Friday, 29 November 2013

Doctor Who? Doctor Pavoni. The PhD as journey

Yesterday I sat in, as Director of Studies, on the viva of my PhD student Andrea Pavoni. Andrea gave a masterful defence of his thesis, 'Exceptional Tunings: Controlling Urban Events', and the examiners were impressed with the richness and inventiveness of his thesis - something that came as no surprise to myself and the rest of the supervisory team.

It made me reflect on the whole process of the PhD, the roles of the various parties, the expectations, and also the changes that we are starting to see more recently in its organisation and approach. More close to home, I reflected on the journey Andrea himself had undertaken. When Andrea applied for the PhD programme at the University of Westminster Law School it was as part of the Vice Chancellor's research initiative in 2009, where up to 20 studentships were to be created  to encourage interdisciplinary work across the various parts of the University, and to which members of staff had to 'bid' projects to be put forward for support. From our Centre we put in two bids, one involving 'the regulation of mediumship' in conjunction with Annette Hill (then from our Media and Design Faculty, now Professor of Media in Lund), and one on 'mega-events, tickets and social inclusion'  (in conjunction with Dr Andrew Smith, Reader in the Faculty of Architecture and Built Environment). Whilst both projects were shortlisted as ones we could recruit to, we only recruited to the latter one, and Andrea was the successful candidate for this.

During the early stages of research it became apparent that Andrea's real interest lay beyond the original proposal and it was fascinating to see the project develop and evolve during the PhD. Thinking of this during the viva itself, it made me realise what a journey the PhD is and also that to a large extent that the PhD is a process, or as David Gauntlett said on his entry about how to survive a PhD on his blog, '... an exercise in showing you can do research'. Andrea's journey was a great example of this, and indeed for the whole team as the supervisory team adapts and changes to support the research. During his PhD, apart from an incredible amount of reading, thinking and writing, Andrea was selected to highlight the research of the University as part of the Graduate School launch, was successful in obtaining funding to do field work during World Cup 2010 in Johannesburg and was instrumental in organising a number of workshops and events, including Law and the Senses amongst other things. We were all very proud to see Andrea achieve his success yesterday, and it was great to reflect on the ebbs and flows, changes in direction and emphasis, and ultimately the final symbolic denouement in the examination room, of the research project and recognise, in the end, a piece of work which was original, ambitious and, indisputably and unarguably, his. Well done Dr Andrea Pavoni!

Dr Pavoni, post viva


John Flood said...

I suspect most PhD students when they start see the actual thesis/dissertation as their end point. I know I did when I wrote mine. But then the student becomes aware that there is no end to this and that there are a set of stages which we supervisors require the student to pass through. The end flips into a new beginning which is "I am a scholar." And so the journey begins. It is one of the few forms of true apprenticeship still extant and not one that can yet be replaced by virtual supervision or online courses. In that respect there is something medieval about the PhD. Long may it flourish. And well done, Guy, in bringing Andrea through this.

Guy Osborn said...

Good points John,and there is something exciting about making something your own and not being quite sure when its going to go, and to be amazed at the results. I wonder whether with this turn towards a more rigid approach to the PhD and the various bureaucratic aspects that entails whether we run the risk of the PhD as you conceive it becoming a thing of the past?