A PhD is a Dance

A PhD is a Dance

By A/Prof Lauren Ball


Doing a PhD is often described as akin to a journey – there are ups and downs and twists and turns along the way. But, have you ever thought of a PhD as a “dance”?


I am currently supervising 12 talented PhD candidates, all conducting research in a similar field. It recently struck me that even though all 12 PhD candidates are studying one area of research, they still have vastly different experiences. Why?


I think there is a dance happening – a sequence of steps and reactions that play out in a lively and rhythmical way. I call this the ‘Dance of the PhD’ and here are the three main factors at play:


  • The Beat (Topic and Method):

In music, some songs are in simple time, others in triple time. The same is true for research – some studies are simple to conduct, and others are just that little bit more nuanced. PhD candidates who are conducting studies with clear methodological guidance and a proven process are undoubtedly more confident in their work. These studies usually include cross-sectional work (think surveys & interviews).  So, should all PhD research be simple? No. These studies can sometimes be overdone, leaving the researcher needing to justify ‘what was the value gained?’. New music, like new methods, are innovative and have the potential to bring compelling new knowledge to a PhD.

  • The Dancer (Personality):

The personality traits and characteristics of PhD candidates influences their experiences in research. Proactive, professional PhD candidates can make progress quickly by planning and being attentive to feedback. However, in my experience, these candidates often focus on process rather than fostering their learning and can find setbacks challenging to overcome. Discussing personality styles of candidates and their supervisors is very helpful to understand the strengths and opportunities for growth, and unpack the reasons behind our actions.


  • The Stage (Circumstance):

Some of my PhD candidates live at home with Mum and Dad (jealous? I am!) Others, do their PhD alongside full-time commitments such as work and parenting. At first glance, it may seem unfair that some researchers have other demands on their time, but have you ever heard the phrase ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it’? By far, the most efficient workers I’ve seen are new Mums and people who care for others at home – they are cognisant of their demands for time and motivated to be productive daily. Also, some PhD candidates are new in their career and have recently graduated from degrees with research coursework; others are well-established and use this experience to place their work in a broader context. As a result, some are confident when it comes to designing studies; others find their strengths come when interpreting and discussing findings.

Regardless, it is reasonable to have different attitudes, awareness, motivation and confidence when it comes to research. Always remember, enjoy the dance!

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