Social Regulation and Legitimacy in Doctoral Learning

We sense that the distinctions between formal and informal learning are becoming increasingly blurred, yet we still resort to using such terms. Within doctoral education – the focus of my thesis – the dichotomy is particularly ambiguous and unreliable.

Even if we think of formal and informal learning as a continuum, where do we place something like presenting at a conference, or publishing a paper? These are rarely formal requirements of a PhD, yet there is an expectation that a doctoral student actively pursues such opportunities. What about attending seminars, or taking on a teaching role? Where might we place these? And how do different disciplines, faculties and doctoral programmes determine the importance of these practices?

Universities assume the custodianship of doctoral learning through the formal induction and integration of PhD students within a supportive research environment; one that provides supervision, research training and facilities, and other support services, and fosters a mentor- and peer-based community of practice. Wenger (1998) describes practice as a dialectic relationship between participation and reification. A learner’s trajectory can therefore be understood in the interrelated dimensions of greater participation and engagement within an academic community and increased familiarity with the signs and discourses that reify that participation.

According to Davies and Mangan (2006), models such as communities of practice provide a social regulation of learning. Whilst the individual student develops a unique set of reference points to her learning process, these must attain legitimacy within the context of the community she is acting. Since communities derive their coherence from particular ways of practicing, they regulate how the student’s progress can be recognised as learning. This is usually manifest as curricula and the attainment of qualifications. In doctoral education, where there is far less of a structured programme, and a greater emphasis on student efficacy and negotiated study, this notion of legitimacy as a defining characteristic of the learning trajectory becomes particularly pertinent.

My own research and teaching indicate that the lack of recognition associated with the use of social media (and the ‘value’ of their related artefacts, such as blog posts) compared to established scholarly pursuits – getting a paper published or presenting at a conference – can be a major disincentive for postgraduate researchers. Yet in my own field of study, it is expected that I become familiar with, and actively engage in the social web, because of its elevated status as a legitimate academic practice within my research communities and networks.


Davies, P., & Mangan, J. (2006). Trajectories of students’ learning: threshold concepts and subject learning careers. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, University of Brighton.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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7 Responses to “Social Regulation and Legitimacy in Doctoral Learning”

  1. Gary Myers Says:

    Although persuing a PhD has certain “formal” expectations and academic requirements, continuing to be involved in the “informal” elements and being connected to a CoP outside of academia provides a stronger learning benefit. Being familiar with and using social media learning tools to contribute to greater knowledge within society gives you a future advantage over many others who maintain their focus strictly within the “formal” world of academia.

    Doctoral supervisors and universities that recognize and adopt the use of social media along with expected scholarly pursuits become champions of university-community outreach and the greater benefits that this blending of “formal” and “informal” education provide with and beyond a PhD.

    I enjoy reading your blogs and your PhD pursuit perspective.

  2. virginia Yonkers Says:

    Andy, I’m curious as to what the evaluation process is for the PhD in England. In the US, we choose a dissertation committee who helps “guide” us through the process. In some cases, the committee can be very open minded as to the format your dissertation will take. But most are very conventional with a four chapter format for the dissertation.

    In my department, we have a limited number of full-time faculty, and many have a cross-disciplinary topic (usually a content area outside of the field of Education). Therefore, they recommend that we include someone outside of the department on our committee. However, this can lead to differences in expectations, especially when there are multiple communities of practice. While the dissertation is negotiated, the actual research and study end up being very specialized and individualized to the PhD and the committee. I have heard horror stories from people whose committee members did not get along (one of my colleagues had a couple going through a divorce on her committee!) or had totally different expectations. There was a constant pull as to the form and format that the dissertation needed to take, not to mention differences in fundamental theories and beliefs.

  3. Tweets that mention Social Regulation and Legitimacy in Doctoral Learning | PhD Blog (dot) Net -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LeRoy Hill and Gary Myers, Andy Coverdale. Andy Coverdale said: New blog post – Social Regulation and Legitimacy in Doctoral Learning […]

  4. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Virginia, there is so much diversity across disciplines, faculties and programmes, I can only describe the process in the School of Education, here at Nottingham.

    Once proposals are accepted, it is highly recommended to try and match up with the most appropriate supervisors (it is now mandatory to have two). Any subsequent negotiation of the thesis is done directly with the supervisors. They seem to allow for significant shifts in focus – in the first year at least – as long as they are declared and justified in the Confirmation of Status (an internally-conducted review held toward the end of the first year). The School has a further internal Annual Review in the second year, where any concerns about progress are flagged up. Theses are submitted to an external and internal examiner (who tend to be chosen by the supervisors), who also conduct the viva with one supervisor present.

  5. Conceptualising Doctoral Practices | PhD Blog (dot) Net Says:

    […] has some assessment criteria? I’ve discussed the problem of ‘formality’ in doctoral education in a previous post. Even if some agreed definition is established, I think the formality of individual activities […]

  6. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Continuum models of formal and informal teaching and learning are discussed at length by Reinhard Zürcher here.

  7. Patter | PhD Blog (dot) Net Says:

    […] professors who do blog can be enormously influential (probably far more than they realise) in legitimising blogs as platforms for research dissemination, particularly in under-represented […]

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