There is no such thing as an ordinary PhD because they make extraordinary, superhuman demands on the student and a really complicated relationship with the supervisor. I think some things about my latest PhD student illustrates quite how complicated that relationship can be. Let me explain because I think it is a story worth telling. And as such, needs to start at the beginning:
Frank Watt was brought up in a remote part of Scotland with absolutely no ambition to go to university. He did have a sense of adventure and public service and so a career in the fire brigade was a great fit. And he did well. As he studied for his professional qualifications first as a Fire Fighter and then to lead other Fire Fighters, he discovered an aptitude for study that surprised him. Never shy of a challenge, he discovered that more qualifications would be available if he studied hard and wanted it enough. So, with no first degree, he managed to get himself onto the MBA Programme at the University of Strathclyde and sponsorship from the fire service. This was a major challenge but he worked hard and graduated. This helped bring him into an informal fast track for promotion and he soon found himself seconded to the UK Fire Service’s central leadership training facility – the Fire Service College and Moreton in Marsh – to lead programmes on leadership for Fire Officers. Out of the blue, one day in 1996 he was introduced to a civilian who had been hired to research the psychology of incident command. He was told abruptly (in the way of uniformed services) that he was now the lead for the project.
That civilian person was me.
And so for three years, Frank was my boss. We worked on several projects together – all of them intricate, challenging and problematic. This meant we became close and so it was natural for me to invite him and his partner Lorraine to my wedding. And later I attended his. As my funding ran out, my PhD wasn’t quite finished (OK – it was quite some way off!) so I left to earn a crust as a consultant. Somehow I managed to complete my doctorate and land a job as an academic at Aston University. Frank also moved on and was promoted to become Assistant Chief Officer at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service. To be honest, our contact was sporadic at best from this point as we threw ourselves into our careers and he with had considerable operational responsibilities in Derbyshire.
I was still lecturing and researching with the fire service so plugged in to the grapevine. This is how I heard that Frank was due to retire so I got back in touch. It turned out he was looking for new challenges. We met at my office in Aston to enlist his services to lecture on health and safety. During our conversation I reminded him that he had always said that he really wanted to do some research. I was looking to expand the research centre in crisis management I had co-founded so it seemed obvious that he should start a PhD. And so it was. Frank discovered that a well understood individual level personality concept – self-efficacy – could be applied to groups. Little was known about the way in which this might happen save for considerable evidence that it varied by context. Frank had led the emergency service response to major flooding for years and had noticed that some communities bounced back more easily than others. He wanted to know if there was a way of measuring this and whether there might be a variant of the construct of self-efficacy that held at the community level. And so after many challenges including the birth of a child, promotions and change of job (for me) and for him numerous challenges at home and a break in studies so he could taken on an interim executive post, he has finally made it and graduates today.
To be honest, at the time it didn’t really occur to me how odd this all was. The person who had been my boss and as important in my life as my PhD supervisor, now became my student. I still asked his advice from time to time which of course required a complete turnaround from the normal PhD supervisor/student relationship. As a supervisor, it is always hard to have to say to your student that their work isn’t at the level required. With Frank, I found it even more difficult and the gear shifting in our relationship has been sometimes uncomfortable when giving honest, necessary feedback on drafts.
All of this means that, although he started out at a different university, the nature of the twists and turns in his studies, the adult-adult relationship between supervisor and student and of course the many and various personal challenges that Frank has overcome: pure Birkbeck.
I hope he doesn’t mind that I say that his studies over ran. The plan was to graduate and then head off on a Grand Tour of Europe with Lorraine. But as always, life doesn’t turn out so easily and a combination of finalising his thesis fell at a time when the house sale went through unexpectedly quickly. This means that his PhD was completed in a motor home on a camp site in Derbyshire. I dare say this is a first in the 200 year history of Birkbeck!
All of this can be summarised by saying that it is completely fitting that today he graduates amongst a peer group consisting overwhelmingly of mature students. All of whom have had massive challenges to overcome. And I can say, hand on heart, I empathise. For I too was a mature student. I studied for my PhD part time. I worked all the way through my first degree and my A levels…. well I’d prefer to forget what they were.
So the reason for this blog is to show what an amazing journey this has been for Frank but also for me. Frank is writing about the challenges from his own point of view to give a realistic preview of what it is like to set yourself such a high bar of academic achievement later in life. As for me: I am something of a British mongrel. The English in me would prefer not to talk about this too much but the Welsh in me will be in tears on the platform as he graduates. And as for the Scots part of me? Suffice it to say I may sample a wee dram after the ceremony. The English will then kick in again and I won’t mention this again.
As for Frank? He will be flying in from a climbing holiday in Tenerife for the degree ceremony. And shortly after it, heading off in the motorhome for warm places, stiff breezes to sail and mountains to climb. But this time, the mountains will be literal and he will be climbing them with Lorraine. And Lorraine for once will have no complaints about being unable to sit anywhere for research papers being strewn on all of the seats.
I came across this just now and there is a tragic update I need to make. Frank was taken ill on holiday in Tenerife and suddenly, beyond the understanding of everyone who knew and loved him, he died. I am re-publishing this short blog now as I am still coming to terms with his loss. As are so many others. I guess I could write something here about “a life well lived” – for his certainly was that. But I think I’ll just leave it as it is.
Miss you mate.