The PhD Quest: Arise, become a peer.

This is a post I started eighteen months ago. It was only after my last post, on warfare and Foucault, This is not a test, that I felt I was ready to finish this off and send it out into the world.

That’s because this metaphor has two sides. The side explored here is the meta-narrative that the Academy tells–that pursuing at PhD is like a noble quest, for the Holy Grail of new knowledge. It will test you, and only the pure may succeed. This helps sustain the hierarchy and the myth of ‘meritocracy’ in the academy. You may spend much of your candidature feeling inadequate, like you are in the Slough of Despond or the Valley of Shit, like you have failed at the academic purity tests. This is part of the point.

Much of this suddenly clicked for me while at a performance of  Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in the section where Tamino must prove his purity through a series of trials before being judged worthy to enter the temple of Enlightenment. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘That’s what’s going on here’.

The discipline, the training for warfare, can be Foucauldian control structures: but they can also be part of a romantic and High Quest, and and this narrative can be both instructive and sustaining for your candidature.  



The Vigil by John Pettie (1884)

We often understand the doctoral candidature as an educational experience, as a way to gain a professional qualification (it is required to enter the profession of lecturer, for example). Sometimes we understand it as a personal journey, a search for self-fulfillment.  However, we should understand it also as an initiation. 

In gaining a PhD, you are not only demonstrating research skills, making an original contribution to knowledge, and becoming an expert in your field… you are also applying to join a company of academic peers.  There is a reason we call that thing we do ‘peer review’.

Peer has three cognate meanings:

  • A group of people who are equals.
  • A member of the (mostly) hereditary, titled nobility
  • A member of the academic community.

All three are related in meaning.

There is only one way of becoming a member of the nobility without being the child of a duke… and that is by being knighted.  So I’m going to explore one way in which the doctoral candidature journey is unlike other kinds of research: the change of identity, and the gaining of a new title. 


The concept of ‘chivalry’ was aspirational (special social priviledges were granted to knights, and any free man could work to become a knight), disciplinary (there was a code to make sure these armed men behaved like officers and gentleman) and socially useful (the king had a group of highly trained specialists to help him run his army and his country).

In order to become a knight, in the Middle Ages (or at least in the medievalised version that we see in the modern Ivory Tower), you needed to submit to a series of tests. You had to prove yourself through feats of skill, of purity and of bravery. 

In the poems of the Gawain poet, or Sir Thomas Malory, the hero-knights are not simply men of sufficient financial and social standing to be horse-soldiers (chevaliers), but the most notable knights among their peers, if not of all men “on live” (then living).

Squires (or apprentice knights) demonstrate their skill through various competitions, often jousts, duels or competitions. Sometimes academic publishing, combative Faculty politics and the Tenure Games feel like battles to the death, and that’s kind of because they are. Squires demonstrate their purity through refusing temptations (in Gawain and Parsifal that means renouncing riches and women, which might help explain adjunct academic pay and the ‘two body problem‘). I’ve talked about this before, I call it the The Academic Purity Cult. And squires demonstrate their bravery through travelling off into the wilderness, the Hautdesert or the dark woods, on their own. As the Romantic reimagining of the chivalric code saw it (both in the use of the Chanson de Roland in French literary nationalism, or in Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘), it was frankly better if the knight died in the attempt.

noise was everywhere! it toll’d
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knell’d the woe of years.

The final test was a vigil.

During the Middle Ages, a squire on the night before his knighting ceremony was expected to take a cleansing bath, fast, make confession, and then hold an all-night vigil of prayer in the chapel, preparing himself in this manner for life as a knight. For the knighting ceremony, he dressed in white as a symbol for purity and over that was placed a red robe to show his readiness to be wounded.

Most people in the very last stages of their PhD candidature know that final stage somewhere between 6 months and 6 weeks, a trial by fire where they do not sleep, where they are consumed by the writing. 

This vigil is the last stage, the stage by which you pass from the ranks of candidate to the rank of peer.


It’s brutal, and it’s designed to be. This might explain why doctoal completion rates are so abysmal.

Rebecca Schumann (@pankisseskafka) puts it most clearly (in Thesis Hatement):

During graduate school, you will be broken down and reconfigured in the image of the academy.

That moment of doubt, where you feel totally alone? Yes, we’re doing that to you on purpose. That moment when you feel you are not worthy to be an academic? Yes, we’re doing that on purpose too. That moment when you feel like you are less skilled, less smart, less competent than when you started your thesis? Yes, that was the plan. Have you been bullied by a supervisor, or torn to pieces (like literally ‘blood in the water, here come the sharks‘) at a conference–or seen it happen to someone else and been intimidated? Well, yes.

It’s how initiation works.


And yet, this is how you become a peer. And having survived the dark night of the soul, the tests of skill and perserverance, having learned how to belong to the society of Enlightenment, you are granted a new title and admitted into the Academy as a peer. You have survived, and triumphed, and you are now one of us.

And to mark that, your very name is changed. In Finland, you are actually given a sword at your doctoral graduation. But whatever your ceremony includes, doctoral graduation is a kind of knighthood.  You kneel at the feet of the representative of the Vice Chancellor, and he or she says:  Arise Dr Knight, in your medievalist robes and your Renaissance bonnet, and take up the mantle of the Enlightenment. Now you are entitled to act as my equal, reviewing my work. Now you are entitled to be a colleague. Welcome. 


This is a double-edged metaphor–but know that the trials are real, that you can succeed, and that there is an end. And that you are never really alone–even Tamino was alowed to have Pamina by his side. Good luck, we’re cheering you on.



  1. Hi. Here’s a piece on this very issue I published in 2013. If you can’t get into it, drop me a note and I’ll send a copy. ( )

    Abstract: The paper offers a critique of the journey metaphor as a characterisation of the student’s doctoral experience and proposes instead the metaphor of the Quest, a cultural and literary form found in most societies. It argues that the six elements of the Quest identified by W.H. Auden resonate with the contemporary doctoral experience and emphasise the uncertainty involved in research rather than the linearity implied by the journey metaphor.

    1. Oh this is WONDERFUL! Thanks! Auden is one of my poets, and I was thinking of how he and MacNeice use the quest narrative from Browning and Spenser as I wrote this. I’m so glad this work has been done and I’m sorry I missed it before!

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