Purpose: The paper seeks to propose the adoption of an alternative metaphor to that of the “journey”, currently the most pervasive characterisation for the student's experience of doctoral education.
Design/methodology/approach: The paper adopts a conceptual and rhetorical approach.
Findings: 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.
Social implications: The paper argues that the quest metaphor offers a cross‐cultural basis for both staff and student development activities through which sense can be made of the research experience, student concerns can be surfaced, and potentially difficult issues raised for discussion in an unthreatening way.
Originality/value: The paper is the first to apply the quest as a metaphor for the student's doctoral experience and offers a new way of interrogating that experience which will be of use to those involved in supporting research students.