The challenges of maintaining a professional identity as a Ph.D. student

As my (British) Ph.D. is, finally, luckily, coming to its end, I was reminded the other day of a conversion with a colleague about one particular challenge as a (development studies) Ph.D. student which often has a significant impact on your academic, professional and personal development: When you sign-up for a Ph.D. in most cases you are for all practical and technical purposes a ‘student’ again. Most institutions don’t really know what to do with your professional life before the Ph.D. and that often leads to finding validation elsewhere – with the potential negative side effect that the Ph.D. process takes longer and becomes more tiresome.

The nature of development studies attracts many mid-career professionals. I had colleagues who were professors/teachers at universities, directors of NGOs, country representatives of INGOs and worked in ministries, multilateral organisations or Think Tanks - one even was a MP in his home country – in short: they had a professional identity, institutional affiliation, a work plan, an office of sorts and sometimes tedious meetings about minor institutional issues to attend. There’s an argument that one of the reason for ‘going back to school’ is about getting away from the stress, the routines, short-term-ness of the work or even dangerous countries they worked/lived in. Students enjoy no longer having a demanding boss, not having to attend weekly meetings and not being responsible for a project/budget etc. But that’s a minority and the feeling of relief and freedom rarely lasts for the 3-5 years that you will have to engage with the Ph.D. Although I was relatively lucky that institutions like IDS include their Ph.D. students in their research teams, within the broader context of the higher education student experience you are pretty much on the same level as a first year undergrad. You are not part of formal decision-making and nobody is likely to approach you to ask ‘aren’t you that expert on [country]/[topic]?’. Even if you can ‘upgrade’ to a teaching or research assistant, you are still unlikely to engage with the institution beyond your class or literature overview. Many proposals don’t include space/funding for Ph.Ds., decisions are made without prior consultation and interesting meetings take place without you – because you don’t work in the institute/department/university. Universities would probably argue that there is a governance system for consultations and feedback in place, but they also know full well that students, especially those who conduct field research, will ‘disappear’ after a year or so. That outspoken and critical student representative will last for an academic year and then s/he is off to her fieldwork and upon return mounting pressure, changing personal circumstances and new academic interests will deter him/her for getting involved in university politics. In short, there is no risk for universities for not taking advantage of their students’ potential and previous experiences. Students are supposed to pay fees and want to get done with their thesis. 

‘Your proposal sounds so interesting’ – the dangers of shallow academic validation
One of the biggest challenges is that after the first enthusiasm and two conferences where people approached you and said ‘your proposal sounds so interesting and I look forward to reading your articles’ there is little to no validation as part of the academic experience. Engaging with students is great – but the routines of marking papers and the ridiculously low pay make it difficult to get positive feedback and self-esteem from the process. In all fairness, teaching often has more to do with the fact of who came forward and was willing to do it, rather than a selection process where academics other than your supervisor(s) looked at your CV and said ‘we really want this person to teach this tedious “introduction to [something]” class that everybody hates’. In short, there are very few incentives for universities to engage with mid-career, professional students. But the question is whether this is a good strategy. As (British) universities come under more and more pressure to present the ‘right’ statistics of completion, student satisfaction and academic outputs, Ph.D. students should become better integrated into ‘the system’ - because otherwise they will seek validation elsewhere. It’s part of human nature to seek approval and appreciation and the Ph.D.- and university-experience offers little of that. That’s when a consultancy, a trip to a distant conference venue or speaking at another university become attractive alternatives even if they add little to the overall progress and professional development of the student. I’m aware that one key element of the supervisor’s job is to keep you on track with the thesis, but that doesn’t solve issues around validation of expertise and experiences. However, universities are unlikely to change anytime soon. They are not losing anything by excluding professional, and potentially critical, knowledge from their institution. Student numbers are high and growing and getting a degree is the main purpose of the exercise anyway. 

Future Ph.D. students: Be prepared to be sidelined - regardless of your non-student identity
So I guess this is also a cautious warning to potential Ph.D. students: Be prepared that your journey may not be built on your previous career, professional experience and personal insights. You will be a ‘student’, getting discounts at the swimming pool and being eligible for a UK Railcard.
But you either have to work hard to be recognised as ‘colleague’ on the same level as formally employed colleagues or you disengage from institutional politics which seems difficult in a ‘politicised’, applied field like development studies. Participation, power analysis and good governance are well-known development buzzwords – but they often do not apply in your immediate context of ‘studying for a Ph.D.’.

But this is only my experience and I wonder if some of my wise readers have different experiences or tips they want to share on how to manage the identity challenge?
As always, any feedback is most welcome and much appreciated! 

P.S.: In case you are contemplating to embark on your own PhD journey, I can recommend my 'classic' post
Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?


  1. I was happy enough to be treated as a student when I did my (Australian) PhD, but I'd only really had one year of full-time work after completing my undergrad -- though I had worked in the field of my studies during my undergrad too.

    But I have colleagues who are in the other boat: working as lecturers in the same organisation where they are studying for their PhD. I have the impression that they'd like to be students sometimes and not have to deal with the demands of their full-time job or have to meet the obligations that come with being regarded as a competent professional.

  2. Africanus
    My experience as a doctoral student in law at US university is very similar to yours. Because it is a US doctoral program the first few years require coursework. Being a student again in that sense is great, its very stimulating to be on the other side of lecture. But it seems to reinforce the perception that one is somehow pre-professional.


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