is the new phase. This is what you need to do in this phase. And that’s absolutely right, absolutely where you need to be. And understanding it as a process I think can be really helpful in that. Although now I’m aware of time talked about time management. I’m aware of time. You and I can talk about this as we know all day long. But if you do want to if you are interested and you do want to kind of join us and hear us talking more then obviously you’re very welcome to come and join us and circle you’re very welcome to join us in the planner thought I will put the details of that in in the in the show notes. But I need to just ask you, Ellen now as we’re closing and I know we’ve covered so much here is it I know it’s always a ridiculous question but do you have a top tip or some top tips to take away in terms of this understanding the PhD as a journey?
Yeah, the the hero’s journey. And this this process of initiation another way to describe the hero’s journey. We see it in so many films. We see it in Harry Potter, we see it in Indiana Jones. We see it in Star Wars. We see it in a huge amount of Victorian literature. We see it everywhere. And what can be so useful is to find one of these these narratives of the hero’s journey that really really speaks to you and might be Lord of the Rings or it might be something else and watch it again. And as you’re watching it again, really allow yourself to to notice those different stages of the hero’s journey that the hero or heroine goes through and think about maybe where you are in that phase. of your research. are you approaching the gates of Mordor? Or are you setting off from the Shire after the call to adventure? And that’s what’s so valuable and vital about this, this mythopoetic structure the hero’s journey, it’s everywhere around us. So being conscious to that and seeing that in a film that really speaks to us and thinking about how maybe we’re like that hero in that journey might just bring us a little bit of clarity around what the next steps on our doctoral research journey might look like.
Amazing. Thank you so much I learned and I will see you again very soon. And thank you all for listening