Complex Dynamic Systems

Dan Jones offers his thoughts on starting out on his PhD.

Diagram 1: Me thinking about doing a PhD – my decision making process*

Posted elsewhere on this blog are the collated responses of participants at the BALEAP Pre-conference event on Doctoral Research in EAP. Below I’ve described some of the decisions I’m facing and some of the advice I got from those who have been there and done that.

Full-time vs part time

So I have a full-time job. And I quite like my job, which is why I’m interested in finding out more about it. Therefore, ideally I’d like to keep my job, because then I can investigate what interests me. Also I’d like to keep my job because they regularly pay me a salary.

But my job is quite busy and unpredictable, and if I’m honest while I’m (sort of) ok at meeting all the short-term immediate deadlines of running courses, I only get round to doing a fraction of the creative, interesting, collaborative, long-term stuff that I’d like to. Of course this worries me because I’m not sure how securely the PhD would stay pinned to the top of the to-do list. The answer is of course clear. The message from those who are in the middle is, yes, it’s really hard, and yes life has a tendency to get in the way. But if you don’t have choice, then you just need to get on with it.

And another thing, someone mentioned that you need to be careful about your topic. You don’t want to go through 6 years to find that your topic and approach is laughably out of date. But the area I’m interested has just gone through a paradigm shift, so I can only hope that paradigm shifts are not like buses.

So that’s the first thing decided. I’ll apply to do it part-time. I’ll keep my job and I’ll be super-focused and super-organised. I’ll make sure that my area is slowly evolving rather in a state of constant revolution.

Super-visor vs ok-visor

With the first decision made, it’s time to think about a suitable supervisor. I’ve been to meet a couple of potential supervisors and I’ve noticed they like to ask ‘why do you want to do a PhD?’ I suspect this might be a trick question and perhaps what is really being asked is “Why on earth do you want to do a PhD?”

Speaking with others on Friday, it became clear that if you were to line everyone up from idealistic to pragmatic, you would also see the progression from proposal through to those who are just single-mindedly focused on getting finished.

I’m afraid my reasons are not terribly noble, perhaps a little selfish. I want to do something different and challenging. I’d like to learn something new and I’d like to know rather a lot about one particular thing. I’m not sure where it would lead or whether I would enjoy it, though I suspect it would be frustrating and rewarding in equal measures.

Over the last couple of months I’ve spoken to a couple of supervisors, and I began to notice that while I was interested in talking about the topic area, the supervisor was more interested in talking methodology. When I mentioned this to one of our invited experts on Friday, this was kindly explained to me as rather obvious. After all, the supervisor is the researcher and their interest will lie in means of conducting that research.

So how to find the right supervisor? Talking to those who are in the middle of a doctoral degree, I began to detect a pattern. First the positive “I get on well with my supervisor” “I have a great relationship” but of course this is invariably followed by a ‘but’. This seems par for the course, but it was also interesting to ask for advice on whether to seek out a ‘name’. I heard reasons for either side, but perhaps the most useful advice was, if you go with a supervisor who has limited expertise in your focus area then be very clear about what you are getting into.

Of course, where I work there isn’t an expert in my interest area. So I guess I either need to re-evaluate my fist decision or “I will need to be very clear about what I’m getting myself into”.

Dan works at the University of Leicester and is interested in learner identity, EAP communities and motivational dynamics

*Image licenced for reuse: J. Chen and J. Lu, “Influence of Lateral Transshipment Policy on Supply Chain Performance: A Stochastic Demand Case,” iBusiness, Vol. 2 No. 1, 2010, pp. 77-86. doi: 10.4236/ib.2010.21009.


5 thoughts on “Complex Dynamic Systems

  1. I read your experience with interest, Dan, especially in relation to how you go about choosing a supervisor and ‘being very clear about what you are getting into’. Thank you for sharing this (and getting this blog’s ball rolling!). I’m 2 years into my 6 years part-time PhD, I chose my superivsors (in the sense that I approached them with my ideas and they accepted to work with me), but neither is an EAP ‘expert’ (one is an educationalist, the other a philosopher) – what they do have, though, is knowledge of and a passion for education, this is our common denominator, what I think (hope) makes us interested in each other, and the three of us pool our perspectives around that common core. However, this still doesn’t give me clarity about what I have ‘gotten myself into’. Right now, I feel that my biggest responsibility is to manage, tolerate, and channel the ambiguities that come as a result of this lack clarity, and to establish a narrative (in answering my research question) that will eventually be coherent.


    • Then perhaps ‘knowing what you’re getting yourself into’ is really about being prepared for ambiguities and lack of clarity. It’s interesting that you draw positives from having non-EAP experts as supervisors. I’ve tended to hear more about the problematic issues that this brings. I get the sense from your comment that you see this as all part of the process, albeit a rather challenging one.


      • Hi Dan – thanks for responding. I’d be REALLY interested in knowing of others who have non-EAP supervisors but who are researching EAP-related issues (mine is academic writing). And, yes, as you say, for me the ‘lack of clarity’ is part of the process because all research is boundary work, to varying degrees. And yes, it is challenging, mainly because of walking a tightrope between the known and the unknown, and trying to communicate this to very different audiences, including my own supervisors!


  2. Very interesting blog; thank you Dan. I have only recently embarked on a PhD as a very busy, very mature full-time lecturer, with a Life, and also with non-specialist but highly motivated supervisors (the Philosopher amongst them led me to this blog!). I do feel I’m groping my way along in the half light most of the time – the chronic sense of uncertainty and lack of time will not be resolved by my being ‘organised’, ‘disciplined’ etc. I can’t afford to make myself ill over the whole thing either. I agree with Julia that this sense of near-impossibility must be transformed into a positive – at the very least appreciating that the sense of being right out of the comfort zone is (affectively) a potential point of empathy with my language learners, MA TEFL supervisees, my son teaching in Korea and those to whom I offer CPD guidance.


  3. Pingback: Unchartered waters | Doctoral EAP

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