By Professor Emeritus Vernon Trafford
How often have you been asked that question? What do you say? Is your answer always the same? If it varies why is that? For some people the answer is easy; it is the date when they were accepted by or enrolled at a University. For others, the answer is more complex. I am in the latter category. What follows explains how I now view the question as well as how it links to my choice of my doctoral topic.
After leaving school I had various private and public sector jobs before studying for a BA at Liverpool University. Then, lectureships in three polytechnics exposed me to the practicalities of my primary disciplines – political science and organization theory. An invitation to be part of a British Council educational development project in Bhopal, India, was an opportunity to apply my learning in a new context.
Based at one of the four Indian Technical Teacher Training Institutions, the project comprised five sub-projects including education management. For eighteen months I contributed to the education management sub-project, working with counterparts to design, undertake and report on various small-scale research projects. This involved travelling throughout the three states in the Western Region of India, presenting at regional or national conferences, providing management development workshops for polytechnics and writing detailed reports for the British Council.
Then I became the director of a new sub-project looking at institutional evaluation. The purpose of this project was to improve the practice of evaluating polytechnic performance. For years this function had been undertaken externally by ‘inspectors’ who checked regulatory compliance and seldom acknowledged positive achievement. Discussions at the State level in technician education resulted in twelve Polytechnic Principals being seconded to develop an appropriate evaluative instrument. They were the group from whom Polytechnic Evaluation Teams would be chosen.
In this project I was responsible for planning and delivering each stage of the developmental/training workshops, selecting and involving specialists in key aspects of the project plus editing drafts of working papers and operational manuals. My filing cabinets in Bhopal and UK quickly filled with working papers and British Council reports.
As a result, it became apparent to me that the project was:
- interdisciplinary at a time when this was rare in international development projects;
- designed and operated as an evaluative process which replaced one that had been imposed by the prevailing technical bureaucracy on the polytechnics and so had been judged to be ‘not-fit-for-purpose’;
- exemplifying successful international collaboration between the twelve seconded Polytechnic Principals and the small team of expert advisers;
- converting an untried theory of institutional evaluation into a practical instrument and training professional education managers to use it.
Since my academic work in a business school also involved educational management developmental projects in Europe, I knew that the Indian project was quite unique. I concluded that it was suitable for doctoral level study and could make a contribution to knowledge. Thus, my choice of the topic for my doctorate evolved naturally out of my professional practice with me as the insider researcher.
Foolishly, I believed that having a potentially worthy topic for doctoral research would instantly appeal to a university. I put forward my case in a two-page synopsis outlining the international, cultural, technical, micro-political, behavioural and educational aspects of the project. Appropriate sources were included to locate these components within their respective theoretical perspectives. Also, an agreed five-year time line illustrated the resources and schedules that would sustain the project. My part-time research would be inductive, insider-based and use multiple methods to collect and interpret the data. This document was approved by the British Council, my counterparts in India and academic colleagues in UK.
My first application was to my Alma Mater. A beautifully phrased letter from them regretted that my proposal erred too much on ‘the practical aspects of your very interesting project’ and they wished me well.
My second application went to a business school that had international links in Europe. They rejected it because ‘we have no educationalists on our staff.’
My unaltered proposal was then sent to two other universities. It was rejected by a centre of development studies because it was ‘too educational’ and was also rejected by a school of education because it was ‘far too international for us to handle’.
My first interview was in a faculty whose Department of Education had institutional links with other countries. I arrived with high hopes and was armed with my two-page outline, examples of the evaluative materials and some photographs too! The staff member who saw me instantly launched into explaining why I should drop my ‘little project’ and join his team of econometricians who were studying longitudinal educational development in other Indian States. I listened in silence until he finished and then refused his ‘kind offer’. . . .
Two weeks later I saw an advertisement in the education press to study for Ph.Ds at the University of Southampton. Applicants were invited to provide a three-page outline of their intended research and a short CV. My project outline was extended and submitted. I was invited to the University for a sequence of meetings that commenced with the Faculty Doctoral Admissions Officer – a retired academic. He obviously understood my ideas and for an hour asked searching questions about why I wanted to study for a doctorate, the origins and future of the institutional evaluation project, my conceptual understanding of multidisciplinary research and the difficulties of undertaking research in another culture and country. By the close of that meeting my choice of a topic for my doctorate had been justified to his satisfaction.
The next meeting was with a possible supervisor whom, I was told, ‘normally has twelve doctoral candidates and last week one completed successfully so he could take you on.’ His questions then, and during the following years of our relationship, were Socratic in style and intention. He helped me to understand the depth and complexity of my topic. Although he was neither an expert in educational evaluation nor institutional management he was highly skilled in helping people, including me, to think.
Looking back, I realise that my undergraduate and graduate studies had each enabled me to start thinking like a researcher through the lens of disciplines and theories. Then, directing the institutional evaluation project had sharpened my research skills and appreciation of the interconnectedness of parts in a system. Perhaps, sometime before the University of Southampton registered me for a Ph.D. I had already ‘chosen and started on my doctorate’.
Hopefully my experience of rejection letters and that first interview(!) are atypical of current recruitment practices. Having now admitted numerous candidates to their doctoral studies and supervised over fifty to completion, it is fascinating to hear applicants’ answers to my question ‘When did you start your doctorate?’
Vernon Trafford is Professor Emeritus at Anglia Ruskin University. After working in the private and public sectors, he gained degrees in public administration and political science. In 1978, he registered at the University of Southampton for his PhD in “Developing a critical success factor system of evaluation for polytechnics in India”. But, catching hepatitis and a substantial research grant in UK, plus writing a book, delayed his thesis being submitted until 1987 (Editor – that’s 9 years). He has undertaken education-related consultancy assignments for QAA, OECD, the British Council, the World Bank and various governmental agencies. Since 2001, his research and publications are into the nature of doctorateness. His book with Shosh Leshem, “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate”, was published by Open University Press in 2008 and has been reprinted three times. Visit his website at www.vernontrafford.com.