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At A Journey’s End

I have a thesis of which I am proud, and a marriage to my beautiful wife Halaina — who has been a constant source of love, joy, and support as I laboured in the archives.

On a day such as this, it is hard to know where to begin. I should be jumping with joy, an ecstatic elation elicited by effortlessly emerging from an extracurricular educative endeavour. And yet the knowledge that it will have taken almost five years to be awarded a degree for a thesis which took less than two years to write, doesn’t seem like something to rejoice. Rather, one should lament the turgid effect of managerialism on the scholastic process and the delay of three years in administrative red tape and needless side roads.

But first, the good news! I can finally style myself a Doctor of Philosophy. From my earliest recollections, I longed to follow my childhood hero Dr Jones, as in Indiana, and answer to the appellation Dr Winter. Such distant memories rekindle a boyish joy that is mixed with the knowledge that if my parents were still alive, they would have thoroughly enjoyed toasting my success. But they would also have lamented the egregious process that is the modern degree. In my mind’s eye I can see my mother, a most formidable woman, tearing strips off the Dean about the hoop jumping that doctoral candidates are now forced to endure. But to begin at the beginning.

That’s How the Trouble All Began

I think the first error, was in naively thinking that my research journey would follow the sort of majestic course overseen by my supervisor for nearly 50 years before I darkened his door. Although a historian by disposition and training, and despite being given a warm welcome by the history faculty at the universities of both Sydney and Macquarie, I choose to apply for my stipend from a Business School. The reasons were threefold:

  1. I had a fabulous relationship with my preferred supervisor, Professor Spillane, with whom I had struck up a collegiate friendship during my MBA.
  2. The style at the time in business schools gave candidates much greater control in their research process. Instead of being pressed into, as one academic put it, ‘laying back and letting the process happen’, a candidate was largely free to research whatever they wished and find their own path.
  3. Being a business school, the faculty and administrative staff were awake and aware to the notion that I was not a student who chose to work, I was a working professional who chose to study.

In the deluded belief that by offering a mid-year intake option on the application the university would intake students mid-year, I duly submitted my application and started trawling the archives.

The rot started shortly after I submitted my application, in 2017, as I was put off and put off until the mid-year intake had elapsed. When my application was finally reviewed, I was sent a provisional offer on condition I successfully completed a Master of Research (MRes) first. It turned out the real reason for the abandonment of the mid-year intake was because they wanted to ensure I could start with the MRes cohort in the new year (2018).

For those who live in the civilised world, where an honours or master’s degree are sufficient entry criteria for a PhD, an MRes program is designed to prepare a student to complete a PhD in three years. Which the marketing material notes is ‘well short of the national average.’

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the MRes degree and overall administrative process for the PhD, meant that the two years it took me to write my thesis was augmented by three years of additional degree and administrative red tape. If changes to faculty management are intended to improve national averages regarding total time taken by a PhD candidate, they are failing. By my own experience, five years elapsed from initial application to PhD completion letter.

Having spent enough time in academia, I can attest and affirm that there are some exceptionally fine individuals who, following the tried and tested methods of sitting closed book examination, writing short research essays, and being failed if they do not pass muster, are well equipped to complete a PhD in three years or less. Instead, student literacy is declining as universities increasingly become factories in which money is exchanged for student visas and degrees (read work credentials).

Too often, a modern education accords with Edmund Burke’s view of debased scholarly endeavour, in which:

to learn for show is like painting for complexion, it looks tawdry, lasts not long, and is no better than a Cheat.

The motivation behind these trends, it is claimed, is to ensure a modern university is ‘sustainable’ and that ‘no student is left behind’. But the result of this process is quite the opposite. Students are left behind, if they did but know it, through a combination of multiple-choice quizzes, pre-recorded lectures, online comment pages instead of tutorial groups, and open book exams. More than one student I met on the MRes had come through their undergraduate degree without once having to go to the library or produce a coherent piece of long form research. This is the true definition of being left behind, as a student may get to add some letters to their name, but without the capabilities that should flow from learning, they are behind the 8-ball and will struggle to understand why their degree is not opening doors in the commercial world.

Perhaps what is worse, for those who have learnt how to conduct research and are high academic achieves, the MRes degree is a complete waste of time and money — I cannot stress this enough. For the love of all things scholarly, spare those who have learnt how to write a literature review, form an argument, and discovered that a university has a library, from the unnecessary delay to their progress.

Although the MRes proved to be a wholly futile endeavour, I should be thankful that my academic record allowed me to skip the first part of the degree, meaning it was only a one and not two year delay to my PhD journey.

Restricting the Structure

Not only did the MRes delay my progress by 18 months, the business school in which I had enrolled was deemed too successful and professionally run to remain outside the managerialism of the main campus. Thus the Macquarie Graduate School of Management’s (MGSM) research students and staff were transferred to the suffocating embrace of the main university. My supervisor and I exchanged a spacious, corner office overlooking the lake, in which we could argue the finer points of Edmund Burke’s writings and speeches, for a cramped cupboard in a tower block that makes soviet era architecture look positively baroque.

But that was not the worst of it. The freedoms previous enjoyed by supervisors and candidates were replaced by committees, protocols and endless reviews. I would not be surprised if future candidates find themselves attending weekly work in progress meetings so their endeavours can be more completely micromanaged to ensure that the process is as mollycoddled and wrapped in cotton wool as possible: disgraceful.

Thank Heavens for Tenure

But there was a silver lining – that tenure isn’t entirely dead. This enabled my esteemed supervisor to ignore the bulk of the hoop jumping demands and steer me through the woods. This, for the most part, threw me into the fire of genuinely independent research. These were the best days of the degree — alone in the archives, with my nascent arguments being challenged at intervals by the coruscating reviews of my supervisor: bliss.

A Final Slip Twixt Cup and Lip

Although my road had been a much longer one than anticipated, my research progressed at the pace I had hoped — yes, it is possible to survive and thrive in a full-time management role and write an ~80,000-word PhD thesis. Thus it was with delight that I hit my goal and completed the first draft of my thesis in two years. It was joyous to think I could submit for examination with still a year to run, and make up some of the time lost to the MRes.

It was then that the axe fell on my supervisor. He was a thorn in the side of the managerialists in the department, but what did for him was reaching half a century of teaching at the university. Thus, before I could submit, I lost my mentor and friend to forced retirement.

Time gained was subsequently lost, as the faculty sought a replacement. To my unending gratitude, Professor Michelson stepped into the breech. We had a great working relationship, his views on the necessity of independent research at the PhD level accorded largely with Professor Spillane’s and mine, and his final edits got me to the submission process.

With Gratitude and Thanks

Although the finished thesis is about my arguments and how I see the writings and speeches of Edmund Burke as contributing to the study of leadership, throughout the work, any mention of ‘I’ is a reference to a personal eye and should be read in the context of the constant indebtedness I owe to the great thinkers who have made this humble thesis possible. Far be it for me to make a pronouncement on the state of leadership, authority, tradition or the myriad other conceptualisations and philosophies described, discussed, defended and defamed in this thesis. Instead, it is a group effort. As Isaac Newton had it in a letter to Robert Hooke: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’.

To Edward Wray-Bliss, I am indebted for his counsel during the early phases of research. Praise and gratitude is due to my esteemed initial Principal Supervisor, Robert Spillane, who supported the spark of research aspirations during my MBA, consistently challenging my thinking, until a roaring blaze bodied forth during my PhD. To Grant Michelson, who stepped into the breach, first as associate supervisor and eventually as my principal supervisor after the myriad round of musical restructures at the University saw my initial supervisory team disbanded; thanks is due for getting me to the finish line. While their guidance helped lift this thesis up, any faults that remain are my own.

A word must also be given over, though not in praise but in sombre acknowledgement of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. As of 20 May 2022, there have been 521,920,560 confirmed cases and 6,274,323 deaths deaths. Global numbers which underestimated as in some cases — most notably Iran, Russia, China — national statistics can’t be wholly trusted. In such an environment, the bet between Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker and the British Astronomer Royal Lord Rees has been won by the noble lord: ‘A bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six month period starting no later than Dec 31 2020’. To have undertaken my research during this time has been both a testing and a hardening experience. A period made all the more traumatic by my father’s passing as the pandemic broke, and nursing my mother-in-law, Narelle Hills, as she succumbed to cancer at home because palliative staff were not able to attend due to COVID restrictions.

Gratitude and love are due to both my parents. My father, Robert Winter, lived to see my PhD journey begin and was proud beyond reckoning at my achievements and writing. My mother passed before I reached this ultimate stage of my student life. Valerie Winter was a true beacon of enlightenment in my childhood. An indomitable woman who blazed trails in the practise of leadership, at a time in Australian corporate history when companies often didn’t even have a women’s loo, let alone a female manager. She was also an early exponent of leadership philosophy in bridging the practical and theoretical gap in her studies at the University of New South Wales.

But out of tragedy comes triumph. A thesis of which I am proud, and a marriage to my beautiful wife Halaina — who has been a constant source of love, joy, and support as I laboured night and day in the archives.

Photo by Tim Alex on Unsplash.

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