There is no such thing as a doctoral student

This post is a playful thinking-through of what it means to be a doctoral student. Obviously it is based on being pedantic about words and phrases to explore and make a point, but where we end up is interesting…

(1) You can’t be a ‘student’ and be ‘doctoral’ at the same time

If ‘doctoral’ means ‘studying for a doctorate’ then obviously my claim (1) above is false. But, if ‘doctoral’ refers to ‘being of a doctoral level’ then it is arguably true.

(By the way, for simplicity I will use ‘PhD’ as a placeholder for most doctoral degrees, like PhD, EdD, DCA, DPhil; but probably not DSc or DLitt – the super-posh, rarely awarded degrees that don’t apply to the lowly likes of you and me.)

If you’re studying for a PhD the point is to learn what it means to do research of a particular scope, level and quality. This is usually referred to as ‘doctoral’ and implies a kind of ‘doctoralness’ in what you are doing. The doctoralness of what you have done is not established until your examiners proclaim it so. And it cannot be evidenced until the very last minute when it all hangs together in a thesis (or creative work and exegesis) of some kind. However brilliant, your literature review is not doctoral until it is part of a wider piece of work. Your analysis may be ground-breaking and reveal a remarkable discovery. It is not doctoral until it is placed in the context of your scene-setting, argument as to previous work and the gap it has left (so-called literature review), your discussion, and conclusions.

Until you have the whole thing in place, doctoralness is an elusive quality. It may be that particular pieces of work that you do along the way are of a standard that will serve you well when it comes to putting it all together and making your case for the title ‘Dr’. But technically none of these things are yet, nor can they be, doctoral. A doctoral thesis is more than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes it doctoral. Any one part or task along the way can certainly fail to meet the standard, but this standard is not ‘doctoralness’, but something different.

Does this mean I’m saying journal papers can never be doctoral? Well, yes! (perhaps for the sake of argument). This doesn’t mean that journal papers are all ‘sub-doctoral’ in the sense that they are at a masters or lower level in terms of the robustness of the contribution or their intellectual sophistication. Journal articles are not miniature PhDs. Doctoralness is an aesthetically and substantively unique concept, and the only way to demonstrate doctoralness is in a doctoral thesis of one kind or another. That’s why a thesis by publication requires a linking text (exegisis, kapa etc) that frames the papers as part of a wider body of work, and (crucially) your development as a scholar.

What I’ve written above implies a lot about what doctoralness is – I’m not going to spell it all out (at least not here). But I am going to say it is worth some serious thought. If journal articles, even the most highly cited, groundbreaking ones, are not doctoral, what is? If the building blocks you create along the way (data, chapters) are not doctoral, what does this mean for your thesis?


(2) There is no such thing as a doctoral student in the same way there is no such thing as a baby

In the mid twentieth century, Donald Winnicott coined what has become a famous aphorism: “There is no such thing as a baby*”. What?! I’m guessing most, if not all, readers of this post would think, quite reasonably, that they were a baby at some point in their lives. Perhaps you were only a baby very briefly, before you morphed into that intellectually dazzling toddler… Or maybe you can’t be sure you were ever a baby, but you’re pretty sure babies exist: that last long haul flight was plagued by one of them screaming her lungs out, stopping you getting any sleep; those things in the really annoying pushchairs that get in the way pretty much everywhere aren’t just worryingly realistic (and noisy, smelly) dolls, they’re little human beings, right?

Yes, you’re right. And I’m no baby-hater. But Winnicott had a point. He went on to say: “A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship”. Elsewhere he wrote “if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone” (1947).

I think the same could be said of doctoral students.

A doctoral student cannot exist alone. Though an interaction on ResearchGate showed me that some like to think so. A prospective student posed the question, ‘Can I study for a PhD without a supervisor?’. To me this wreaked of arrogance (although everyone else on the planet and in history has needed a bit of help, I’m so brilliant I can do it by myself), and revealed a painful reluctance to do any homework on what a PhD is and what it means to study for one. The only rationale I could see here was someone thinking more about the certificate than the learning that leads to it.

My distaste at this proposition reveals how Winnicott’s idea applies. It was inconceivable to me that a PhD could be obtained without some kind of supervision or assistance from others. Yes, supervisors disappear sometimes, relationships break down, students don’t get the feedback they need. But zero support means no degree. It really is as simple as that. [I expect among readers there might be people who feel they are doing or did their PhD alone, abandoned by supervisors, or perhaps professionals who put together a thesis based on publications without much or even any supervision; in the first case my bet is you were not as alone as you think you were; in the second case this is not the kind of thesis I’m talking about, and my response to the first case also applies].

When you describe a doctoral student, you will quickly find yourself describing the other people around them. This is not to bloat the role of supervisors, or to negate the independence, creativity and shaping that come from doctoral students. But your thesis would be a different thesis if you had a different supervisor or different supervisors. It would be different if you had chosen to study somewhere else. Your thesis is a product of you, your work, and the intellectual environment you are part of.

Doctoral students can’t be imagined outside of other relationships, too, although we might often feel that our institutions forget this. Every doctoral student is always one or more of the following: someone’s sister or brother, mother or father, daughter or son, friend, colleague, housemate, facebook friend, twitter follower etc etc. Doctoral students are always other kinds of human beings. I might even be so bold as to say they are other kinds of human beings first.

So, when someone asks you “Are you a doctoral student?”, have fun and do your best to discombobulate the person asking the question. You might try these responses:

“No. There’s no such thing!”

“No, I’m a person [sister, mother, daughter] who happens to be studying for a PhD.”

“No. I’m learning to do research, and might by the end of it be able to show that what I’ve done is doctoral, but until then, I’m more student than doctoral.”

“No, I’m a doctoral student working with an amazing [or terrible, or something in between] supervisor.”



* Tracing the precise origins and wording of this phrase are a bit hard to pin down. It seems he spoke the words “There is no such thing as an infant” in 1940 in a discussion at the Scientific Metting of the British Psycho-Analytic Society. Since then different print versions and attributions have proliferated. A good place to look is Winnicott D (1964) The child, the family and the outside world. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.


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