Becoming Researchers: The Dirty Business of Training Research Methods

The PhD scholarship and thesis writing process is the classic and often presumed first step into the academic career. Rather than being some kind of protected time of apprenticeship in learning the ropes of academic research, we argue that doing a PhD is a very dirty moment. The act of learning to do original research, often for the first time, entails becoming acculturated to norms that often define our identities as academics moving forward. Choosing what to study, identifying what communities of scholarship you align with but also understanding how you are meant to behave and perform your status as a researcher are both political and personal moments, and these are shaped by interpersonal and institutional norms that are often cleansed from our rationales and actions. We use the form of stories rather than an academic exploration of doctoral studies as a tool to open up frank conversations about what dirtiness we encounter in becoming researchers. Our aim with these personal reflections is to open the curtains on seven distinct experiences with the suspicion that these challenges — intellectual, emotional, embodied — are at their core often shared. With this set of experiences, which are not necessarily generalizable, we invite readers to consider how they resonate, both in terms of their graduate training but also potentially in how they themselves support the process of becoming researchers.

This work does not explain how to formulate a good research problem or an efficient methodological protocol — there are a surfeit of such instructional texts (e.g., Bechhofer & Paterson, 2000, Bonneville et al., 2007; White, 2017). We explore instead the dirtiness behind the whole process: our experiences of shared challenges such as precarity (Rahman, 2018; Zheng, 2018), ethical discomfort (Halse & Honey, 2005; Markham, 2006), and becoming institutionalized as an academic subject (Allen, 2014; Angervall & Gustafsson, 2014). We discuss the fraught relationships and power dynamics that have shaped our PhD experiences, acknowledging what is often our complicity in reproducing such relationships. We see this in the whispered warnings, unwritten rules or confidential sharing of information and histories that play a part in decision-making about funding, research, and promotion processes. More precisely, this work reflects on not only intellectual development, but often the neglected physical, personal, and emotional — fully human — journey entailed in this first moment of independently leading a large-scale research project. 

As all the authors can attest, doctoral training is a dirty part of the research process, characterized by often unspoken tensions when we come to understand some of the irreconcilable contradictions in scholarly research. How we learn to become academic subjects is shaped by institutional norms and interpersonal dynamics (Angervall & Gustafsson, 2014); it is as social and emotional as it is intellectual, and it is therefore as entangled in questions of power, ethics, and care as the other elements of doing research we discuss. The purpose is thus not to give “10 easy steps” for completing a dissertation. Instead, we seek to open the black box of the process — one that includes both the formal degree requirements along with a host of informal cultural norms and ideological inculcation — to create a conversation about this dirty business. The central way into this conversation focuses on the language that we have used and that has been used on us, the labels and the statuses we have inhabited through the PhD process. While the following is based on our particular experiences as students (and now as supervisors), we hope that it carries some ability to productively inform current and former graduate students about the universality of doubt, isolation, and uncertainty. We also aim to show that the inherent dirtiness of being trained as a researcher contains important moments of joy and connection as well, since the power of the metaphor of dirty methods is in how it demonstrates the ways the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are entwined within each other. 

These reflective threads are typically considered out of place in academic publishing. Still, we refuse to categorize dirt and discomfort as ‘less academic’ and remove them from our text. Becoming researchers for us entails becoming aware of and articulating such dirtiness, starting right at the beginning. Under each theme, we first offer reflections that are drawn from our collaborative writing process and then single out and identify individual voices where we wanted a particular idea or moment to remain in its specific context. While this was written collaboratively, we wanted to allow you as the reader to be able to pick up on different elements that especially resonate for you. Interrupting the text with our names was also a deliberate choice that allowed us to model the openness and vulnerability that undergirds our dirty methods approach. Below is an invitation into our research lives.

Research Design

There are divergences in the structure of doctoral programs across national contexts and even within institutions, but perhaps the moment that we all share as a starting point for ‘becoming researchers’ is the moment where we decide on a question, problem, or phenomenon to study, and begin to answer quite important epistemological and methodological questions about our commitments as new scholars. The uncertainty involved sets us up to initiate a dirty set of practices as we often are not in a position to understand the stakes of these decisions.

The uncertainty starts even before beginning a PhD program: how do you choose something to study? It’s probably one of the more difficult parts of learning to be a researcher, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier over time. As a graduate student, it can feel like you are staggering in a fog when trying to envision a coherent topic. And as probably most researchers experience, the questions that orient us at the beginning of a research project are often not the same ones that remain interesting toward the end. All that is what could be called ‘light’ dirtiness: the confusion and shifting orientations to one’s topic all along the way. This kind of dirtiness is a privilege. Choosing to study something because it interests you is an opportunity only available to researchers who enjoy a relatively stable social position. In a context where systemic racism is increasingly condoned by populist governments and amplified through algorithmic media (D’Ignazio & Klein, 2020; Noble, 2018), privilege becomes increasingly crucial to understand in relation to framing a research topic. 

More specifically, academic ‘knowledge production’ is subject to an increasingly instrumental institutional climate around research, one that values ‘impact’ measured in particularly narrow ways (see The Curious Life of Social Justice in Academia). The priorities of funding agencies can thus exert significant influence on the kinds of research you might choose to do (Tarozzi, 2013). In order to simultaneously appreciate one’s privilege, consider the emancipatory potential of one’s research, and secure research funding from internal and external sources, students must traverse messy ethical terrain from the outset. For example, a student may wonder if they ought to mobilize any of their own privilege for a research agenda that might bring resources to communities that could benefit from them. At their next turn, they may be confronted with the (white feminist) saviour complex (Theriault, 2014) and realize that they need to step back and listen to the communities they are considering working with. It is crucial to, at the very least, draw out these complexities right from the beginning, not as an attempt to clean it up, but as a way of opening it up for discussion, dissection, and critique. It may be difficult to do this and to get a handle on all of the various layers, but it is a way of pushing knowledge production outward into something that is not simply reproducing power.

Koen Leurs

What does it mean to be a ‘good’ researcher — and by good we are referring to the engaged, feminist, critical, reflexive scholar? From the bachelor’s degree to becoming a PhD in a given field, we go through a complex rite of passage. Early on in graduate school, we are instructed to read a set of texts, get an overview of the canon of our field, while later on we develop a certain interest and try to verse ourselves in the conceptual language of a particular specialized discussion, to seek to contribute and intervene in the established canon. This is commonly an explicit trajectory of academic self-development (Teichler & Cummings, 2015). But coming to grips with methods and methodologies is a different story. We read textbooks explaining to us the epistemologies and ontologies of methodologies and how-to guides on applying certain methods. But little is said on how we are expected to adopt certain research frameworks over others, how to evaluate them, assess them, value them, cherish them. We argue that we need to demystify this research process, andprocess and come to grips with its inherent dirtiness. 

Mélanie Millette

All my research projects come from a visceral place, usually an unfair experience of my own or of someone dear to me. The alienating experience of being an invisible cultural and linguistic minority in bilingual Canadian academia inspired me to put French-Canadian minorities at the center of my PhD. I was already feeling like an imposter on a regular basis for doing a PhD, so I had to find purpose in order to make sense of what I was doing. Moreover, I had the privilege to do my research with public funding support, so I really wanted my work to be, hopefully, useful for people whose voices are not heard enough. This is how I started to study how social media use may (and may not) contribute to the public visibility and social recognition of people who are minoritized or marginalized (Millette, 2015).

This almost always means that the research design has to be done and adjusted to the people’s situations, needs, and realities when the research does start (see The Glorious Messiness of Methodology). Of course, I developed rigorous research designs and I hoped to be able to realize them. But I already have the privilege to select what could be a relevant aspect of social life to develop knowledge about, it would be unaligned with my values to grasp at this shiny plan, fetishize it and impose it, while I have power to contribute in a maybe more meaningful way.

Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Luka
How will my research live in the world? This is the question that I often start with. What are the logistics that will be involved in my research? Who needs to be involved? Why? How? I love the design stage of research (e.g., Bryman & Bell, 2016), because it’s an open field. I also know that it will change and evolve. And I know that everything I have done before will have an impact on what I’m doing now. Many of my projects involve collaborating — with researchers, with artists, with communities (see The Glorious Messiness of Methodology or shifting governance policies). The networks of people that I have come to know through my professional practice, and then by bringing my professional practice into the academy, call on me to act as well as to research. It also reminds me that I will continue to live with and relate to many of the people who become involved in the research that I conduct or the spaces I am able to open up for research to take place, for decades to come. And that means constantly being aware of making research something that not just can, but absolutely will, live in the world.

Studying People

As critical feminist scholars, we would argue that all methods are political and entail ethical consideration, but this is never as pronounced (or as institutionally scrutinized) as when we conduct research with ‘human subjects’. Whether we are engaging in interviews, surveys, focus groups, observations, or some other engagement with people — including how and when we collaborate — we are conducting research in a manner that involves social interactions and dynamics (Sprague, 2005; Le Gallo & Millette, 2019), an often complex interpersonal set of relations that is dirtier than principles of interview script development and questionnaire design would suggest.

Koen Leurs

As a graduate student, you are not instructed about what to do when things go awry, or when you face unexpected turns in research with informants. Your supervisor is not there when the interview goes wrong, when nobody responds to recruitment invitations, and so on. How do you respond when you fumble and your research participants laugh at you? When your participant asks if you are their friend, or if they are simply a research object for you, particularly in situations where the hierarchy of power is evident, as in studying kids (Literat et al., 2018)? What do you do in interview situations where people have breakdowns and share traumatic events? How do you enact care and also self-cafe as a researcher, and sustain yourself while undertaking emotional fieldwork labour? How do you manage the emotional bonds developed with informants, especially in the never-ending ethnography arising particularly in the digital era when you are befriended/connected with participants, seeing updates on their lives in your feeds and finding yourself sending nuggets of affect in the form of likes, reactions, and comments (Lohmeier, 2014)? While we rarely receive instruction about self-care and the obstacles we may face in this regard, in becoming researchers we need to establish greater awareness of the emotional and embodied dirtiness of fieldwork, what generally gets “brushed under the carpet” (Lenette et al., 2019). 

Tamara Shepherd

When doing internet and digital culture studies, a researcher tends to start from the online interface — whether it’s a social media platform, particular online text, or emerging technological phenomenon. These inhuman artifacts can be more comfortable to engage with than people are: there’s no need to arrange a time to meet, or go through the awkwardness of asking someone questions, or feel bashful about following up on things they’ve said, or figure out brilliant probing questions on the spot. Those are just a few of the reasons why doing interviews or other kinds of research with people is really hard. But at the same time, interviews offer unique ways into digital culture as socio-technical and so they are a primary means of doing research in this field. 

Usually, when conducting interviews with people that have been recruited via online means, a researcher could be said to be “studying down” with people who are of a lower socioeconomic status than the researcher (or younger, or less privileged in a number of ways). This anthropological language of “studying down”, along with related terms “studying up” or “studying sideways”, is meant to convey important power differentials in the research relationship (Plesner, 2011). This language conceals a dirtiness, however, in that any kind of research with people is not purely hierarchical but mired in criss-crossing lines of power dynamics. For example, one moment that has never gone smoothly in my experience is the acquisition of informed consent. This bureaucratic intrusion into the interpersonal interview context is necessary at some level — although it has been critiqued as a mechanism of institutional risk management more so than a means of protecting respondents (e.g., Sin, 2005; also see On Power and Relationships) — but it also reinforces the association between the research and the larger institution, which can be a troubling one. 

The young people that I spoke with for my dissertation, for instance, had divergent reactions to the consent form: one thought that perhaps the university’s association with the project would add legitimacy to her burgeoning artistic practice, another felt that the university was ‘uncool’ but that I was ‘okay’ to talk to. Perhaps the institution figures as something intimidating, or as something reviled, or as something irrelevant to the respondent. It’s difficult as a researcher to disentangle oneself from whatever that figure may be, especially because it’s impossible to experience the respondent’s positionality. Methods textbooks don’t really address this sort of detail even if they explore the various ethical issues at play in interviews, but it’s something that stuck out for me when learning how to do interviews: you unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly take on the baggage of the institution, even if you can’t fully understand what that is. 

Getting into and through grad school

While the above reflections indicate that the process of doing research is a fraught one in the process of becoming researchers as subjects, one of the key foci and indeed arguments we present is that the dirtiness of methods is how they are embedded in social, political, economic, cultural, and institutional contexts that are often cleansed from discussions of doing research. Grad school is an intensive site of accularation and even institutionalization within academia (Bonilla-Silva, 2011; Bui et al., 2020; Padilla & Perez, 2003), and one that we argue is riven with difficult, dirty processes.

Alison Harvey

We don’t ‘become’ researchers alone or in a vacuum, though there remains an enduring valuation of the solitary scholar toiling away (Stilinger, 1999). Learning how to be a researcher is a deeply (inter)personal process involving not only our intellectual engagements but also our bodies, our loved ones, our peers, and our supervisors. I want to reflect here on why the dirty business of people and relationships matters for what kinds of researchers we become.

No one gets through the PhD unscathed. I don’t mean this as a dramatization of graduate school, but to flag that, as a degree that will take between three and 10+ years in someone’s adult life, there are significant opportunity costs and important life events that will inevitably attend the experience. Anecdotally, I cannot think of a single colleague who did not live through a marriage, a separation, a birth, a death, an illness, or a long-distance move, or more than one of these significant events, while also coming to grips with embodying the subject-position of ‘academic’. Less anecdotally, at the very least engaging in PhD-level studies entails suspending full-time paid work, commencing the experience of relative delay — of starting a family, getting on the property ladder, progressing a career, etc. We are seeing ever more public discussions of these costs and challenges and the nature of sacrificial labour in academia (e.g., Anonymous Academic, 2018), but it matters how those who shepherd us through our doctoral studies approach this, either as something to critique and push back against or a reality that those who are most committed will overcome. Working with people who ascribed to the latter perspective, I learned very quickly when I started my doctorate that these pain points were not easy to discuss openly or to integrate as part of the supervisory process.

The first in my family to go to university, I felt like an outsider when I began grad school, and compensated by never revealing my vulnerabilities. However, in my second year of the PhD when I experienced difficulties related to my health and finances, I encountered friction in the form of surprise. ‘Oh, you need some extra time? Hmm!’ Very early on, then, I learned that becoming an academic was partly about becoming less embodied and less emotional, ideas that seemed perplexing as I dutifully plowed through feminist texts while unwell. I came to see these practices as about distance, discretion, detachment, and, perhaps most dangerously, fighting through difficulties alone. The ‘brain in a jar’ (Haraway, 1998) was something to challenge conceptually but to be maintained in practice. Bravado was the order of the day, including hiding any uncertainties and insecurities about one’s abilities, something that spilled over into how I engaged with my peers. ‘Imposter syndrome’ was something I discussed as an idea removed from me rather than in a confessional way. 

Mary Elizabeth Luka

One of the wonderfully dirty secrets that I came into the doctoral program with was that I had never finished my Master’s degree in the late 1980s. I was hesitant but quite insistent about the value of the experience that I’d gained in two very different fields over 20 years (non-profit management/consulting, and producer-director of internet and television programming), and the two complementary undergraduate degrees (BA 1984, BFA 1997) that launched me into those respective fields a decade apart. And I felt that the institutional ethnographic inflections (Smith, 2005) embedded in the course work I’d done for my unfinished Master’s in the Sociology of Education in between the undergraduate degrees had contributed enormously to the social justice criticality that I applied in my workaday life. But my frustration with not being able to switch my thesis project topic in the final throes of the MA, from an exploration of employment equity in Ontario school boards in the 1980s to the resurgence of female-identified rock artists — which seemed to me to clearly express similar issues and draw on similar literatures — was enough to turn me away from the academy for a decade. In hindsight, of course, I understand my supervisor’s resistance more clearly. The new topic would have required additional work for both of us. But for me, that work would have been a pleasure to do, and might have kept me interested long enough to complete the degree. 

By the time I was prepared to entertain the possibility of additional graduate work, I was burning with curiosity and filled with imagining — and longing — about what a graduate experience could be like, given the ups and downs of professional life in two highly precarious careers. The kind of bravado required to think that I might have the stamina and patience to pursue a five-year project (at considerable opportunity and other costs) was both personal and professional. It came from generations of strong women who stepped into unknown fields of endeavour to right wrongs, or assert rights, or simply to test the bounds of their own imagination as they made what I have come to call the ‘left turns’ of changing careers and lives. It also came from my own desire to be first at some things — in this case, the first woman on both sides of my extended family to secure a PhD, and only the third person. (More typically, an uncle three years older than me and a brother thirteen years younger had moved straight through the standard academic system on the traditional linear pathway from secondary to post-secondary to graduate school to tenure-track positions.) Despite my professional experience, however, it never occurred to me that I could go straight into a PhD program, without having completed a Master’s. At least, it never occurred to me until I went to an orientation session at MIT, and William Uricchio asked me why I wanted to do a Master’s (vs a PhD). He pointed out to me that it would be quicker to enter directly into a PhD program, since I wanted to teach, publish, and research, not ‘simply’ gain credentials for further professional work outside the academic environment. That gave me the one small piece of information that I needed to apply to doctoral programs with some confidence, and my first lesson in the reluctant adaptability of the academic arena. In the end, the offers I received varied greatly — one school wanted me to spend a year completing a Master’s while others saw the value of my experience as it could be applied within the scholarly sphere at the highest levels. 

Mélanie Millette

I came to grad studies after a couple of years in the advertising industry. My undergrad diploma was in communication, with a television specialization. By the time I was 24, I was producing TV and radio ads, dealing with budget, film crew, clients, working day and night in a start-up-like production agency. I was proud of my career, but overworked and completely disconnected. It felt vain. Going back to school wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a matter of self-care, because I was losing myself in the job. I had always been curious to try graduate studies, but coming from a modest background with no contact with academic culture, I saw this as something pretty abstract and probably “not for me” (Reay, 1997). I knew nothing about academic strategy, disciplinary clashes, and so on. I didn’t even know what social sciences really were, and I certainly didn’t know one could aspire to make a career out of research. I just knew that I wanted to try, and that I had a topic I was curious about (first blogs and podcasts, and then the implications of digital technologies for the media industry). 

I was lucky that in my first graduate seminar, I was assigned a text written by the sociologist who would become my MA and PhD supervisor (Proulx, 2005). I remember thinking: ‘this is what interests me!’ I looked him up and discovered he was a professor where I was doing my Master’s degree! As I said, I had no strategy, no idea one should carefully choose a university according to their research interests and ambitions. I went to UQAM because it had a great reputation in communication studies, and now it turned out to be a fortuitous decision. I contacted my future advisor, politely requesting a meeting. I left our first meeting with an invitation to join his lab. A lab? It felt very important and glamorous to be invited to join a lab, and in a sense this very moment has been instrumental in my academic trajectory. The LabCMO (Laboratory for communication and the digital) had a very collegial culture, where collaboration and dialogue were a key component of every seminar. I quickly became involved in the organization and my advisor offered me a contract as coordinator.

During my Master’s, I started to work as a consultant. Former clients and colleagues in advertising needed expertise regarding ‘new’ media. I was enjoying my work at the LabCMO, but I found the learning curve in my MA seminars to be steep. I remember crying over heavy, dense, obscure texts, half of which were in English. My English wasn’t good, I was looking up every other word. As my undergrad formation was more professional than academic, I had very little background in communication or media theory, let alone philosophical or methodological thinking. I worked hard on my readings, looking up every concept I didn’t understand. I remember that academic writing felt like a rigid corset to me. I used to love reading and writing, and they were becoming uncomfortable and challenging activities. I knew I was privileged and lucky, but it didn’t feel very good. 

It took me three years instead of two to finish my Master’s thesis. But by the end of it, I was feeling sorry to leave academia to invest in an emerging consultant career (which was my plan). I thought I very much liked this ‘research’ that I was only beginning to explore. I am someone who is bored easily. Reading dense and obscure texts had become easier over time, and what’s not to love when your daily routine involves reading about knowledge and sciences? But I couldn’t stand the stress of financial struggles anymore. I wanted to have financial support (now that I knew such a thing existed). I decided that SSHRC would decide for me. I pitched my ideas to the SSHRC PhD granting system and got one. The financial aspect was dealt with, but I had a very intense feeling that I didn’t belong in academia. What did I have to contribute? This imposter syndrome was pretty vivid, but knowing how precious financial support was, I had to at least try to do a PhD. So, I framed the PhD as a long-term contract experience: I would ‘work’ as a PhD student for as long as I had my grant, and would see what happens later.

The beginning of the PhD was less challenging than the Master’s program. I had a better understanding of academic culture and ways, and my English was a bit better (at least my capacity to read it). I stayed at UQAM with my advisor and at the LabCMO. I had a good relationship with my advisor. It wasn’t a perfect relationship, but it gave me solid theoretical knowledge, opportunities to publish, research experience, a strong francophone research network, trust, and support. 

But what really ‘got me through’ grad school was a group of friends. We would share offices (some without windows) at the same level in the communication building and we would lunch together. As one of the lucky ones to have a window, I would invite them all to eat in my messy office (shared with other PhD students who would become good acquaintances or friends). These lunches were key to my mental health and persistence through grad school (this is actually an important key, as discussed by Moir, 2019). They would force me to take a break and eat with real-life people instead of my screen (one danger that I still fight, as many researchers or freelancers I know). They were also an amazing opportunity to be open with people I cared about and who cared about me, without judgment! Doing a PhD comes with many challenges, and so does life itself, so these lunches and this friendship were an invaluable way to get support, to share problems and joys, and to find comfort. 

Institutional power

The challenges we recall facing in grad school, while uniquely contextual to be sure, are deeply informed by broader structural forces and systemic forms of power and privilege. We reflect particularly on the dirty business of neoliberalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonial legacies and presences in academic work. Here, we consider how we came to feel these forces in the process of becoming researchers.

Tamara Shepherd

The core challenge for many of us who have experienced training for a PhD — good, bad, ugly — and are currently working out how best to help our own students is that the dirtiness of research is embedded within a larger matrix of power. Being shielded from that matrix means ignoring the way that the university is complicit in reproducing structural inequality, for example through exploiting underpaid labourers (Berger & Ricci, 2011), protecting sexual predators (Dziech & Weiner, 1990), bowing to the whims of corporate governors and donors (Tudiver, 1999), and so on. But being shielded is also in some ways necessary to be able to get through the daily dirt of completing graduate-level research. As a supervisor, my best moments have been in helping students to represent their own struggles with the dirt in their writing, which has, in the most exciting cases, taken form as resistance against the very institution that confers their legitimacy as researchers. One of my students reminded me that I said something (accidentally) profound in a grad seminar: “grad school is a place to figure out what you care about.” At least it was for me, in that doing my PhD was what enabled me to become attuned to things like neo-colonialism, heteronormativity, white privilege, and other modes of systemic oppression. While such an education isn’t ‘fun’ in that sense, I think that’s probably the best outcome one can hope for, and maybe even a joyful outcome (see below), even if arriving there involves a lot of economic precarity, insecurity, complicity, and exhaustion. 

Alison Harvey

Becoming a researcher is an intellectual, emotional, and embodied experience that is deeply shaped by the relationships you have with people who are not necessarily trained in any way to cultivate you. Just as with teaching, we are likely to supervise and mentor others in a way that reflects our own experiences, either as emulation or opposition. Multicultural feminist mentorship approaches, such as those explored by Ruth Fassinger and Nancy F. Hensler-McGinnis (2005), emphasize the importance of both individual practices such as self-reflexivity and institutional strategies for providing training. Thinking back on my own experiences and considering those of my co-authors, I believe that greater accountability and attention to how the power dynamics within these relationships can be the site of problems should be addressed by our institutions. Training for supervisors as well as support for those dealing with challenging supervisory issues should be the norm, as should opportunities for students to confidentially and without prejudice report any issues in the relationship. But these strategies will be impossible to implement unless we challenge the valuation of the School of Hard Knocks approach to supervision that dehumanizes everyone involved.

Rena Bivens

Stories about abuses of power in academia have always been around. As an undergraduate or graduate student, one might hear a story about a particular professor to avoid, told in a hushed tone to a limited audience. These stories don’t stop as we move further along into academia. As graduate students start to take steps toward entering the profession themselves, more time is spent with professors, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Sometimes it’s just a feeling about a professor: “What do you think about Prof X? Did you notice [a creepy, too-long look] [that ‘joke’ that wasn’t funny] [who paid for the beer] [who keeps getting invited to X’s home] [who seems to get preferential treatment] [insert other suspicion here]?” Supervision arrangements and committee memberships complicate things further. “Think of it like speed dating,” a professor replies to a grad student asking how to find a supervisor. The speed dating metaphor might conjure up rows of tables and seats, movement from one potential supervisor to another, limited opportunities to talk, and the need for quick decisions amongst a wide range of allegedly equally suitable … suitors? No, not suitors, supervisors! This metaphor does not seem very helpful after all. Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy (2018) use a more appropriate phrase: comparison shopping. They describe it as a ‘professional relationship’ and encourage students to find “someone who will guide, prompt, and sometimes push you to excel,” while also recognizing that good supervisors are excited to find students who will become “future peer[s] who will energize them and make them do better in their own work as well” (Berdahl & Malloy, 2018, p. 53).

A professional relationship can still involve a level of intimacy but it is important to also recognize that the institution of academia grants the supervisor more power, which makes boundaries incredibly important. Lovitts (2001) describes the situation as paradoxical: “Graduate students are expected to perform as mature, independent (though fledgling) scholars in an authoritarian social structure where they are in a subordinate and dependent position socially, intellectually, and financially” (p. 34). Despite this context, there are certainly many very wonderful, positive, supportive student-supervisor relationships. Yet, there still are very few institutional supports in place to teach supervisors how to manage these relationships. While there is work being done to improve this situation, supervisors still have a great deal of control over their students’ progress and reputation both during a degree program and for many years afterwards. In many cases it is effectively a requirement to have a reference letter from your supervisor when applying for a scholarship, postdoctoral fellowship, or academic job. Not having a reference letter from your supervisor can be interpreted as a red flag and there are rarely any spaces in these applications for explanatory notes. Clearly, professional norms dictate that you should be able to manage a successful and healthy relationship with your supervisor, even though studies show that this is not a viable option for all graduate students (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group, 2020; Woolston 2019).

Comparison shopping, which should include talking to more senior graduate students in your program and openness to a range of possible supervisors, is an important tool for navigating this part of graduate school but it is also worth noting that it is possible for students to change supervision arrangements and committee memberships later on. Still, listening to shared stories and evaluating the information you receive continues long after graduate school is over. This information may help you determine who to avoid at alcohol-fuelled receptions or how to respond when an invitation to join a research group arrives in your inbox. Perhaps in conversation with a graduate student or colleague who wants to work with a particular person, you may find yourself wondering how to validate the information you have. You may wonder whether to share it or how much of it to share.

Learning how to be a supervisor is likely to first happen on-the-job since there are not many spaces devoted to teaching professors how to supervise, although interest is growing in such training (Gorup & Laufer, 2020). Given the potential for abuse of power, it is important for academics to watch for signs of unhealthy relationships, learn how to check-in with students, and, importantly, how to avoid becoming part of the problem. Reflexivity is key and can be driven by the questions that we ask ourselves. It’s now 11pm, who is still sitting around this table? What is the professor-to-student ratio? Is it time to go? What will the dynamic be if you do leave? What are your responsibilities in this situation? How much time do you give to some grad students over others? How do you distribute the resources you have? Who keeps getting the opportunities? Perhaps you’ve just met a new grad student and you immediately think they are really great. Maybe things seem to click and you find yourself thinking, “Have I just met a new friend? They have worked in industry for so long, our age difference is negligible. We have so much in common.” Perhaps you invite them to lunch, and then to play squash, and then into your private home.

We can’t pretend that there is one right answer and one wrong answer. If we only gravitate towards building impenetrable walls between ourselves and our students, we will remain emotionally unavailable. But this is dirty work; emotions cannot simply be expunged, nor should we want to rid ourselves of them. Still, it is important to acknowledge that women in the academy are often burdened with more emotional labour than men when engaging with students (Newcomb, 2021), which underscores how important it is to reflect, perhaps more deeply, on how to create and maintain boundaries with students. For those of us who are queer, negotiating professional relationships with students takes on other challenging dynamics as some queer students might see us as mentors who can offer unique personal support (Eguchi & Collier, 2018). We are also more vulnerable than straight female professors when it comes to dealing with potential complaints from students who may knowingly work the system by anticipating homophobic reactions by university administrations.

Racism is also a fundamental component of all these interpersonal situations and indeed the wider academic system. Faculty of colour face more problems in the classroom, given that students are less likely to respect their position of authority (Pittman, 2010). They also receive poorer reviews from students, which are used to evaluate their tenure applications (Fries, 2003), all the while dealing with personal and institutional racism in their workplace (Griffin et al, 2023). Racial power dynamics should be considered as students obtain and evaluate information from other graduate students when comparison shopping for supervisors and when stories are passed around on campuses and at conferences. This includes supporting anyone who has been victimized while also recognizing the historical racial context involved when, for instance, accusations are made against Black men in the defense of white women (Collins, 2004), and attending to the workings of power within supervisory relationships. Marisela Martinez-Cola (2020) identified several types of white professors that racialized students will encounter. For example, ‘collectors’ are white supervisors who literally collect racialized students and problematically showcase them to better their own position. In this contemporary moment, it is important to carefully consider how attempts to diversify or decolonize are being implemented (Tuck & Yang, 2012), including the appropriation of Indigenous identities, which TallBear (2019) refers to as ‘settler self-Indigenization.’ White professors have to be willing to acknowledge and reckon with their privilege and power while working in the academy, setting their egos aside in the service of disrupting white supremacy. 

Supervisory relationship

We have been recollecting on graduate school and the experience of becoming researchers, but our status as full-time academics has given us some space and time away from that formative experience. This experience is most pronounced here, where we reflect on the supervisory relationship, a mutually shaping dynamic that we have now all inhabited from both positions. Thinking about being supervised while being supervisors is a surely dirty business — how we think of ourselves as mentors and teachers is deeply informed by the intricacies of our experiences but also by the pressures and expectations that we have now normalized. Dirtiness sometimes makes things a little opaque, and we embrace that lack of clarity here.

Alison Harvey

Something that has shaped the kind of supervisor I have become is institutional and has deeply informed my ethos about how to support and develop those becoming PhDs. When I began working at my first academic job in the UK, I was surprised by the degree of oversight related to supervision as well as expectations about frequent contact, constructive feedback, and participation in the student’s personal and professional development. The result of this is that pastoral care is hard-coded through forms and processes as an expected dynamic of the relationship between supervisor and student. I do not want to imply that this works perfectly all the time — as with all mentorship relationships, this formalized set of practices does not necessarily account for power dynamics (Bay-Cheng, Lewis, Stewart, & Malley, 2006) nor does it acknowledge that some students will face greater challenges than others, with the attendant pressure this puts on the supervisor to engage in labour they are likely not trained in or recognized for. But it does go a long way towards mitigating against some of the dangers of not being accountable for the supervisor’s role in the success and progress of the PhD student. However, as someone who typically follows the rules, I cannot say what the consequences are for not diligently scheduling regular meetings and progress reviews, filling in online forms, and keeping track of each student’s training and professional development activities. And looking back I wonder, what is not captured in this sanitized approach to progress in the PhD? It differed so much from my doctoral experience that I automatically gravitated towards its benefits, but we can imagine that these hard deadlines can create their own friction (e.g., progress reviews scheduled during the initial pandemic shocks, challenging life events that exceed the year of allotted leave allowed for each full-time student). How can we create accountability in what can be toxic or neglectful or unfulfilling supervisory relationships safely while avoiding overly robotic or rigid systems?

Rena Bivens

Is there an app that uses GPS to help you avoid bumping into your supervisor when you are in a lull and cannot handle more anxiety? Maybe it makes your phone buzz three times and you’ll know it’s time to duck into a stairwell? Now that we are supervisors ourselves, we are sitting on the other side of the table. We know there will always be times when students are really far behind or not responding to emails, but these cases are rare. The reality is maybe we need an app too. An app that tells us when we are supposed to expect something from a student. Sure, we may mutually agree on deadlines but supervisors also have a hard time keeping track of them. It’s not like we see students in the hall or at an event and instantly calculate when their next deadline is (or was!). We have multiple students, often all at different places in their degree, requiring different sorts of guidance. Some of us have far too many students and we may not even realize how much extra labour we are doing in our departments. But perhaps there is some comfort here in knowing that we may not even realize a deadline has just passed or is just around the corner!

That said, you can also run into other difficulties. What happens when no one actually cares how long you are taking? How do you keep yourself on track? I’ll share one strategy that happened to work while trying to complete my PhD. As I was moving towards the final stages, my supervisor told me that it truly did not matter if I took one or two or even more years to complete it. I smiled and nodded, but I knew that I had to ignore his advice. Instead, I relied on someone else: the person in charge of the graduate program for my department. We had one final meeting before I moved away for my first academic position. I remember entering her office, accepting a cup of tea as usual and waiting for us to settle down and chat. I felt very confident as I outlined my completion plan, which included my lofty aim of submitting my thesis within six months (while also beginning my first full-time job as a professor!). She took me seriously and nodded along, agreeing to the plan. It didn’t matter whether or not my plan was too ambitious nor whether she really cared how quickly I completed it. What mattered was the image I held in my head of her looking me in the eye and nodding. During the next eight months (not six), I intentionally conjured up an image of her looking very disappointed in me. I would contort her face, in my mind, so that her forehead would fill with lines and her eyes would harden. She never knew I did this, of course, but being able to imagine her disappointment was a useful motivator. This was just one strategy of many that I used and clearly it won’t work for everyone. As a supervisor myself, I find it challenging to learn enough about the graduate students I am working with to find a balance that works best for each of them, according to their own needs.

Tamara Shepherd

My institution requires that supervisors undergo periodical training in the best practices of supervision. During a training session I attended in 2015, the trainer presented a room full of faculty with a checklist that sets out the expectations and responsibilities for students and supervisors. Each item on the checklist addressed some formal institutional policy, such as intellectual property, vacation time, and academic misconduct. The message here was that ‘best practices’ means following the rules of the university. The actual supervisory relationship, the thing that most determines the experience of training for a research career, was presented as secondary and could “only really be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.” 

Perhaps the most telling moment in that supervisory workshop — beyond the dismissal of relationship ethics and reinscription of institutional policies — was the discussion of grad students’ mental health. While attempts at de-stigmatizing students’ mental health struggles are necessary, the typical mental health discourse deployed by the university pathologizes and individualizes students’ responses to structural parameters of contemporary life (i.e., imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy). In this way, “mental health” becomes a dominant discourse that erases disability by promoting wellness as an individual responsibility (Aubrecht, 2012). The supervisory workshop reinforced this tendency of mental health discourse by following the slide on graduate students’ increased incidence of depression and anxiety with a slide showing their declining job prospects, with no acknowledgement of a correlation between the two. The way that the university perpetuates the myth of individual meritocracy seeps into all of its bureaucratic parameters that scaffold the research process (Littler, 2017), and this inevitably harms anyone trying to learn how to do research.

Mary Elizabeth Luka
The supervisory relationship in the scholarly world is comparable in some ways to the non-profit culture and media sectors where I worked before returning to the academy. These sectors share an emphasis on precarious financial and employment statuses and limited opportunities to progress through the ranks (e.g. Cunningham et al., 2016; McRobbie, 2015). Culture and the academy depend on building personal relationships with varying expectations about how supervisors (or funders) will somehow take care of the financial or other needs that people have in work environments, but also emphasize a business-like approach to achieving what can seem like daunting financial and impact goals (Korza & Schaffer Bacon, 2017). There are also similarities to the media production industries and broader creative economy where I worked, in the sense that there is a highly established hierarchy that is shaped by racism, classicism and other forms of discrimination (e.g. Bateman & Karim, 2009; Murray, 2015; Women in View, 2019). In another sense, however, the academy is quite different from the team-based approach of media production and the creative economy, which at least provides opportunities to learn to work in collective environments. Perhaps this could be compared to research labs in the academic sphere, where the teams change up over time, but in the academic spaces, the supervisors hold much of the power, often ensuring that students must learn to ‘manage up’ rather than how to become collegial or leaders in their own right.

Bonus: Supervisor Bingo

A fun game to play with your aca-friends! These examples of student-supervisor incidents may or may not have happened in real life. 

Supervisor offers you a coffee or tea, and adds a pastrySupervisor denigrates your project in front of other students and/or faculty Supervisor covers your conference or research travel costs upfrontSupervisor presents your innovative research ideas as their own without citing youSupervisor doesn’t respond to email for over one year
Supervisor “forgets their wallet” when taking you for coffeeSupervisor gifts you a new laptop, without you asking for itYou perform unpaid domestic tasks for your supervisor (pet- or baby-sitting, picking up dry-cleaning…)You return supervisor’s library books and pay the overdue finesYou find yourself regularly typing out email responses for your supervisor, who dictates the content out loud
You hear other people refer to the couch in your supervisor’s office as the ‘casting couch’Supervisor takes you for lunch every term!Free Space: nap breakSupervisor recommends you as a keynote speaker to replace them, scoring you a big CV line!Former supervisor’s racism becomes so overt that you begin penning open letters
Supervisor introduces you to an academic heroSupervisor asks you to house-sit while they are on sabbatical (free from rent!)Supervisor sends you emails regularly with relevant news stories and linksSupervisor invites your suggested speakers as keynotes for a conferenceSupervisor hooks you up with key contacts for your fieldwork
Supervisor actually thanks you for doing collaborative work… and cites youSupervisor throws shade on your entire theoretical approach in a conference paperSupervisor remembers your kid’s/pet’s namesSupervisor hires you backSupervisor celebrates your achievements with you and others

Finding the Joy

Dirtiness is about the complexities often submerged in discussions of doing research, and while many of these are about challenges or pain points, they are also emotional, affective, and embodied, which means they include a range of experiences and feelings that we might think of as positive. In fact, these are not easily separated out, and can be rather ambiguous as we will explore. But here, before we move into some of the critical discussions to follow, we want to pause and reflect on the pleasures of becoming researchers.

Rena Bivens

Survival, experimentation, joy. These are hopeful words. We want to emphasize joy — the anxious excitement that comes with finding a seat in a new classroom, the thrill of having discussions that stitch together ideas, that make a theoretical framework suddenly accessible, and that speed up your thoughts faster than you can speak or write them down. The joy of being in a new place and figuring out your place in it. The joy of finding a cause, or two or three, that you want to support so much that you feel you could sacrifice everything for it. Finding your people and them finding you. Choosing a topic and learning how to fumble through elevator talks, eventually finding ways to describe it that excite you and interest others. That first acceptance to a conference. Questions you ask yourself: am I good enough for this? Is this really my argument? Hasn’t this been said before? Who am I to claim this argument? Stumbling through that first conference talk. Celebrating afterwards. Feeling a little more secure and confident next time. Finding people and building panels. Going to listen to people you’ve read and feeling inspired by their talks. Trying not to gush while talking to them or taking another step closer in their direction. Grounding yourself — and having friends help you do so (see friendship) — in the realization that everyone is a person with their own histories and own stories, and the star power model usually has an ugly edge to it that you do not want to get close to anyway (Walsh & Lehman, 2021).

Alison Harvey

While not all experiences we have as PhDs are positive, how we become researchers is shaped by more than our institutions and our official supervisory configurations. In my case, while some formalized interactions in the doctoral process instilled in me particular values premised on academia as a competitive, survival-of-the-fittest arena (Göktürk & Tülübaş, 2021), I was extremely lucky to become involved in several projects entailing collaborative research, including with this collective of authors. Here, through peer mentorship (Lorenzetti et al., 2019) characterized by intellectual generosity, passionate scholarship, and frank and level-headed self-reflexivity about academia, I became not only a feminist researcher in a holistic way but the kind of person I wanted to be in my academic work across teaching, research, and service. Care — for myself and others and the networks we operate in — is gendered, as others have noted (McKenzie, 2021), but also deeply political in light of the precarious and punishing norms of the neoliberal university. And it is a deeply satisfying and motivating way of working, creating joy for me in teaching methods critically, helping doctoral students find depth and nuance in their projects, and looking at new collaborative research work in the future too.

Mary Elizabeth Luka

The tension between so-called real-life knowledge, experience, networks and communities and those of academia has continued to shape my path. I’ve received accolades (joy!), and been denied the most ‘normal’ or ‘easy to get’ grants, positions, or book contracts (intimidating). I benefited from three postdocs over four years (and suffered the precarity and cross-country commutes that come with these gigs) before settling into a position at the largest, most research-intensive university in Canada. Most importantly, and in part as a result of relevant skills and lived experiences gained in the non-profit and media production fields, I have been able to navigate a research agenda that commits to and aims to activate inclusive and equity-seeking initiatives within which most of us involved can clearly articulate and be supported in their/our own positionality and research agendas (e.g. Choi et al., 2014; Luka & Lilley 2018; Mauthner et al., 2012). Life is short. Academia is long. How we research speaks volumes about why we research. Dirt and all.


Here we have explored some possible moments where the dirtiness of research is encountered early on in academic training. We have connected these instances, from formulating research questions to life in grad school to relationships with supervisors and institutions, across our experiences as students and within supervisory relations as professors. What we hope this suggests is that becoming a researcher is not located only in an originary moment, but that it is an ongoing process, one where being a grad student in these instances are likely only visibilized because they are likely entirely new (and strange). These early moments are therefore especially useful for engaging with the concept of dirty methods as these ideas may have a particular resonance. Becoming in research entails the process of acclimatizing to the at first strange norms we encounter and likely naturalizing cleanliness — holding onto the idea that research is always dirty and that staying dirty can open up possibilities for critique and transformation may therefore be easier at this stage.

Moving forward, when we name methods as dirty, we are not indicating that there is a category or use of methods that is specifically dirty (or by implication others that are cleaner). Dirty methods are not about doing archival or survey or interview-based research wrong with a handy guide to clean up mistakes or missteps. Rather we are engaging in an active process of revealing how academic work is always dirty — bound up in legacies and contemporary processes of exclusion, oppression, and violence that shape and reinforce what is knowable, teachable, researchable, publishable, and valuable in academic terms, and within organizations we interface with beyond the academy. Our canons, best practices, institutions, and frameworks are entrenched in kyriarchal norms (Ferguson, 2014; Fiorenza, 1997), and this makes scholarly work always both dirty and engaged in acts of cleaning up that obscure these values and the active exclusions they perpetuate. By foregrounding what is dirty across components of academic work, we are seeking to instead normalize keeping these problems open for discussion and critique with the aim of challenging hegemonic research processes and practices and collectively creating more inclusive, ethical, sustainable, and creative modes of working.

These insights are critical to be sure, considering overtly the epistemic violence and appropriative tendencies of thinking about race and indigeneity in our academic systems. But as our discussions of becoming researchers hopefully indicate, they are also playful and joyful (see friendship and epilogue – on cat herding), banal (see movement of money), and ambiguous (see vulnerabilities). Dirtiness can refer to the ugliness of instrumental mechanisms as well as the beauty of research’s materiality. Perhaps most importantly, while dirtiness is often cleaned up as a common part of doing, the dirty methods approach is about embracing and leaving the muck unresolved. We’ve focused here on starting points as part of resisting the urge to tie things up neatly, which often makes conclusions ambiguous, as with this section. But this approach also encourages us to look forward, toward other possible becomings in the future of research. Let’s go!


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