does ‘group therapy’ work?

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In 2002 while I was completing my Masters thesis, I was completely stressed out. The main reason for my frustration was the fact that 11 of the 12 months that year, my supervisor was out of the country conducting some huge ADB research project in the field. Great for her – bad for me. Despite numerous requests for a second supervisor, I was not granted one and ended up doing the thesis in isolation. well.. almost..

Towards the middle of that year, I met up with two male friends Desmond and Dick (one from Samoa and the other a Solomon Islander) who were also writing their dissertations and who shared a supervisor that they both detested. One day over coffee and biscuits, someone (I am not sure who) suggested we set up a support group of three. We did. Every wednesday we met at the arts centre (courtesy of the director the late Professor Epeli Hau’ofa) and we sat there from 5 pm to 8pm critiquing, challenging and defending our own and each other’s chapters. For some reason it worked and in december that year, we all graduated with our Masters of Arts in Education. That group worked. We were equally stressed out, committed to our work and dedicated to completing on time.  

This year as part of a similar self-help strategy, a group of colleagues in my department (education) have decided to invite well respected researchers and professors with vast experience of supervisingand examining PhD thesis to share some pointers on very specific “challenging” issues and today we had our first session.

We havent named the group but I guess you could call it the School of Education PhD Support Group (how very original I know! 🙂 Anyways, our first session was today from 2 – 4 pm in the Faculty Postgraduate Seminar Room – what better way to remind us all that we are students.

About the group – there are nine of us (academic staff members) enrolled in the PhD program and everyone is at different points of their studies. It is interesting and challenging having such a diverse group of interests, knowledge and skill set in a big group with the singular mission to get the damned PhD done!

Anyway, back to today.. We invited seasoned researcher and academic Allen (Max) Quanchi who discussed reseach design. While most of what he said was geared at those just beginning their journey (i.e. the intent and proposal process) I found the session interesting because it was the first time that someone had spoken about bricolage (and actually knew what they were talking about). I decided to use the bricolage approach in my thesis (being a fan of Joe Kinchelo’s writing and research works) but have never met anyone who deliberately and consciously applied it so it was pretty awesome.

A firm believer in things happening for a reason, I am pretty damned sure that I was meant to go to that session today! Especially after all the second quessing I have been doing in applying bricolage given that Kinchelo cautions against its use in the PhD. What a relief to hear of other examples. I am totally stoked right now and keen to dig into my next chapter.

Something else of interest was the different expectations of the PhD in different parts of the world – e.g. Germany, France, USA, UK and between “traditional/classical” universities and “newer” institutions who are more open to emerging schools of thought, multidisciplinary approaches and the like.

Max suggested that we identify a “critical friend” outside of our subject area to simply read for coherence. That is definitely on my to do list and I think I have the perfect friend in mind – Oh Mary.. where art thou Miss Mary.. 🙂  

Definitely time well spent. I am totally looking forward to the next session in two weeks and just hope that as we go along everyone gains some momentum as it would be awful  to have some fall out of the boat.

For more on J.L Kinchelo see

For bricolage see for example, Kinchelo (2011). Describing the Bricolage: Conceptualizing a new rigor  in qualitative research

can self-help books help?


Why is it that when colleagues or friends discover that you are beginning that journey into higher educational research that they immediately assume you will find everything you need in a good solid research book? Don’t get me wrong two of my prized reads were given to me by friends who are academics. One is Micheal Crotty’s“The foundations of Social Research” and the other Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s “Decolonizing Methodologies”. Great research reads. Inspiring. Technical and focused. But… they only feed the research intellect… what about a good cartoon? comic relief or better still a survival guide to the phd?

O.k. so I was raised the typical Pacific child to be strong. Emotional displays were seen as a sign of weakness and you had to put on a brave face and just deal with it (whatever it was!) quietly and in the privacy of the family circle. In this context, the whole notion of self-help books is seen as a ‘waste of time’ and I can hear my mother’s voice in my head saying “Did you really need to spend that much money to find out something you already knew?” But of course, we all need affirmation and in the capitalist economy we live in today never more has the need to reach out and feel “human” been so important. I must say at this point that I am not a touchy-feely person and I love my personal space… but there are just some things that reaffirm the human condition – some words that touch you in ways that you never though possible and remind you to take stock, to breathe and to purposefully transform your actions and life.

A couple of years ago I got my hands on a second hand copy of Robert Fulghram’s “Maybe, Maybe Not” and thought hey this is great! Then a friend alerted me to “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten” and again it was a “Aha!” moment. Wonderful. Light and brilliantly human. I was hooked. My next stop a full year later, was discovering Dwayne Dyer’s “You’ll believe it when you see it”. I found myself both intrigued and troubled by the fact that I could relate completely to a middle aged white man whose life experiences were quite disconnected from my own and yet… so markedly similar in the human condition and the quest for personal transformation… the desire for something better than this!

Anyway, so I began the PhD journey convinced that I must devour as much as I could on my selected topic and related topics and issues but it was quite a dry, technical and truth be told, an isolated process… (hence the blogging!) The last two years have been years of avid reading of the like and yes o.k there have been moments of excitement at finding a great journal article or chapter in a book that screams something connected to my stream of academic consciousness and yet.. there has been something missing.I think I may have found what I was looking for…

Last night I stumbled across “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” by Gordon Rugg & Marian Petre (2004) and immediately downloaded a copy. Today, the first thing I did after a two-hour micro-teaching class, I printed and bound sections and began to read.. what  a GEM! Thank you to the authors.. with powerful everyday metaphors that even a P.I (Pacific Islander) can relate to… Some examples include “having the right cup of coffee” (p8) (which is itself important);  “bad habits” such as “learned helplessness:  (p28) and “dealing with your supervisor”(p37) I am definitely going to be looking for a personal copy of the paperback version of this. (Yes I am one of those old-school readers for whom nothing quite replaces the feel and smell of the crisp pages of a new book growing into well loved smoothed sheets (with at least twenty post-its!).

If you haven’t yet read this.. you must get a copy! It is the only researchers guide that I have seen written in coffee-talk language that gets simple and to the point information across that every student should know but no one ever told us. It has got to be the researcher’s response to “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten”… Everything you need to know about the PhD journey is touched on in “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research”.

Wohoo!! Finally a how to PhD book that humanizes the research journey and makes you laugh as you learn.. what more could you ask for at the beginning of a tumultuous ride?