Stages of Competency: Doing a PhD and The Notion of Doing a PhD

A month in and where am I at? Mainly, more aware of all the things I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about the Four Stages of Competency model of learning and have sailed through the first stage of (blissfully unaware) unconscious incompetence: “I’m doing a PhD!  Hurrah!  What fun it will be!” As the days passed I could see myself floating into the (mindfully concerning) conscious incompetence stage: I was going to list some things here that I don’t yet know but listing things you don’t know - or at least you know you don’t know - much about is not only an oxymoron but also rather demoralising and the ontology of social research is enough to be dealing with just now let alone any other philosophical quandary relating to logical (im)possibilities.
Returning to the stages of competency… the next two stages are conscious competence and unconscious competence, which in the life cycle of my PhD, I’m hoping will arrive before my viva. In relation to the inner workings of a PhD, i.e. the researching and writing, it makes more sense for the stage of conscious incompetency to last for a long time.

Although it doesn’t feel right to say I feel completely consciously incompetent. Things need to be divided up; there are two sides to 'Doing a PhD.' One is the actual work: the sitting down and getting on with it, the nuts and bolts, the planning, the research, the writing.  The other is the notion of doing a PhD: reasons for undertaking it and planning your life around a minimum of three years of study. I am in stage two in relation to the actual work of the PhD but in relation to the notion of doing the PhD, I am much further along. 

Let’s rewind seven months: it’s March, and the daffodils are starting to peep through (ah memories!). My four month old baby is having long afternoon naps (ah memories!) -  5 hours on one occasion, enough time to do a day’s work if you factor in minutes lost to tea making and other distractions. After a varied career history (see CV) I have a good setup with my employer (The OU) which has developed over the years into a mixture of permanent teaching work on OU modules and additional contract work in research and development, widening participation and work based learning – not least enabling me to deliver career/employability skills training to adults in employment, which is a pretty rare opportunity and one that I’d never thought I’d get. I can, to an extent, pick and choose my work and fit it around my son. But look, I could apply for this PhD! It takes me two weeks to work through a list of reasons for and against applying, let alone putting an application together. There are 40 points on the list. It is a proposal in itself. I apply, knowing full well that I have weighed everything up. Or rather me, my husband, wider-family, several  friends, colleagues and anyone I bumped into in the supermarket and who I thought might have an enlightening opinion on the whole thing have helped me to weigh things up. 

By the time I enrolled in September, I was very much at ease with the notion of doing a PhD.  It’s now October, and leaves are on the ground (on a family walk in Pollok Country Park at the weekend, it rained acorns on us, so fiercely has autumn arrived in Glasgow). I have research plans for the months ahead. Wherever I look there seems to be something related to my project; doing a PhD is all-encompassing. I have a list of things to do alongside daily PhD activities, 'Remember to feed baby' being one of the basics that I only half-jokingly added to the end of the list. I’m turning down offers of work so I can concentrate on being a PhD student, which doesn’t come easily as I am a notorious workaholic.  I am a consciously competent PhD student, perhaps even unconsciously competent if I (don’t) think about it. 


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