A few years have skidded by after I moved to Toronto and started my studies at OISE. I have been quite busy with new kinds of stuff. Interestingly enough, I feel like I have been writing the whole time, just not here (but here and here).
My doctoral piece is moving along quite well, but I'm on the edge of the long desert. It worries me and makes me ponder. What's the long desert? It's that place in the PhD program located after all the grouped milestones of the early years. It's the milestone after which you're on your own for a few years; compass and map, but no landmark, nothing close by to aim at, to stay driven.
The PhD looks to me like a procession of milestones. When you set out, they are grouped so tightly that you can't go wrong. I'm talking about the coursework you're supposed to do first. You don't even need an idea of where you're going. Just do the courses and you're going in a right direction. Meanwhile, where you're going becomes somewhat clearer (or where you're not going perhaps).
After comes the Comprehensive Exam. This comes right after the coursework, so a few months at best. At this point, you've made a few decisions, such as who will supervise your thesis, and identified your topic or some of the broad pieces of your thesis. Of course, you might have a much clearer picture than that, but that's not usually required.
Comps done and passed, milestones get more distant as you set out for the short desert, which is how I see the Dissertation Proposal. In it, you describe what you're going to do in the long desert. It's a hard piece to develop when you're not used to it. You have to tackle with things like theoretical and conceptual frameworks, determine if you're either a post-positivist, a constructivist, a pragmatist, etc (I wish there was a category for 'painting a target around where my research arrow hits dirt', but I'm guessing all of them fit that category...). The Dissertation Proposal is especially hard to write, because all those pieces, in my case, personal positioning, problem description, research questions, methods, philosophical foundations, theoretical and conceptual frameworks, and literature review, all have to align in a coherent whole. Also, they need to describe a project that is feasible in a few years instead of a lifetime! Hopefully, my short description explains aptly why I consider it as some kind of desert. You feel quite alone with your project. It's a good thing, but it's not easy, it takes some time to think out and write, and one can easily get lost in this small desert.
(By the way, if you are writing or about to write your proposal, read Kilbourn (2006). You won't regret it.)
Assuming you get your proposal accepted without too many revisions, the next milestone is the Ethics Review. Thankfully, compared to the Dissertation Proposal, it's almost a piece of cake, though a very dry one, with no icing.
The Ethics Review is the last milestone before the end. I've passed it a few moths ago. Now I'm in the long desert (not sure where though). These days, I'm working on data collection and data processing. The Ethics Review is a few months behind and the next milestone is, in a way, the First Draft, but it stands at the very least a year or two away, maybe more. One problem with this last milestone is that it lies somewhere different for everyone. When you set out after the review, you don't know how long it will take you, whether you'll have to switch direction because you followed a mirage, whether you'll be able to notice that you've come full circle and lost months on the trail, what kind of snakes lie under the rocks, where to find food and water, and how to protect yourself from the grinding desert storms of academic politics.
(If I can give some advice, but really, who am I to give advice, as I'm not even done yet, I suggest you create your own subset of milestones. Make a list of them. Celebrate every time you tick one off. So far, it's helping me feel like I'm moving.)
Milestones play an important role in our becoming something else. First, they guide us. I've described to an extent how those milestones have guided my PhD path and would blabber in the same manner about aikido and iaido. Milestones point to the next few things we're supposed to grasp.
Milestones work as landmarks, guiding progression, but they also serve as markers of accomplishment. As such, they not only serve to guide socialization through a set of established step, but also mark the realization of those goals. A milestone in the distance points the way. The ones behind us confirm our accomplishments. In a way, the crossing of the distance is the rite of passage, which culminates in a sense of belonging to a new group and provides cues for them to recognize the newcomer as being one of them, at least because he arrived through the same path. Milestones act as credentials.
Also, milestones force us through certain paths, and these paths act as crucibles. They change us. By themselves, paths hold nothing, but the experience they provide to the ones who walk through them changes them forever.
Yet, as anyone who has climbed Mt Washington knows, there are many ways to reach a milestone. You don't have to follow the path, especially if the only milestone is the one at the top. Arriving at a milestone means nothing, unless one has walked the path. In other words, just getting the recognition is an empty thing. You're supposed to walk the path, not take your car and drive up to the parking lot at the top of the mountain! But you don't have to. You can get the bumper sticker or the credential the easy way, and having a PhD or a black belt opens new doors. The real goal should be one's transformation. It's up to the individual, but it's also up to those who set those milestones in place. Having few milestones opens the door to alternate paths, some harder, some easier.
This has been my frustration when I climbed Mt Washington and arrived face-to-face, happy and exhausted, with a man eating a hot-dog on the hood of his car. This is my frustration when I witness weak black belt examinations in iaido and aikido, or when I listen to weak thesis defences. Five things sadden me. First, these students have missed an opportunity to learn much more than what they've learned. Second, most of them did not take the easy path willingly or knowingly. Milestones are easy to see, but paths are easy to lose when things get muddy. They might not even know there was anything else but a road to get to the top of the mountain. The other thing that saddens me is the dropping value of the credential. As more and more people get their black belt or their PhD the easier way, people's perception of their value drops. Furthermore, as more and more people take the easier way, the easier way becomes the known way, eventually the only known way. It becomes the new standard. Not necessarily because people are looking for the easier way, but because people see others take that way and follow them. It makes for a deadly spiral that gradually grinds milestones to nothing, to empty credentials. Finally, I'm also sad when I think of those who chose the impossible path, and got lost. A path with few milestones allows for great short cuts, but in the same manner, it allows for impossible ones. We can chose to make our experience as meaningful as possible, and rich with learning, by choosing the impossibly hard path. There are great personal rewards in this, but great risks as well, for many who choose the hard path, knowingly or not, never reach the milestone. They've learned a great deal, but are never recognized.
I believe this problem is a simple one to solve. Greater care should be given to the setting up of milestones, so that their distance and their directions are carefully thought out to ensure progression along meaningful paths. There will always be easier and harder paths, sure, but they shouldn't be waaaaay too easy or waaaaay too hard.
References (See that? I blame the PhD!)
Kilbourn, B. (2006). The qualitative doctoral dissertation proposal. The Teachers College Record, 108(4), 529–576.