Navigating the Doctoral Labyrinth: Reflexivity as Transformative Catalyst for Practitioner Doctorate Persistence and Completion

Navigating the Doctoral Labyrinth: Reflexivity as Transformative Catalyst for Practitioner Doctorate Persistence and Completion

Debra D. Burrington, Robin Throne
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6664-0.ch004
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The journey through a practitioner doctorate program to earn the terminal degree has been likened to a labyrinth with its complex maze or a mountain climb with its inherent obstacles and challenges the doctoral scholar must surpass to be successful. Reflexive positionality is a concomitant process which can be used throughout the practitioner doctorate to facilitate the iterative and recursive journey of the scholar-practitioner. Reflexivity facilitates an introspective process to elevate professional practitioners to scholar-practitioners and incorporate a reflexive view to transcend doctoral hurdles, attain the terminal degree, and return to practice to solve societal problems and problems within the discipline. Practitioner doctorate leadership may also be well served to incorporate reflexivity in the pedagogical redesign of the practitioner doctorate to strengthen the development and preparation of these scholar-practitioners.
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  • All that is gold does not glitter

  • Not all those who wander are lost;

  • The old that is strong does not wither,

  • Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

  • ~ J. R. R. Tolkien

There is a quandary within the world of the practitioner doctorate: many people who come to graduate school in a nontraditional educational institution hope to impact a festering problem within their professional domain, or because they yearn to make life better for disadvantaged communities, or for a host of other reasons that call for ‘practice-oriented’ or ‘applied’ research. They chose not to enter a graduate program to acquire a research doctorate; these are practical people who have a passion to “fix” something. Yet, they all too often enter an academic environment that sends them a mixed message. On the one hand, they begin a doctoral program assured they will be supported in developing a research project that will quench their thirst for a practical approach to a gnarly problem in their work or community environment. Once there, however, they are at times met by faculty who have been steeped in a brew of neo-positivist expectations about what counts as research, aligned with a worldview that prizes objectivity and value neutrality, thus starkly biased against – “bias.” Instead, reflexive positionality during the research process becomes an asset in the practitioner doctorate.

Resistance to the embrace of researcher positionality may emanate in large part from the neo-positivist bias in determining and defending what counts as credible research. A side effect of this is that the traditional foundations that prop up the notion that research must be “bias free” reflect an inability and/or a resistance to consider the idea that situated knowledges (Haraway, 1988) and intersubjectivity (Kuper, 2007) bring strength to what is discovered/emerges from our research. Knowledge is a group effort; it is an embodied construction. Bodies are not discrete entities – our being is shared, our knowing is a shared construction made as we act, together. Certainly, there are research traditions and projects that require a level of objectivity. At this writing, in the thick of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, the authors welcome the ‘hard’ science of rigorous clinical trials being deployed to craft antivirals and a vaccine to protect our shared embodiment from sure demise thanks to novel coronaviruses that are smart enough to destroy us. So, yes, there is a role to play for the values of ‘objective science’ expressed through the activities engaged in by neo-positivists searching for some kind of ‘truth,’ but the question must be asked: how does this serve practitioner research, particularly in domains where acknowledgement of researcher positionality is an asset?



In past work, the authors have critically explored the importance of researcher positionality, along with social justice and student affairs scholar Bourke (2014, 2017), especially as to the influence the doctoral research supervisor may have over a graduate-level researcher to articulate researcher positionality prior to conducting empirical research (Throne & Bourke, 2019). More recently, Bourke (2018) highlighted Pacheco-Vega and Parizeau (2018) who stressed the need to consider articulation of researcher positionality from a perspective of methodological praxis more than as a statement of a priori researcher privilege. Thus, Bourke (2018) further noted scholar-practitioners should embrace reflexive positionality as a systematic process that incorporates introspective interrogation of what one knows, what is known, and what one may come to know through engagement with research, practice as well as through the work of others.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Scholar-Practitioner: The concept of scholar-practitioner exists along a continuum where, toward each end of the continuum, scholars and practitioners function in largely segmented roles and settings whereby the boundaries between scholars and practitioners remain relatively impermeable. One is primarily a scholar or primarily a practitioner. The scholar-practitioner exists along the midline of the continuum where the two roles are largely integrated and the boundaries between scholar and practitioner are permeable. In a practitioner doctoral program, this permeation is made possible and often expected in the scholar-practitioner evolutionary nature for doctoral researcher development.

Practitioner Research: Practitioner research is similar to other kinds of research in that it is designed to produce new knowledge, but it typically occurs in a professional/practice context where practice is expected to be ‘evidence-based,’ and the research itself is embedded within a professional practice in the ways purely academic research is not. Practitioner research is fundamentally insider research from within practice and typically a practice-based inquiry expected to produce an original contribution to knowledge as well as practice.

Practice-based research: Problems from professional practice and research engaged to gain new knowledge that has implications or operational significance for that practice or discipline is often referred to as practice-based research or practice-led research. Practice-based research can also refer to empirical research conducted within a practice or workplace setting ( Throne & Bourke, 2019 ).

Reflexivity: Reflexivity is the active awareness and engagement of a researcher, through all phases of the research process, with how she or he engages in sense-making. This includes how one’s particular embodiments (e.g., socioeconomic status; markers of race, gender, religion, sexuality) as well as relations (e.g., with specific communities of scholarship and professional practice, and within society) influence how one makes sense of things ( Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2012 ).

Social Justice Research: Social justice research involves full and equal participation from within the community of research to achieve the objective and seek truth. Social justice researchers engage self-determination, interdependence, initiative, situate themselves as a transformative agent with a commitment to act in solidarity with others ( Throne & Bourke, 2019 ).

Researcher Positionality: Researcher positionality is a necessary process of a principal investigator for critical self-reflection and a determination of self within the social constructs, biases, contexts, layers, power structures, identities, transparency, objectivity, and subjectivities for the viewpoint assumed within the research ( Throne & Bourke, 2019 ).

Practitioner Doctorate: The practitioner doctorate degree is a terminal degree awarded by doctoral programs that have been designed specifically to offer terminal doctoral educations for practicing professionals, in contrast to academic or research doctorates designed for those seeking an academic and/or research career and contribute to the advancement of theory.

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