By Jeannine Moreau, Marcy Antonio, Lacie White

As three PhD students, Jeannine, Marcy, and Lacie, we offer what we see as similarities, despite differences, in our doctoral studies and how these precipitated insights gained. We illustrate the variety of possibilities of difference for those considering undertaking graduate education across/within countries, institutions, and/or disciplines to draw from multivariate qualities, places, spaces, and times.

Jeannine Moreau has a background in nursing as a Teaching Professor at the University of Victoria (UVic) and is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Sydney Australia nursing program. Her PhD thesis is titled: Challenging functional decline as a driver of care for hospitalized older adults: A discursive ethnography.

Data collection for this study took place in BC, Canada. Undertaking a PhD program in one country with data collection in another proved to be a mind-bending experience. An experience that brought insights and a deeper understanding of how nursing can be uncannily similar yet different across two English-speaking countries with significant effect.

Marcy Antonio is a PhD candidate in an interdisciplinary program at UVic that involves pulling from multiple fields across health such as nursing, health informatics and public health. Marcy is particularly enjoying the challenges of working with and integrating knowledge from the different health focused disciplines of Nursing and Health Informatics that view the world of health quite differently yet with overlapping initiatives. Her dissertation uses a critical public health lens to explore how digital technologies are being utilized to support social connection, and illness experience and outcomes by people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Of importance to her PhD work was how prior to completing her Master in Public Health, Marcy provided assistive technologies that supported people living with a disability. Her experiences of working in the community involved witnessing the impact of having a disability over the life course, and the limited opportunities/resources to address housing conditions, income, education, employment, social capital, and such. It was not until her Master’s studies, when she was introduced to the social determinants of health, that she gained a more nuanced yet comprehensive understanding of the complexity when addressing these disparities.

Lacie White is in a PhD program in nursing at the University of Ottawa (UofO), and is co-supervised by nursing faculty members at UofO and UVic. Additionally, through a Canadian Graduate Student Research Mobility Agreement (CGSRMA), she is a visiting student researcher and doctoral fellow at UVic. After her candidacy examination in Ottawa, Lacie received support from her committee to move west (to the ocean!) to conduct her research. She is in the last year of writing up her dissertation, a narrative inquiry study of mindfulness in palliative care nursing. Over her studies she has worked as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor in nursing across the UofO, UVic, and Camosun College. She is grateful to her supervisors across institutions for encouraging her to follow an uncertain path into different spaces and places over time.

How Marcy and Lacie’s work/studies intersect within a yet-again different milieu:

Over the past three years, Marcy and Lacie have worked closely together as doctoral fellows on a CIHR funded grant entitled: Living-and-Dying with Fatal Chronic Conditions: Understanding Narratives of Liminality (Drs. Laurene Sheilds, Anita Molzahn, Anne Bruce, Kara Schick-Makaroff, Rosanne Beuthin, Alex Clark and Elizabeth Borycki). This large narrative study takes them further into diverse academic spaces as they work with nursing faculty on a research team across UVic and the University of Alberta. The study intersects with aspects of their respective research interests – giving depth and breadth to their dissertation work. It also extends them into directions beyond it. As two students from different disciplines and standpoints, they learn from one another, as well as the large research team. The value of working in a collaborative research environment, as they experience it, is a catalyst for their learning.

Out of curiosity Jeannine initiated a discussion with Marcy and Lacie (keeping her own experiences in mind) about their respective processes and insights of doing PhD work across differences. Here is some of their thinking arising:

Marcy’s thoughts/ideas

Marcy shared how she has come to realize the whole point for “doing a PhD” was not just the end product of “the dissertation” or “thesis”, but were the processes of becoming a scholar via mentorship she receives through serving on committees and working on multiple research studies. Marcy talked of how reflecting on her plan, goals, researching/reading/writing and debating stretched her thinking about coming to grips with the grist of her study in terms of working with and accounting for two different disciplines. She came to realize how such differences were a benefit to her purpose to think differently. She aims to gain insight about her topic, to go
deeper and broader, to recognize assumptions and presumptions around what is under study as presented from different disciplinary worldviews. In particular, what is unspoken yet surfaces as she explores what two different disciplines offer.

It was not until Marcy fully jumped into the disciplinary literature and attended conferences specific to health informatics and nursing, that she became aware as to how her two disciplines articulate and understand her phenomenon under study quite differently. An aha moment was to recognize how she has to discipline her thinking as she discovers these various perspectives and how they create an array of possibilities for her research topic. What were once seen as methodological detours, are now recognized as the process in eliminating different pathways, as she focuses in on a contained research question that is relevant to both disciplines. A further aha was to realize that knowing and understanding the fundamental concepts of her topic was not enough. She had to learn how to language and write about the topic so two different disciplines could equally understand, despite the differences in their respective professional discourses. She aims to learn from these differences and complexities; to develop skills in communicating from a critical theoretical perspective, that can draw attention to different views and perspectives without alienating her audience.

Faced with working across two seemingly similar yet profoundly different disciplines compelled Marcy to question the differences and their meaning, to challenge her own thinking and push back against her own assumptions. She has become diligent in learning how to use a critical public health lens that allows dwelling in the complexities, uncertainties, and nuances of her topic.

Lacie’s thoughts/ideas

Lacie experiences enormous value in working across two university schools, where the organizational cultures are different, and the people within them including her PhD supervisors, think and work in different ways. Through gaining awareness of the variations in approaches to academic work possibilities open up – related to how she might create her own path as a nursing educator, researcher, and practitioner. Like Marcy (see above), Lacie agrees that the work of the dissertation is not solely about the ‘end product’. Rather, the processes of making connections and relating across differences in thinking/being is what helps to gain a diversity of
experience, insight and new knowledge. Through collaborative partnerships Lacie experiences an engaged and caring community around research/teaching; paradoxically, the building up of her capacities in this way are helping her to become a collaborative yet independent researcher and teacher.

A metaphor in Lacie’s dissertation work, one of “being in movement” and at times of “unmoving”, comes to her mind related to engaging difference and engaging differently to enhance her learning. For example, the geographical move she made during her program was realized to be a layer of ‘moving’ that supported seeing differently. However, Lacie also describes times when finds herself ‘caught’ – ‘unmoving’ to an idea, belief or feeling that limits her ability to see and understand in new ways. To stretch her learning into unknown spaces, she describes becoming more aware of and respecting these moments of ‘stuckness’, and developing ways to
relate to the (un)moving nature of PhD work.

Learning to write through these times, exploring difference and making sense, is one approach that facilitates getting moving when she feels stuck. Taking the opportunity to speak with (or read the work of) various mentors, and colleagues who understand and express things in uniquely different ways also helps to shift and extend her perspectives. These processes take time and patience. For this reason, having a committee who supports her to move at her own pace, often slowly, has been essential. Her dissertation work, what/how she teaches, and how she engages in research partnerships, she believes will be strongly shaped by the diversity of experiences and people she has had the opportunity to collaborate with throughout her program.

Jeannine’s thoughts/ideas

As I talked with Lacie and Marcy what struck me most is how dynamic PhD education can be when differences are not considered barriers or constraints. Rather they represent opportunity to create synergy, producing insights and new knowledge. What became evident is: How we gain knowledge is as critical as the knowledge that is gained. Then of course, what we do with that knowledge is integral to achieving the purpose of our PhD work.

My own experience in doing PhD work that involved working with others in two western countries provided a similar synergy. Examining/comparing how Canadian and Australian nurse researchers and teachers analyzed and/or critiqued older adults’ hospital care provoked “seeing” differently. Of significance was the depth of learning brought about by my recognizing how older adults are positioned as “patients” can consequently deeply affect how they are discursively represented accordingly. I argue such insights come with the disruptive effect of having to reconcile such discursive variances embedded in what appear to be cultural differences. My sense is that by troubling how “hospital care” can be depicted and understood differently across cultures offered a clarity of how “to see” hospitals, hospitalization and hospitalized older adults differently. An intelligibility, not usually visible, in the taken for granted unquestioned spaces of hospital places so commonly experienced or thought of
as banal – it is just how it is.

Concluding thoughts

Our hope is that our experiences as articulated here will inspire other aspiring PhD students to consider how difference can be an amazing catalyst, be disruptive and precipitate innovative ways to “see” differently, to achieve creative and profound new insights. Upon reflection we realized how our experiences were enhanced by trusting an embrace of difference that includes taking a stand of humility and not knowing, being open to what is uncertain and ambiguous, for the purpose of “seeing” just what might arise.