Navigating the doctoral journey

There are numerous texts that provide a guide for students to how to navigate a doctoral program and how supervisors might work with doctoral students. For example, Pat Thomson and Melanie Walker have edited separate handbooks (2010; 2010) for doctoral students and their supervisors. One recent text by Lene Tanggaard and Charlotte Wegener (2017) provides ideas for doctoral students and their supervisors in a slender text. I used this text with doctoral students in a recent seminar and found it very helpful.

Tanggard and Wegener are scholars at Aarlborg University in Denmark. Their book begins with an orientation to the theories that the authors use to conceptualize doctoral education – namely ideas drawn from Lave and Wenger’s work (1991) on situated learning. They use the metaphor of the “landscape” throughout the book to discuss the strategies that doctoral students might use to increase their capabilities to “traverse the terrain effectively and independently” (Tanggaard & Wegener, 2017, p. xvi). Each of the eight chapters concludes with a short list of recommendations (“good advice”) to students and their supervisors. Chapters discuss key issues involved in the doctoral journey, including matching the student and the research community; originality and contribution; making the most of obstacles; peers and masters everywhere (i.e., developing social networks within the research community); doing supervision; feedback; and finally, “Get a life” or simply “Live your life.”

Overall, the book is easy-to-read and practically oriented, while also including discussions of the role of theory in doctoral education. Throughout the book, the authors uses examples from both their own student-supervisor relationship (Tannggaard supervised Wegener’s doctoral work) as well as narratives from other doctoral students’ experiences. These narratives work to show the human side of completing a doctoral degree, including examples of challenges that can arise, and the ways in which people have navigated their learning landscapes.

The book does not provide easy answers, recipes, or quick fixes – but rather suggests thoughtful ways to engage in a doctoral program in higher education settings that are increasingly subject to what the authors describe as “McDonaldization”. Here, the authors draw on the work of sociologist, Georgia Ritzer (p. 70). By “McDonaldization”, they refer to four characteristics which are impacting how research is done in the contemporary university, with emphasis given to efficiency, calculability, predictablity, and control. To resist efforts towards standardization and streamlining of how research is conducted, Tanggaard and Wegener draw on C. Wright Mills’ idea of research as an “intellectual craft”, suggesting that new scholars must “develop their own personal style” (p. 73), rather than using standardized procedure. There is much to think about for both doctoral students and their supervisors in this book.

One reservation I have is that of the idea of the “survival kit” embedded in the book’s title. Certainly, doing a doctoral degree may entail personal and professional challenges. On the other hand – one would hope that the intellectual challenges involved provide impetus for new lines of inquiry and examination of difficult questions that lead to lengthy, if not lifelong pursuits. Doing research can be exciting, fulfilling, and hopefully an activity that entails a sense of wonder. Certainly, Tanggaard and Wegener are pragmatic in the advice that they give doctoral students to both “keep challenging the premise that it hurts” and “accept that, occasionally, it does hurt” (p. 155). Overall, this book provides a positive, yet realistic view of strategies that new scholars might use to navigate their own doctoral journey in ways that set the stage for a career as researchers.

Kathy Roulston



Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tanggaard, L., & Wegener, C. (2017). A survival kit for doctoral students and their supervisors: Traveling the landscape of research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Thomson, P., & Walker, M. (Eds.). (2010). The Routledge doctoral student’s companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences. London and New York: Routledge.

Walker, M., & Thomson, P. (Eds.). (2010). The Routledge doctoral supervisor’s companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences. London and New York: Routledge.


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