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Doctoral Dilemmas: Towards a Discursive Psychology of Postgraduate Education


This thesis presents a critical analysis of the dilemmas of doing a Ph.D. in the social sciences from the perspective of discursive psychology.

Aims of Project

It aims to contribute to qualitative studies of higher education, especially work in the sociology of education on social science doctoral research and training, and discourse analytic work on the dilemmas of education. It argues that there is a crucial bias in the literature on doctoral study. Much of the theory and research on doing a doctorate has been written and carried out  by doctoral supervisors and established academic researchers, rather than doctoral students themselves. As a result, researchers have tended to study supervisor rather than student dilemmas, and have left certain gaps in their studies, including the experiential dimensions of doctoral research, the discursive construction of postgraduate identities, and the patterns of ideology and power at play in doctoral student life. The present doctorate on doing a doctorate attempts to fill these gaps, and at the same time introduces a distinctive critical, discursive and reflexive take on postgraduate education. Detailed discourse analyses are carried out of in-depth semi-structured interviews with Ph.D. students in various psychology and social science departments in the United Kingdom. The analysis pays attention to the conversational, rhetorical and ideological patterning of doctoral postgraduate discourse. In particular, it concerns the academic identity work done by the postgraduates, the ways in which they manage particular interactional, self-presentational and ideological dilemmas in their talk, and the different forms of powr that are at play as they carry out their doctorates. In addition, a form of practical, analytical reflexivity is developed in the thesis, whereby the authors’ own methodological and interviewing practices are analysed, along with the text of the thesis itself. The general argument is that the topic of postgraduate academic identity proves a good case study for the investigation of some of the hidden dynamics of power, as well as the use of wider ideological values, in the construction of identities in contemporary institutional settings.

“There are very few studies of doctoral education particularly conducted by and for doctoral students themselves. This Ph.D. makes a major empirical and substantive contribution to knowledge and also an important practical contribution: it should be recommended reading for all students and supervisors” (Margaret Wetherell, Open University).


Economic and Social Research Council, Award Number R442200034398

Additional Information

Supervised by Michael Billig.

Examined by Margaret Wetherell and Malcolm Ashmore.

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