I am writing this column having just completed my PhD work; my thesis has been in circulation for just one week, and graduation is just two weeks away. I hope then, I can be forgiven for devoting a Voices column to reflecting on an aspect of my PhD process, that of ‘getting started’. Bunt (2004) gave us permission to indulge in such a practice, it seems, when he said that music therapists have a need to tell stories, not only of patients and clients, but their own stories of entering the profession, the ‘spark’ that led to training, early musical memories, and so on. Our stories reinforce who we are, sustain us in times of trouble, and motivate us towards ends we might not envisage (Mair, 1989), and they are particularly important during times of significant transition (Crossley, 2007). Thus I acknowledge that telling my story at this momentous transitional period in my life might be personally beneficial, but I trust it might also be of interest to readers.
And so, I cast my mind back five years to consider how I got started on my PhD journey. Although I was also a music therapy teacher, at the time I was mulling over the idea of doing a PhD, and to this day, I considered myself first and foremost a music therapist. I love being a music therapy practitioner. But I also enjoy being a researcher investigating the outcomes, or the meaning of music therapy, for the people I work with; and I value opportunities for reflection, inquiring into my role as researcher, practitioner, or practitioner/researcher. So when my university teaching and research demands increased, and opportunities for regular music therapy practice decreased, I was keen to find ways to integrate my practice and research activities.
The international expectation that academics must hold a PhD held little motivation for me on its own and, like McFerran (2010) I did not realise the significance of the PhD as a form of training for academia, way back then. Nevertheless, I was aware that the credibility of music therapy depends on highly qualified people acting in and speaking for the profession. The PhD, or equivalent, opens doors for music therapists to interact and collaborate with scholars from other disciplines, and thus to develop our own. Further, PhD researchers are necessarily engaged in a major piece of original research which, by definition, makes a significant contribution to the knowledge or understanding of the field of study. Thus their research benefits both the discipline as well as the profession.
And so the decision to do the PhD was made. But then I had to make choices about where to ‘locate’ and how to ‘situate’ the work, because there is no university in New Zealand that offers a named PhD in music therapy. Wheeler (2003) suggested that music therapists have, in the past, situated their work in related fields because the knowledge base in music therapy could not support PhD study, referring specifically to the number of PhDs in music education, with emphases in music therapy, at the time. She chose to do her PhD in Education Psychology because it seemed helpful to have the additional credentials which would enable her to become a licensed psychologist. She writes enthusiastically about the skills she developed as a PhD candidate, specifically citing quantitative research skills, and a deeper understanding of learning, motivation, development, all of which were highly relevant to music therapy. Later she confirms that her choice to get a PhD in Educational Psychology was important because it led to “having some fabulous experiences as a psychologist and enriching (her) music therapy work and understanding of research immeasurably” (Wheeler, 2008, paragraph 3).
Although Wheeler (2003) agued that advanced degrees in other professions provide skills in those areas which can be useful and applicable to music therapy, she noted that her understanding of music therapy had not been deepened by doing a degree that was related to, but was not specifically, music therapy. My own experience of doing my Master of Health Science (Mental Health) degree had been different. Like Wheeler I learnt about ‘other’ things, and developed skills that would have applications in music therapy, but I also felt I gained a deeper understanding of music therapy. I was given the opportunity to write several papers specifically on music therapy topics, and, as a part time student, I was able to assimilate much of what I learnt directly into my music therapy practice. Incidentally, it was also a great way for my lecturers at the Otago Medical School to learn more about music therapy. So later, although my PhD topic would cross the fields of ‘music therapy’ and ‘special education’ (with a later focus on ‘inclusive education’), I decided that I would be comfortable doing a PhD (Music), by thesis, with the New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) even though, now, throughout the world, there are many programmes that offer PhDs in music therapy.
Choosing appropriate supervisors was another important step in getting started. My primary supervisor necessarily came from my institute of enrolment, and was not a music therapist. I was therefore privileged to have three supervisors, two from New Zealand who were specialists in ‘music’, and ‘education’, fields, and an international colleague, Professor Leslie Bunt from the ‘music therapy’ field. All were extremely encouraging, and inspired me with their passion for their particular subject areas, and for research. My initial primary supervisor left the university when I was just one year into my study and while I was disappointed at the time, another helpful colleague was quickly found. The supervision team was successful, I believe, because we were just that, a ‘team’. I attended, early in my candidature, as many as possible of the seminars for PhD candidates that were offered by my university, and I had learnt that it was up to me to keep each member of my supervision team up-to-date with my interactions with the others, to ensure I received cohesive support. I also elicited early on, the support of colleagues who were able to assist with peer review, mentoring, and editorial support.
My topic had come to me easily, as it grew from ‘wondering’ about my music therapy practice, and it seemed logical for me to engage in action research which would enable me to continue to do, and improve an aspect of, that work. The rewards for making this choice were immense, as my participants were fully involved in the research process, and as we worked together each of our lives were considerably enriched. Nevertheless, although one or two others had paved the way (e.g. Warner, 2005), when I began the work in 2005, employing an action research approach for a PhD thesis was still perceived by some colleagues to be a ‘risky’ endeavour which might not generate the expected scholarly outcomes. Edwards (2006) has since proposed that the “doing” of music therapy might be at risk of marginalisation as we seek ‘scholarly’ ways to inquire into our practice. She argued that it is timely to consider “thresholds between practice, practice-research and writing that could be further developed as a recognised ‘register’ of scholarly work” (paragraph 1). Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it was not necessary for me to employ my well rehearsed defence of action research as a methodology, during my recent PhD oral examination. In contrast, while it was acknowledged that action research requires courage and produces particular challenges for the doctoral candidate, the approach seemed to be afforded a high level of respect. Further, it was noted that the description of music therapy interaction provided within the thesis also provided evidence of the researcher’s music therapy expertise. So it seems that employing action research and participatory action research approaches will be one way to answer Edwards’ (2006) concern to enable practitioners to have their expertise recognised within a research frame.
This is a relatively short column, because I have celebrating to do… but before I finish I want to shift my gaze from ‘starting out’ to ‘looking back’, and, briefly, to share my overall perceptions of my PhD journey. Over the last five years, I have become increasingly passionate about my topic, and on the whole I enjoyed the research process immensely. I have been consistently very excited, with only brief periods of exhaustion and frustration. I have learnt a huge amount from working with my participants, through my engagement with the literature and data, and from stimulating discussions with supervisors and colleagues. On the other hand, the process of doing research highlights for researchers how much they don’t know, so I’m acutely aware of how much knowledge I lack. I haven’t had quite enough time yet to assimilate what I have accomplished, and I still feel like an imposter within in the PhD community. It is not uncommon for people, especially women academics, to feel as if they don’t belong, or don’t deserve the status they are awarded (Clance & Imes, 1978). However, being aware of thoughts and feelings which are sometimes automatic, discussing them with others, and finding one is not alone, are protective factors for imposter syndrome. As a music therapist, and qualitative researcher, I am constantly engaged in reflective practice and supervision. So I’m confident it won’t be long until I feel very much part of the PhD community!
Developing my thesis has been, at various times, an all-consuming process and I imagine that the impact of such a long-term endeavour will linger for some time. I devoted approximately twenty hours each week to my study, on top of my work with music therapy students, and I had to forgo many social activities or events that I would have liked to attend. I consider myself fortunate to have family, friends, and colleagues who still seem interested in me after my ‘absence’ from much of social life. Producing a PhD thesis has been likened to giving birth. Using this metaphor, I think I had a wonderful pregnancy, although I certainly had some moody times, and although I experienced some pain in the final stages, but was it worth it? You bet!
To finish, I wish all Voices readers I very happy Christmas and New Year.
Meri Kirihimete me ngā mihi o te tau hou ki a koutou katoa.
Bunt, L. (2004). Telling our Stories. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy Retrieved from http://voices.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2004-telling-our-stories.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenonmenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 1-8.
Crossley, M. (2007). Narrative analysis. In E. Lyons & A. Coyle (Eds.), Analysing qualitative data in psychology. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Edwards, J. (2006). Thresholds between practice and research - thinking about Susan Melrose's notion of the "signature practitioner". Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, Retrieved from http://voices.no/?q=coledwards300106.
Mair, M. (1989). Between psychology and psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
McFerran, K. (2010). Why do I teach? Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, Retrieved from http://voices.no/?q=colmcferran260810.
Warner, C. (2005). Music therapy with adults with learning difficulties and ‘severe challenging behaviour’: An action research inquiry into group music therapy within a community home Unpublished Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of West of England Bristol.
Wheeler, B. (2003). The interdisciplinary music therapist. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, Retrieved from http://voices.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2003-interdisciplinary-music-therapist.
Wheeler, B. (2008). Choices. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, Retrieved from http://voices.no/?q=colwheeler100308.
Rickson, Daphne (2011). Starting (and finishing!) a PhD Thesis. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2010-starting-and-finishing-phd-thesis