Who am I today? Academic staff being and becoming doctoral students

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On the face of it, undertaking doctoral study in your own institution seems the perfect way of gaining that important qualification while still working in your normal job. There are certainly advantages in having a dual role as both academic and in-house doctoral student: often the course fees will be paid as part of your staff development, there’s no need to travel to another university or learn different processes or procedures, and there’s potential to turn your everyday practice into research and to use your research in your teaching.

The dual-role ticks a lot of boxes for the institution too: no external fees to pay, efficient use of human resources, and, longer term, more staff with doctorates. For some people, it works.  Yet, in our experience – two of us as former dual-role academics, and all of us as colleagues who supervise, train and support them – for many dual-role academics, this is a very difficult road to travel.

Some of the problems are logistic: as with any doctorate, you have to make space in an already busy life. Where once you had work, family, hobbies, holidays, romance, good works or just time to chill, suddenly there’s the doctorate and its demands are all-pervading. Dual-role academics tend to already be time-poor, and even the successful ones we studied reported a variety of personal life issues arising from taking on doctoral study.

Some problems are procedural: very few institutions have designed their doctoral programmes to accommodate staff members. To be part-time, mature, committed elsewhere for much of the working week, each dual-role attribute complicates compliance.

But the key issue for dual-role academics is inside our heads. When you’re being a staff member, you feel excluded from doctoral peer support. How can you be a fellow student with people you normally assess? And when you’re being a doctoral student, you feel wary of colleagues who supervise you, unsure how much vulnerability you can reveal, how much ignorance you can show, how much of your home life you should share. How can you continue working on equal terms with people who treat you as a novice?

This feeling of always being the odd one out, was what drew us to the work of Gloria Anzaldúa. The borderlands metaphor adopted for the journal’s latest special issue perfectly captures the ambivalence and alienation reported by our study participants. So, having already published our findings regarding the structural and temporal issues related to the dual-role, we agreed to review our data using this new lens for our article, to identify ‘the visceral’ – those gut-wrenching stories of alienation, and embattled dual-status existence.

Like anyone trying to survive in the borderlands, individuals learn to be ‘multi-lingual’ to fit with the different communities and roles they work with. But the key element is that dual-role academics must undertake an extended form of boundary crossing, potentially to-ing and fro-ing several times a day. One minute you’re an academic, the next a student… repeatedly through the day.

Not everyone undertaking a dual role will undergo a crisis of confidence, but Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987, 63) assertion will resonate for some:

‘I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one’.

The situation for dual-status academics is not without hope. Our study identifies a real need for tailored institutional and supervisory support for these academics. We suggest borderlands are spaces of possibility rather than confinement, but that institutions and supervisors must allow that possibility to flourish.

Virginia King (Coventry University), with Jennie Billot (Auckland University of Technology), Jan Smith (National University of Ireland, Galway) and Lynn Clouder (Coventry University)