License to DIY PhD


Five or ten years ago, I wouldn’t dare think of doing a DIY PhD.  Five or ten years ago, I would be more hesitant to do any form of unschooling be it based at home or roaming on the road.  But so much has changed in our world and the explosion of information available to all is too mind boggling to deny the need for drastic change in how we do things including the education our children.  Some acknowledgement is in order.

In her blog, patter, Pat Thomson wrote an entry called “are we heading for a DIY PhD?” ( An education professor at the University of Nottingham, she is also the director of the Center for Advanced Studies and convenor of the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies.  She wrote:

“The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQPhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis WhispererDoctoral Writing SIGExplorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.”

Extremely excited after reading her blog, I emailed her my proposal and she replied, “I think that the best person for you to contact is Helen Lees at Newman. She is very interested in the same questions and has written a lot about home schooling and non-institutionalized education.

Professor Thomson was right.  Helen Lees happens to be the editor of Other Education: The Journal for Alternative Education and author of the scholarly tome, Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives (   Dr. Lees responded to my subsequent email with a short but greatly encouraging note.

“I think reading deeply and then trying to write papers is enough to form a mind like that of someone with a PhD but don’t expect an easy ride – you will need to push yourself. Let bibliographies be your mentor. This a very nice route for someone with children but you would have to commit to lots of reading in the evening when they are asleep.”

“Look out in Other Education in the future for work on China and alternative education.”

“Good luck!”

It felt like being tossed a lifebuoy in the ocean.  Although worded informally and indirectly, it felt like a veritable license and permission to do my PhD DIY style.  It’s going to be challenging and it’s not going to be easy but anything worth doing never is easy.  I have to do a mountain of homework reading.  The certificate or title is not as important but the role of mentors and guides will always be significant and key.

I told Dr. Lees I’ve been reading for the literature review on my kindle whenever my children are in the playground.

I still need a lot of help from people whether they have letters lined up impressively after their names or not.  It could be through books, interviews, emails and skype chats.  What’s important is to actively seek them out and engage in a dialogue with them, real or imaginary.  In our future road trip, I look forward to meeting and talking with them.

My PhD research explores alternative education such as unschooling.  This DIY PhD itself is a form of unschooling.  In the book, Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education, Beatrice Ekoko and Carlo Ricci wrote “We unschool when we self-determine our learning about most anything.”

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