is academic writing changing?

Just the other day. Just the other day someone asked me if I thought that academic writing was becoming more ‘authentic’. I didn’t really understand what this meant. But then I got it – ‘authentic’ writing was when academic writers no longer had to contort themselves into writing straitjackets. Write as if they have been taken over by some kind of remote, generic writing genie. Forced to write stuffy, distant and excessively formal prose. Conform to a style of academic writing that William Germano often refers to as inert. Instead, the authentic writer could write as if they were more ‘themselves’.

I had to think a bit about my answer. What choices do academic writers now have, I wondered.

It is certainly now possible for academic writers to make poetry, social fiction, narratives and very experimental texts. There are journals that specialise in these kinds of writings, and others that are not entirely closed off to more experimental texts. There are examiners who are happy to see  dissertations written in different genres and media. And you can now buy any number of academic books where writers have played with structure and style. All of these texts now pass the muster as academic because they argue, produce evidence and offer explanations which are connected with other scholarly works, often works that are written in a more conventional register and format.

And many scholars, in and out of the academy and across disciplines, now write for a range of audiences and publications. These writers have had to adjust their writing practices. They learn to switch their writing to suit their purpose and context. For many, this means learning to write in more relaxed ways, using less technical terms and more imaginative examples and categories. They use language, syntax and style tailored for different readers.

However, there are truckloads of academic publications where the writing is more restrained and perhaps constrained. Where changes in academic genres and styles seem not to have made any impression. Now, I haven’t done a formal study of writing genres and styles journals and books. But my hunch, as a regular reader of some of the more conventional journals is tha, even here in the bastions of formal scholarship, there are some signs that writers are loosening up.

Perhaps this is a result – Result!!!- from the relatively recent urgings for academic writers to make their writing clearer. To become more “stylish” as Helen Sword puts it. Perhaps it is because graduate schools pay more attention to writing. Maybe it is also in part the influence of an exponentially increased quantum of writing advice, books, courses, coaches, workshops and retreats. Mea culpa.

Whilet it does seem that those who want to write a touch less formally and/or insert a bit more individuality into their writing are now generally able to do so, you can still find a lot of writing where writers don’t. Won’t. (Can’t?) There’s still enough tortured prose out there for critics to take pot shots at. To write those columns about how academics can’t write. To give out smart-arse prizes for the most obscure and difficult to grasp text. Apologies for the slightly off colour term here, but I can’t think of a better one. 

I’d like to think that the day of the smart arse writing critic and dead academic texts are coming to an end. And that there is enough evidence to suggest that this is true. 

But what do you think? How would you sum up the current state of academic writing? Are the textual experiments just interesting activities in the margins? Or they are one end of a writing practice that is expanding and in flux? Are the various audit practices that exist in various countries pushing people to stay within narrow genres and styles? Or are audit criteria the last stands of disciplinary tribes whose writing practices are under duress? Ghosts of texts and practices past. Or is academic writing just not what it used to be? Do academic writers have more choice than ever before? Are we now taking the craft of writing seriously? 

I’m still thinking about my answer to the question I was asked. Is academic writing becoming more ’authentic’? I’m not sure I know an answer.  

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Posted in good academic writing, Helen Sword, reader, style, style and structure | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

academic writing – from Tiny Text to road map

But wait ! There’s more. In the last post I showed the usual way I develop a piece of writing from tables through graphic design to a Tiny Text.  This post completes the picture. Here I’m using a Tiny Text as a way to plot out a piece of writing The usual caveats apply. This only one strategy. You do you. You don’t have to do me.

The Tiny Text is a structured abstract form that supports the writer – in this case me – to develop the argument and contribution to the point where I can write large. The easiest way for me to explain this is to use an example. So here is an abstract of a real paper co written with my colleague Chris Hall. ( Apologies it’s paywalled, but maybe on research gate…)

The papers in the journal are no more than 6k words – we also had images so we had to write a little less. I wrote the first draft so I got to make some early decisions about the text.

And here it is organised as a Tiny Text.

Now, here is how that Tiny Text turns into the road map for the paper. Yes, in some cases there may be bits that need to be added to get from TT to road map, the Tiny Text doesn’t do everything. But in this example, the Tiny Text works a treat. It covers all that I am going to write. My Tiny Text provides the structure and the order of stuff for the paper.

My next step is to add approximate word counts to each of the sections.  You can see in the example that I have decided that the most words have to be spent – on the results and what they mean. That’s the basis for our contribution. The next biggest word count is allocated to explaining where the research fits with existing literatures and what theoretical resource we will draw on to make sense of the materials we generated. This completes the stuff from which we argue the specific contribution and its implications – the So What and Now What.

And then I do an additional task. Which I won’t bore you with in detail. Once i have my sections and word budget sorted, I go to my diary and find where I have no teaching and meetings and research visits. I then put each section of the paper into a diary slot – I make the time to write the introduction, methods, literature and theory etc. I know from my word budget roughly how much time I will need to write each one. (I could even do these sessions as a pomodoro if I wanted to – but I don’t.)

And I usually add additional time at the start for preparation work. This is when I get the various materials I need for each section together. During the preparation I often turn the Tiny Text into an extended outline – I add in key points as bullets as well as quotes and bits of analysed data. Ive got quite a bit of stuff already assembled. Alternatively I sometimes don’t do pre preparation, but begin the writing for each section with getting the material together. Then I have to allow additional time for each writing slot. They may be two slots each rather than one. 

This process means that when I come to the allocated time to write each section, I have a starting point and most of what I need already to hand. I also diary some follow-on times for revising and a target submission date. 

As important, marking out the times needed for writing each section in my electronic diary means I have planned how to get the paper done. But it also means that nobody else can put a meeting in at those times. And I know if I want to put replace a writing slot in my diary with something else, I have to go back and change all of the remaining slots so that I get the paper written. 

And a final thing. Occasionally I’m not this organised. Sometimes I can just sit down and write a paper because it already seems to be formed in my head. But this is rare. Mostly I use the process outlined here and in the last post to work through the stuff.

Posted in outline, Tiny Text, word budget | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

academic writing – from a bunch of stuff to text outline

Someone asked me the other day how I did my own writing. I get asked this a lot and I don’t often answer – I don’t want you to think that you have to work like me. No. Every academic writer needs to develop their own strategies that work for them. Writing is about making choices. But anyway, I was asked and this time I decided that describing what I do might be another way to talk about choices. So here’s the answer.

You might be surprised to know that while I do work out my ideas through and in writing, I’m not a big personal fan of pomodoros. I don’t really enjoy a good free write. Don’t get me wrong, I know that a lot of people love them and the timed free write is something that really works for them. I’m not against them. And I often suggest them as something to try and I use them sometimes in workshops. As something people should have a go at. Over the years I’ve used timed free writing. But less and less often. By and large I now don’t. And so you will often hear me say that pomodoros are a good writing strategy – but not the only one going. 

I’m generally more of an organiser. A planner. I approach working out what I think and what I’m going to write by gathering a load of stuff together and then developing the material via an organisational tool – or serial tools.

The organiser I use most of all is the table. I love a good table. I really really love a good table. Tables are a very economical way of dealing with a lot of material in a little space. You do of course have to create some way of imposing order on a table otherwise you don’t know how many columns to make. So you have to work on the initial criteria you use. I usually get initial categories from my research question or problem.

There’s always some thinking work to do to design the table. Table tinkering. Table tailoring.

Here’s a table of literatures that I’m working on. I am writing a first draft of a literatures chapter about resistance. You can see my table categories here – they are pretty basic – they are simply alphabetised bibliographic detail (this matches my Endnote), then what is often a cut and paste of bits of the abstract  together with some comment from me – and a third column which categorises the kind of contribution each paper will make to the overall discussion. My third column include purpose (why resist), theory (how resistance has been explained) and definition (what is resistance).

I am about to start reorganising this table around the third column – purpose, theory, definition etc. I ‘ll use the third column to make several new tables, each one about a specific category.  Once you have an initial table and its columns and rows filled up, you can then further sort around key ideas, words or numbers.

But that won’t be where I stop. The table sort has to be further analysed if it is to become the basis of an outline of some description. You could do some free writing here of course. But I draw out the key themes and/or points from my table and then subject them to another form of organisation. 

When I’m doing a literature review, as is the case here, I always use tables to note and sort the texts, and then reach for an organiser to sort out key relationships. 

At this point I generally choose between one of five different graphic forms. And I may use more than one of them – 

  • A web which develops a central idea, its characteristics, and supporting information and evidence. 
  • A tree which develops classifications and shows hierarchies of ideas within categories. This is what I will be doing with the resistance work. I’ll use my initial sort of the table into categories and get the stuff out of table form and into bullet points. (Tree diagrammes are used in software packages such as NVivo, and indeed this sorting process could be done using some software support).
  • A flow diagram which shows  a sequence of events and the various actors/elements and their relationships with each other
  • A daisy which shows what various bodies of work contribute to a central idea
  • Occasionally I use a Venn diagramme if I am working with a small number of elements that overlap. This is helpful I if I want to compare and contrast and show relationships. 
tree diagramme

And yes. Once I have my material graphically organised I could do some pomodoros using the sorted materials as starting points. But I won’t. You could and that would be fine and fab if this works for you. But I‘ll write a structured abstract as a way to develop the road map for the writing to come. I could use a storyboard which shows sequences of events but also allows for the development of an argument thread/narrative arc or I could use a powerpoint. But I’ll use a tiny text. 

And I’ll show you in the next post how the tiny text becomes the road map for the writing.

And please please remember Im not saying this is how to do it. I’m not saying you all have to table then retable then graphic then outline. I’m not arguing the Thomson method is the best or only way. I’m just saying this is one way to get writing, and it may or may not be how you want to work. 

Posted in graphic organisier, literature reviews, organisation for writing, Tiny Text | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

the dictionary is (sometimes) your friend – starting the PhD

If you are doing a PhD it’s a good idea to buy, or find online, a good reliable dictionary. 

Not only doctoral researchers a good dictionary. Most of us use a dictionary rather more than we let on. Just yesterday I reached for my dictionary – it’s rather a hefty tome – to check the spelling of a word. And as I opened it up, I realised that I no longer have to continually look words up when I’m reading. I do still regularly use it as a synonym finder, largely to disrupt writing patterns where I just use the same word over and over. But I used a dictionary a lot – and I mean a lot – when I started my own PhD. 

I wrote a blog post about dictionaries in 2014. The post was about the importance of building a vocabulary through the doctorate and beyond. I wrote about my own early experiences of reading texts where people used words that I had never heard of. I kept a list of these new words – and for some time I learnt one a day. You’ll be relieved to know that I stopped doing that a long time ago and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do it. 

In that old blog post I was concerned with the importance of word choice. This is some of what I wrote – Finding the right words is important for more reasons than just avoiding repetition. Using cliches and very overused terms can actually prevent academic writers from conveying the richness and diversity of place, people and experience. Tired terminology can put readers off, as they don’t know exactly what we mean – we could be anybody, writing about anything. What’s more, being more conscious about word choice helps academic writers, just like any other writers, develop their own style, and their distinctive ‘voice’. Word choice is not all that matters, but it is important.

 I went on to connect the word choices we make with the exercise of academic power. The ways in which we write simultaneously create acceptance within academia, while also potentially alienating other “outside” readers. This post was not a simplistic plea to avoid using “jargon” and to “write clearly”, but rather a pointer to the importance of thinking about who we are writing for. Academic readers who are in the same field as we are expect to see discipline specific concepts and words. Non-specialist readers need explanations for key terms. Writing clearly actually means we have to make different writing choices for different readers. Word use is related to our audience. 

But the words that I often had to look up early in my doctorate generally weren’t disciplinary in nature. They were often verbs or nouns that just aren’t in everyday use. I was a reader whose reading experiences hadn’t included those words. And the dictionary wasn’t always completely helpful. It often took a combination of seeing what the dictionary said as well as looking at the specific use of the word in a sentence – I had to interpret what the author was trying to say. Using the context of the writing and the clue provided by the dictionary, I could usually work out the specific and intended meaning if I had both clues. (But oh my, did this slow me down.)

I’ve not kept a lot of those words in my own writing lexicon. While I could still trot out a fairly dense bit of academic prose if the situation ever arose (REF perhaps), my goal is not to deliberately write obscurely. I am definitely of the if there is a choice of appropriate words here then I’Ill choose the one that is most familiar position. However, I can still read a densely written text where there are less familiar words used.  But I do find myself asking why, when there is a choice of terms, writers want to choose the more obscure. 

One answer to that wondering lies in another blog post. It dates from 2017. And it’s about Howard Becker (in his book Writing for Social Scientists) and why newer academic writers try to sound “classy”. In that post – and here again – is his comment. 

Relatively new academics, Becker says know plain English but don’t want to use it to express their hard-earned knowledge. Remember the student who said, “Gee, Howie, if you say it that way it sounds like something anyone could say.” If you want to convince yourself that the time and effort spent getting your degree are worth it, that you are changing in some way that will change your life, then you want to look different from everyone else, not the same. That accounts for a truly crazy cycle in which students repeat the worst stylistic excesses the journals contain, learn that those very excesses are what makes their work different from what every damn fool knows and says, write more articles like those they learned from, submit them to journals whose editors publish them because nothing better is available (and because academic journals cannot afford expensive copy editing) and thus provide the raw material for another generation to learn bad habits from. (p. 41)

Becker’s advice is to avoid the excesses of academic language. Use the terms you must in order to meet the expectations of your audience, but be choosy about whose writing you emulate. 

I couldn’t agree more. There is a terrible temptation to try to “academic up” your writing when you first start. That’s very understandable. its about becoming identity work. Becoming doctor.

However, getting unhelpful feedback which says you don’t sound academic doesn’t help anyone at the start of their doctorate. This kind of feedback doesn’t usually mean that you need to choose more arcane language. It usually means be less opiniated/less polemical, and be measured about the case you are making. More evidence, more careful analysis. If you ever get told that you don’t write academically, do ask what that means and ask for examples of what academic writing looks like and ask for a conversation where you can compare what you do with the example. Don’t reach for the dictionary!

But because not everybody you will read has got Becker’s message about not having to “sound academic”, you may still need a dictionary to decipher some of the writing you encounter. A dictionary can help in these circumstances, although you may still have do a bit of detective work to make complete sense of what you are reading. Bur do remember that while the dictionary can be your companion during the doctorate and beyond, it is not a guide to building your own lexicon. Your specific academic writing vocabulary comes from your discipline – and from considering your readers. 

Photo by Rob Hobson on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing voice, dictionary, Howard Becker, starting the PhD | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

route recalculation – starting the phd

Expectations are a funny thing. Particularly when it comes to the doctorate. On the one hand you want to anticipate the smoothest and most interesting route through the PhD. But focusing only on the dream doctorate can leave you shocked and miserable if things don’t go to plan. On the other hand, too much concentration on what might go wrong can make you risk averse at best, and unable to act at worst – and wondering why you’re bothering with a doctorate at all. 

It’s important to find the balance between head in the sand optimism and cowering in a corner gloom and doom. To that end, it may be helpful to know a predictable obstacle. Here goes. There are often changes to your initial plans. Yep. All of those things you write about what your research will be like. They may not happen. But don’t despair, bumpy journeys are rarely a complete disaster. 

Take your research design for instance. You spend a substantial amount of time at the start of the PhD planning your research. While most of the research methods books suggest that once you have your research plan all you have to do is to carry it out, this is often not the case. Now I’m not talking here about the experiment that fails, or the replication study that cant replicate. These apparent failures are often important in terms of the learning that comes from working out what went “wrong”. I am talking about the unforeseen event that happens which wasn’t in your original thinking. 

Say for example – you can’t recruit enough people to be in your project or you can’t recruit enough of the people you want or you can’t get the right mix of people

Or the people in charge of the places where you planned to research are having a bad day or bad year and just won’t let you in

Or the person you were partnering with decides to withdraw

Or the methods that you were using to try to get information don’t seem to lead to anything particularly interesting

Or there are some serious ethical issues that arise in the middle of your project which make you think you ought to change what you’re doing.

Or something unexpected and interesting turns up and you think it might be really important to follow it up rather than stick to your original plan

Or there are rolling train strikes and you can’t get to where you need to be at the right times.

Or there is a pandemic.

Of there is an institutional problem that is really disruptive.

Or.. or.. or…

There are numerous other problems or events you might face during your research. 

And they might be of sufficient magnitude and/or difficulty and/or significance that you have to rethink. While you can’t anticipate exactly what these problems might be, you can get begin the doctorate with a mindset where you are not surprised, devastated or unable to respond if something unexpected and untoward does happen. 

Now I’m not suggesting here that you need to think of bumpy research problems as exciting challenges that will bring loads of unanticipated benefits to your results. You may be the kind of person who does think like this. But chances are you will be initially appalled/aghast/worried/alarmed/angry/terrified/scared/sad/irritated – all of these, or a combination or several one after the other. And that’s perfectly rational and OK.

Yes, you may eventually come to think about the undesirable happening that stymied your lovely initial research plan as a good thing. You may see the positives in retrospect. Or you may always see the obstacles as unwanted and a nuisance. 

But the key thing about the unexpected hurdle is that you have to deal with whatever you are feeling now – and then figure out a defensible way over, under or around the problem. A way that still allows you to address the initial question you were interested in. A way that allows you to keep to roughly your ideal timetable. A way that produces some research that is worthy of a doctorate. Even if you have to undertake a dramatic redesign, as happened during the pandemic, all is very rarely lost. 

Unfortunately, methods texts and courses often don’t come with a ready-made route-recalculator. Nor do they have a section at the back of the book called trouble shooting your research, although at least some of them really ought to IMHO. 

But you can get some help in the sorting out stages. You probably won’t be the only one to have ever faced this particular difficulty. It’s important to get some reassurance that this is not all about you or your bad luck or worse still your lack of forethought, but is rather the way of research. And help may be at hand – your particular case might seem unique but it may well fall into a common pattern where there are already some principles to guide your decision-making. And even some known options. 

So where to look for assistance. Here’s three starting points.

  • First, your supervisor(s). A core aspect of your supervisor’s job is to help you solve problems. They have done research themselves, are familiar with the literatures and with your research goals and design. Your supervisor won’t tell you what to do, but their job is to support you to work through the options. 
  • Second, your peers. It’s important to find a cohort of PhDers who are likely facing issues of their own but who are also committed to peer support. They can provide emotional nurturing as well as brain storming possibilities and thinking through advantages and disadvantages of particular actions. 
  • Third, dedicated support groups. There are now loads of online forums devoted to support and information sharing. These can be surprisingly helpful. Searching the socials using terms such as PhD, doctorate, academic, research, methods will yield a lot of possibilities. And do ask your friends and more generally on the socials what accounts to follow.

And not to forget. If your research difficulties stem from some kind of institutional problem, then both peers and support groups may be crucial but not enough. Issues such as endemic racism or sexism require collective action – you may or may not choose to take this option. But most grad schools offer some kind of student representation and fora where systemic issues can be aired.

So – don’t drop your bundle when the unexpected happens. Sigh, scream, sob but also know that the best laid research plans often go amiss. And know that it’s important once the difficulty occurs to take charge of the direction of your research.

Research troubles happen to most of us, a lot of the time. It’s OK. It’s part of the process. Researchers are problem solvers, trouble shooters, inventive as well as resourceful when the road gets rocky. We expect the unexpected and aren’t thrown off course when it happens. 

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Posted in doctoral research, emotional research, research agenda, research as process, research design, research methods, research plan | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

the bibliomemoir – a musing

The bibliomemoir is a thing. The bibliomemoir is an autobiographical account of a life told through a discussion of books. Books that mattered to the writer and are connected to key events in their life.

I have three bibliomemoirs on my bookshelf – Francis Spufford’s The child that books built, A life in reading, Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, and Marilyn Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books. Not surprising purchases for an educator who spent a lot of time trying to encourage students to read. Each of these three books not only told me about their writers. They also invited me to recollect the books that I read as a child and why they were important to me. I learnt about books I hadn’t encountered and could perhaps follow up. I thought again about why children read and what they get from reading.

The bibliomemoir promotes and celebrates the importance of reading and the pleasures and provocations of deep engagement with texts.

There are loads of bibliomemoirs now in print. There’s a list of 100 over on good reads, and I am sure that there are truckloads more not in this selection. And other lists. While publishers are clearly chortling with glee at the emergence of yet another niche market, there is of course the question of why people buy and read books about other people’s reading. Why not just read the books for themselves?

Lucy Scholes, in an essay in the Financial Times, suggests that there’s an element of nosiness in being interested in other people’s reading. She says that a bibliomemoir is an open invitation to scour the shelves of another person’s library. She is prone to peering over someone’s shoulder in the Tube to get a glimpse of the screen of their e-reader, or immediately scanning bookshelves when I visit a friend’s house for the first time.

I am pretty sure that at least some of you recognise this nosy behaviour. And do it too. I certainly feel seen. I look at the book shelves in my colleague’s offices whenever I get a chance. I don’t mind being left for a moment or three while someone deals with a phone call or an urgent admin task if it means I get the opportunity to browse their book collection. I am always interested to see what books we have in common, as well as what books they have on their shelves that I have never heard of or never read. A quick flick through a book new to me before they get back is generally enough to decide whether this gap needs to be remedied.

And of course, seeing what people have on their book shelves does tell you something about their intellectual history. What could you tell about me from my shelves I hear you ask? My book shelves groan with books by and about Bourdieu as well as a heap of geographical and cultural studies titles. There’s also lots on research methods and academic writing. Pretty predictable. The collection of picture books about starting school and young adult fiction about schools is also not unexpected. There might be a few things that surprise, but not a lot. My books are a pretty good indication of my academic history and concerns.

However, reading shelves doesn’t do the work of the bibliomemoir. If you just looked at what I have read and what I am reading you won’t know which books matter most , when and why. You can’t see what are my “inner library”, as Pierre Bayard calls it. You need a bibliomemoir to find out what books really count.

I’m struggling to remember a book in my discipline that does the work of the bibliomemoir. There are some research memoirs which talk about books and some books about academic writing which talk about exemplary texts. And I can think of research projects which have examined what texts are used most in particular fields. But I suspect that the academic bibliomemoir is not yet a thing. (Although maybe some blogs do come closer than other text forms? )

Is there a place for the academic bibliomemoir? I’m not sure really, but I suspect that if loads of us like to look at office bookshelves, then there might be some place for the genre. If I asked you to talk about what books have been important to you in becoming a researcher I am sure that you would have answer. And it would be an answer in which life, research and texts were tangled together. So perhaps there is some room for the academic bibliomemoir after all. If it went beyond the idiosyncratic and narcissistic to something that was of more general interest.

Mmm. Something to think more about. And oh yes, I do think that I am possibly working myself into a new project!

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Posted in bibliomemoir, books, library, reading | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

setting goals – starting the PhD

If you’re just starting the PhD, you goal is to finish. Finish. Get it done. Get yourself across the stage to receive your testamur. Wear the floppy hat and gown. Change the signature on your email. Finally a Doctor.

Makes sense doesn’t it? That’s your ultimate goal. Why start something that you don’t intend to complete?  It does still surprise me that many of the PhDers I speak to don’t appear to have finishing as their goal. They don’t let themselves dream about the end point. They don’t imagine themselves as Dr Expert. It’s as if thinking about  being Dr-add-surname-here makes it less possible somehow. It’s like a dream that is destined to never come true. Don’t step on the crack in the pavement just in case. It’s better to leave it to fate. 

But let’s say that you do have finishing as your big goal. You are clear that this is what its all about. so Yes. Yay. You know where your’e going. But also no. Thats not enough.

Focussing on the end point is one thing. Focussing on the things you need to do to get there is another. An important another. A crucial another which is perhaps what the people who can’t let themselves think of the end point are hanging their hopes on. Hoping that concentrating on what happens each day will get them there.

But should your goal be an either or? End point or process? Can’t you have one eye on the end point and another on what you do every day? Well of course, yes . That seems pretty obvious. But how do you do this is more the case. There are lots of opinions out there about how to take the long and a short view of the doctorate at the same time. And to get you started, here’s my take.

While everyone is different, and not all things work for everyone, there’s a point in having several goals on the go at once – goals that work at different time scales.  

Goal Scale One. Having an eye on completion creates the time frame within which you need to work. Finishing might be tied to finances from a scholarship, to unpaid leave from work, to the completion time set by your institution. You need to get the job done before you fall in a hole. Or finishing might just be tied to what seems to you to be feasible. it looks as if this time frame is possible, and other people do it in this time so I will too.

But knowing the timing of the finishing line does other work. A defined completion point creates a horizon, a line of possibility, a destination. At this time in the future you will have developed a new aspect of your self. However, this future-you needs current-you to take charge of what happens in order to become a reality. 

Goals Scale Two. Once you have the end point sorted, it’s possible and desirable to understand how the doctorate proceeds and the big milestones you need to reach along the way. These are different in different countries and doctoral traditions. In North America, the doctorate is typically much longer than elsewhere. In the UK for instance, the three year full time doctorate is usually understood as a a first year of getting the research organised and approved, a second year of library, laboratory or field work and a final year devoted to analysis and writing. There are generally institutional hoops to be jumped along the way too. And of course there is an additional fourth full time year available if you go over time.

Now, having a sense of how the PhD unfolds allows you to set goals related to the process that you are in. But the goals you set may not exactly match the taken-for-granted annual calendar. They’ll be particular to you and your project. You may be able to start on the library or laboratory or field work in the first year for instance. And I encourage the PhDers I work with to finish their empirical work well before the end of the second year to leave themselves more time to do the analysis and text work – this almost always takes longer than you think. 

But you still need to break things down much further. Set even smaller goals.

Goals Scale Three. If you are doing field work or laboratory work you are likely to have a detailed timeline for this part of your doctorate. But what about the rest? What about the first and final years?

I imagine some of you are wondering whether you really need to go into the micro-level of what you do every day and every week. Especially if you haven’t had to work like this in the past. The answer is of course it depends – but it’s still  a “yes, most likely yes” from me. Having short-term goals can be very helpful at the outset of the doctorate to get yourself into routines – you build a habit of writing and reading regularly. Short term goals are even more important in the thesis-writing stage when you have to produce multipole iterations of large numbers of words in order to reach your overall submission goal. 

It’s not at all uncommon for PhDers to set themselves daily writing and/or reading goals, or weekly targets. Of course, some people find a daily goal pretty oppressive. It works for others. Find out what works for you.

There are multiple types of goals – text related, time related, task related. You need to work out what is needed when. You may need to vary your goals as you go along, depending how you are feeling and the part of the doctorate you are doing. It’s good to set goals and also to revisit and refresh them.

Once you have nested goals in your mind – end, medium and short term – it’s pretty useful to put them into some kind of diarised form. There’s a load of ways to do this – use a Gannt chart for the big picture, a yearly calendar for the middle level milestones. You can use a bullet journal of some kind to combine middle level and weekly/daily goals. Whiteboards. Post-its. Online reminders.

If’s often helpful to se the doctorate as a project – so take a look at the project management literatures to see how what is done there. But you’ll also find a load of advice just about goal setting and planning. And various hacks that can help.

And your institution might well offer some workshops. Your supervisor will have some ideas. And you can get a lot of information by asking people further ahead in the PhD about what they do – and don’t – do. And there will be coaching and regular reading writing and support groups that you can join – these can go a long way to assisting you to set out and meet your goals. 

But goals. You need some. And they need to be practical and achievable. They also need to be adjustable and flexible because, well, because life happens. And they need to work for you. As always, what works for someone else may not work for you. But it also might, so it’s always worth finding out about available options. So do take the time when you start your doctorate to investigate how people manage their time and get to the floppy hat stage.

You’ll continue to work on goals throughout your doctorate. But it’s well worth getting your head around the timescales and shape of the years to come right now. 

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

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writing a lot – starting the PhD, and finishing it

When you write, you must write a lot, but that does not mean you will publish a lot, which means that when you are writing, or when you have finished writing, it might be that no one knows that you are, or have been, writing. It might be that no one particularly cares that you are, or have been, writing. Or not.

That’s Hayley Singer writing about creative writing. But she could be writing about any kind of writing. Academic writing even. Academics write a lot, but it’s not all written for anyone else to read.

During the doctorate you will write a huge amount. Much, much more than the total number or words in your thesis. Right from the start.

You start writing as soon as you start thinking about approaching a supervisor – you make notes and private jottings about your ideas for a worthy project. Through writing and rewriting and rewriting, these private texts become ready for the particular reader you have in mind. The words are made to work. Your initial approach must explain your ideas as well as persuade and interest your potential reader/supervisor. 

This process – private writing converted via multiple rewritings to something tailored for particular readers, written for a particular purpose and with a particular result in mind – carries on throughout the doctorate and beyond. 

Private writings are always about making sense of what you are reading, hearing, seeing, thinking. You make notes of the various texts that are pertinent to your topic. You keep a formal research journal or a reading journal or .docs where you store possible ideas. Or a file where you just keep track of how you’re feeling and responding to the doctoral process.

Writing to make sense means you devote a specific time to it. While writing is always incidental, it is good if you can carve out a regular writing slice in your day, or night.

You may be working towards or already have a regular writing time where you sit down and write each day, or nearly each day. You may also find it helpful to have some add-ons to this regular writing habit too. You can talk with a trusted companion before you write, not all the time, but a regular writing oriented chat. You might be one of those people who generates a lot of text via participating in writing groups or through SUAW sessions or your own timed writing sprints.

Whatever your choice of regular writing processes, you will end up with a load of words.  

Making sense of what you are thinking and doing doesn’t stop when you start to send words out into the world to readers other than yourself. Every time you write you clarify a little more what you want to say – that’s your intention. You aren’t just recording. You are actively thinking through the writing. Through selecting. Through choosing categories and terms. Through interpreting texts. Through translating the thoughts of others into your own words.

And because doctoral work – any scholarly work – requires sustained deep thinking, you have to write all the time – and do a lot of rewriting.

Most dissertations get rewritten several times. As do journal articles and books. (Blog posts maybe less so!). When I look at my file for the most recent co-authored book, I see six formal drafts before the submitted manuscript. But each chapter had previously been several chunks and tiny texts (abstracts) before being compiled into a first draft. There are probably more like ten or eleven writing stages for each submitted chapter. Indeed, I can see that we had at least three versions of a book structure map before we even started on the abstract and chunk stages. So loads of words before we even got to something we could see as chapters.

This number of drafts is pretty common. Much the same happens with doctoral thesis writing/rewriting. Expect loads of versions and iterations. If you are starting the doctorate and you want to finish it, then it is as well to get your head around the reality of writing a lot.

And writing a lot, as Hayley Singer suggests, without it necessarily going anywhere to anyone else, let alone being published. Writing just for you. Writing to make sense.

This is not depressing. Academic writing is an integral part of scholarly work. Trying to separate out the writing from the rest of our work is likely trying to remove a spider from its web. While webs exist in many forms, spiders need their webs in order to live. OK, so most spiders don’t actually make webs and don’t need them to live… so yes, it’s not a great metaphor. But go with it. Just imagine the minority of spiders that spin webs, and then you get the point. Scholars can’t get by without writing. 

Writing is a habit. Writing is routine. Writing is not extraordinary. It is simply the way we do our scholarly work. 

Photo by Jason Gardner on Unsplash

If you get a moment, do follow the link to read Hayley Singer’s essay. It’s beautifully written and there’s an extraordinary account of how she wrote her PhD while bedridden.

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unlearning who you are and what you know? starting the doctorate

No-one arrives at a doctorate as a blank slate. Everyone brings with them particular histories – we have life experiences and personal pathways which are classed, raced, gendered; work experiences and sometimes long professional careers; as well as educational histories. Formal educational histories of new PhDers are generally strongly disciplinary and focused on academic success in lower degrees.

These histories do not always seamlessly morph into the doctorate. It is as well to understand the potential for uneasiness between what you have experienced and understood before the PhD, and how it sits with the doctoral process. I am about to generalise mightily here, but bear with me.

There is now plenty of research evidence to suggest that universities have not moved as far away from their elite origins as they might. Despite their official recognition of ‘equity and diversity’, universities still tend to be (variously) hostile environments for those who have gained entry, despite the odds against them. And people who are “non traditional” often feel different, out of place.

The feeling of being an outsider does not go away simply because you have got as far as starting a doctorate – although most people in doctoral programmes feel somewhat off balance and as if they are becoming someone else during the long and intensive process. However, the outsider-ness borne of class, race, gender, sexuality, neurotypicality and able-ness is different from, and added into, the challenges inherent to the doctorate.

The research on experiences of being and feeling an outsider in the university points to subtle expectations that you will become someone else. These expectations often have nothing to do with your academic competence. They are more about the ways in which you speak and act, your tastes and non-academic pursuits and your familiarity with particular people and places.

Do you have to unlearn these things? No of course not. Are there pressures for you to do so? Well often, yes.

If you’re reading this, some of you will wonder if I am talking about outersiderness from reading the research. The answer is yes, but not entirely. When I first went to university, women were in a minority (a third in my case) and there was a small group who came from state schools (about 10% at my university at the time) and even fewer from families that were categorised as working class. That was me – woman, state school, working class. Mine was the first generation in our extended family to go to university. I do know first hand what it means to have to fit in to a very different environment from the one you are used to. It was all very disorienting and I would certainly have dropped out if I hadn’t found other people like me pretty quickly.

It is worth thinking about how much these questions of outsider ness might matter to you, and where you might find others who are in similar situations. They may be in your institution, or beyond.

Feeling out of place mattered to me a lot as an undergraduate. However, in the doctorate what mattered more were the ways in which my professional knowledge counted.

People who come into the university as mature students – lots of life experience- and later career – already highly competent professionals – not only have experiences but also knowledges based in practice. As opposed to life experiences, where the challenge is about refusing to be stigmatised and about retaining those things that are core to identity, the challenge for professionals is how to bring professional knowings together with codified scholarly knowledges.

Within universities, there is a strong tendency to act as if academic knowledges are more legitimate than those developed in the field. But most professionals who do doctorates don’t want to abandon their professional understandings. They want to add to what they already know and can do. It is of course important to look critically at professional understandings, just like any other body of knowledge, but it is equally important not to deny them.

Those who teach on professional doctorates are often very aware of the knowledges that people bring with them, and want to find ways to avoid ignoring them. They want to find ways to widen what counts as scholarly knowledges and see the inclusion of professional insights and understandings as important. They do this with varying success, often against university cultures and structures.

And yes, I’ve been this mature postgraduate too. But I didn’t have to unlearn what I knew from my long career in order to do research. There were many ways in which my professional experience helped in my doctorate. I didn’t need to read about the development of national policy and the histories of educational change – I’d sat on numerous relevant committees and already had the books and documents on my book shelves. I didn’t need to sweat about making contacts with people and places – I already had great networks and street cred. I asked questions about issues that I knew from my own experiences mattered, even though they weren’t a highlight in the literatures (budgets, fundraising, timetables). My supervisor understood this, saw these as strengths, and let me go my own way.

Other professionals tell similar stories to mine. If supervisors and university teachers understand the value of professional understandings, then they can help to minimise the potential conflict and feelings of infantilisation that come from being treated, by the institution, as a novice/empty vessel to be filled up. But recognition of the value of professional knowing needs to go further.

Destinations and intentions matter. Many mature PhDers don’t need career advice. They aren’t doing the doctorate to get a job. They already have one. They are studying for other reasons. As it happened, I did do the doctorate so I could switch career from schools into higher education. Other people don’t do this and want to stay in their professional practice. There is still a dominant and unfortunate tendency to see this as a lesser choice – an unhappy reframing of the hierarchy of theory and practice.

If you are starting the PhD and are concerned either about losing identity and feeling like an outsider, or about how to work with professional knowledges, there are things to read and places where you can discuss these kinds of questions as you start. It is worth doing a search on facebook and twitter to look for networks. Ask on the socials for recommendations – linking people and giving information is a key attribute of platforms like twitter.

And rather than list only the support groups and networks that I know, perhaps if you have particular groups you find helpful during the doctorate and beyond, you might put them in the comments. 

Photo by REGINE THOLEN on Unsplash

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starting the doctorate – finding good advice

It’s that time of year. Across the world potential new Doctors have rejoiced. They’ve been accepted by the university of their choice. They are now getting their heads and lives geared up for a new intellectual adventure.

I usually write a few posts for new doctoral researchers right about now – you can find them if you search starting the PhD. Or just click the link here.

I’m not the only one who writes about beginning a doctorate of course. There is a lot of stuff out here in blog-land that is very helpful for those just embarking on the doctoral “journey”. And I’m afraid there is also some advice that might not be so helpful. So I thought that I might start this year’s posts on doing a doctorate by reflecting on the proliferation of advice – advice dedicated to all the enthusiastic, excited and ever so slightly nervous new PhDers. 

Let’s face it. You will probably read and hear a lot about how hard the PhD is. And the various troubles that PhDers experience. This is unfortunately all true. But it’s not automatic that the PhD is awful. I’ve been asked on various occasions why there is so much about doctoral difficulties and told that it’s off putting. That’s something that concerns me, as I’m in the advice game too.

I understand that hearing about possible hard times may not be what you want to hear at the outset of your PhD or prof doc. You may find it extremely tiresome to be starting out on several years worth of a higher degree where the odds seem stacked against you having a clear run. I am sure that many of you ask, Is it always so tricky? 

Well no, it’s not. Some people do breeze through. So do you really want to know that some people sail through their PhDs? That many people find the doctoral experience really stimulating? Challenging yes, but also at the same time rewarding and enjoyable? That some people finish under not over time? That some people get on well with their supervisors/ committees? Yes that is actually true.

But perhaps you are someone who does want to know about the possible problems you might face during the PhD. Perhaps forewarned is the best way for you to approach the PhD. Perhaps knowing what could happen helps you to take steps to avoid or minimise risk? 

I am sure most people do want to understand what you can do to stay mentally and physically well – and I’ll deal with that in the next post. But this is not the same as getting immersed in the stories of the terrible experiences that some people have had. Do you really want these stories now? I suspect that different people want different kinds of advice right at the start.

So this means being somewhat discriminating about the things that you choose to read and follow on social media. it’s good to think about the kinds of advice that you normally find helpful. 

  • Do you have an actuarial sensibility – you like to know the risks so that you can think about what you can do to avoid them and what will be of assistance if they happen?
  • Are you a risk taker who believes that thinking positively, having a strong sense of self-belief and agency are crucial to success -and that part of this is dealing with difficulties when and if they happen? So there’s no point in dwelling on possible difficulties now. Better to approach the PhD in an optimistic frame of mind.
  • Or are you someone who is in-between these two ends of the spectrum – you’d like to take some precautions and be pro-active now. Do you want to be prepared at least in part for some of the more common/likely postgraduate scenarios?

Understanding yourself is a key to sorting out what advice to seek out and what to take seriously. Understanding yourself is a big part of research all the time. not just at the start – that’s another post coming up – and it is certainly useful to have a think about what you, as opposed to anyone else, want to know and do about the PhD as you begin. 

Because there’s a plethora of advice it’s good to get into the habit of checking out available sources and resources. There are now a load of people whose job it is to offer support and advice to postgraduate researchers. You do need to consider how trustworthy these courses and resources are. 

Some sources of advice and support will be employed by your university or other institutions. Now. Here’s the thing. Just  because something comes from a university doesn’t mean it is automatically going to be helpful. Apologies colleagues, but it’s true. And just because something is in a book doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be great either. There’s a lot of bad and conservative writing advice out there, and a lot of misleading advice about research conduct. 

Other advice comes from people who are literally in the advice and support business. Just because someone is a business doesn’t mean that they are shonky and only in it for the money. There are some great coaches and highly professional support services available to doctoral researchers now.

So do look for CVs, where you can see what people have done and learnt. Check for credible recommendations and not just hyperbolic endorsements. Many institutions and self-employed people offer free taster materials which allow you to see how their resources work for you and your particular needs. And do watch out for the snake oil salesperson with their I-did-it-my-way-and-it’s-the-only-way pitch. 

It’s helpful too to remember that what you need at the start of the PhD may not be what you need as you go along. Advice, support and resources are not only different for different people in different disciplines, they also change as the research and the researcher develop. so take note of things that dont seem relevant now, but might be good to turn to later on. Just in case, perhaps.

Crap detectors at the ready then, as Howard Rheingold would say. Once you are aware of what kind of advice you prefer and would find useful, and what is available, you can take full advantage of all of the material online, face to face and in hard copy in libraries and graduate schools. You don’t have to do this doctorate entirely alone.

You might begin by looking at the blogs featured on the Whisper Collective website, and those regularly republished by the LSE Impact Blog and the blog posts on Insider Higher Ed.

Photo by Thea on Unsplash

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