Metaphors and the PhD

Guest Post by Rod Pitcher:

Last year Rod wrote one of our most popular posts on the use of metaphor in conveying concepts to students. A PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the ANU, he returns to the tomtom to share some thoughts specific to the PhD.

A woman walks the Merri Creek Labyrinth, Victoria, Australia.

Merri Creek Labyrinth, says Rod: “…a good metaphor for the PhD with all its dead ends, new views, backwards and forwards movements…”

Some supervisors have found metaphors useful in explaining what is required in the PhD research to their students. Two areas where metaphors are particularly useful is in aiding the student’s understanding of the progress of their research and the formatting of the thesis.

Metaphors of planning the work

The PhD work can be described as a journey or as a story. Both are useful in understanding the progress of the PhD.

The PhD work can be described as a journey, in which a certain amount of territory must be covered by certain times, and where there are rest stops at certain places that have to be reached at certain times. Using this idea the student can plan the work of the PhD. The amount of work to be done each week can be planned and plotted. Rest breaks, at the end of each section, can be assigned times. Progress can be ascertained by comparing the actual progress with the plan.

Alternatively, the PhD can be compared to a story. Each chapter can represent a stage of the research work. Rest breaks can be taken at the end of each chapter. The chapters added together represent the work towards the completed research and the writing up of the thesis. If dates are assigned to the completion of the stages, represented as chapters, progress can be verified by comparing chapters that are unfinished with those completed. A useful timetable can be drawn up from the work ascribed to each chapter.

A metaphor for the thesis

A useful metaphor for writing the thesis is weaving. The long warp threads represent the strands of the thesis, such as the literature, the methodology and the intermediate results. The cross threads, the weft, represent the work done at that particular stage. The material, the thesis, can be seen to progress as more and more weft is added to the warp to produce finished material. If the warp and weft are imagined as coloured then a pattern might develop in the material that indicates a useful direction in which to continue. The weaving can be briefly interrupted at any stage and then work re-started when new weft material in the form of results is available. Rests can be taken as necessary, and the work already completed can be viewed at any time to measure progress.


Metaphors are useful for PhD students as they can represent the two main problems that many such students have in organising their progress and understanding what the thesis involves. The illustrations above are useful in those areas.

If you prefer you can make up your own metaphors. Would you prefer the PhD to be voyage of discovery, stopping at various islands on the way?  Would you like putting together the thesis to be like organising and cooking a meal and serving it up to your guests? If that suits your way of thinking then go ahead. I’ve just described the ones that I find useful. You might like something different.

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student whose focus of study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. His original post on the tomtom can be found here. Rod’s profiles are at: and

Share your thoughts about any aspect of the PhD process in the comments below!

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