I often meet post PhD people who are stuck. Even though they are now doctored, they are not over the Big Book.
Some of them are stuck in thinking how they might get something, anything, out of the thesis. A few of these people have just finished and are not sure where and how to start. Others are a way away from the post-viva celebration. They might have already had one or two shots at writing an article. Maybe they’ve even sent something to a journal and it’s come back with a lot of comments and exhortations to rewrite. And the requirements seem like such a lot, and so they put the paper away hoping that at some time in the future they’ll have the energy to revisit it.
Now one big reason for feeling stuck on getting articles out of the thesis is because people are still actually stuck in the thesis. This is not the only reason of course, but it is the one I’m going to talk about in this post.
It takes a long time to put a thesis text together. The writer has to juggle with multiple ideas and themes and findings and not only wrestle them into a logical order, but also create an argument. There is an overall thesis argument, and there is a mini argument made in each chapter. The text itself has to flow and feel coherent, and accordingly the writer spends time attending to the ways in which the reader can be smoothly guided through all of the twists and turns. At the end of all this, both the reader – and the writer – are presented with a complex and unified argument and book. It can seem very hard to undo the text which took so long and so much effort to put together.
So when the time comes to write, many people begin by isolating a single article to do first of all. Well you have to start somewhere, right?
The worst-case scenario is that they try to write the one article which sums up the entire thesis. Now this really is likely to go nowhere. If it took 90-100,00 words to argue the thesis case, it’s going to be pretty hard to jam it into 7,000.
But let’s not take that example. Even when people find they can identify one article, which is only a part of the thesis, to write it still seems as if the entire thesis creeps back in. It all has to be covered, or at least a substantial part of it. It’s impossible to write this bit without covering that bit too and that means that this other section has to be included and… and… before you know it, there’s too many words and the article is nowhere near an end.
The problem here is one of letting go of that entire Big Book that took so long to write, letting go of all those complexities and side issues and all that literature and methodological sophistication.
One strategy therefore is not to think about writing one article with all of its attendant problems of letting go and undoing. Rather, plan right at the start all of the possible articles that could be written. This means that you don’t have to worry about leaving some things out, because you know they will be covered in future articles.
So two steps to letting go.
It’s helpful to start the process of thinking of all of the articles to ask yourself some questions:
• Have I got anything to say about methodology or methods that isn’t already in the literature?
• Did I make a particular theoretical move in the thesis that I haven’t read about yet? Did I combine theories in a new or unusual way?
• Did my literature work reveal any patterns that deserve commentary?
• What was the single most important finding of the thesis? What was the close runner up?
• Was there something that I couldn’t spend as much time on as I wanted because it wasn’t directly germane to the question I was asking?
• Was there something unexpected that happened or that I ‘found’?
• Is there a taken for granted assumption in my area that my research really challenges?
It may also be worthwhile going back to the examiners’ comments, because they might have indicated some potential publishing options too.
Having done this prior thinking, here’s a strategy that seems to work for a lot of stuck people I meet in workshops:
(1) Generate as many possible article topics as you can possibly think of through an initial brainstorm, a serious conversation with a friend or some timed list making.
(2) Sort the list. You could look at three kinds of sorting – those articles that you most want to write, those that people most need to read and those where you already know a journal that would be interested. These lists might of course be the same.
(3) Sit on the lists for a shortish period of time, say two weeks. Then talk through your big list and the sorted lists with a trusted colleague or mentor to decide on a real short list. One of the things to consider here is whether you need to publish something in particular first, in order to build on it for the second and third articles.
Once you’ve got your list of papers, all you have to do is write them, right? Well no. But having a list is a big step forward. You now have a publishing agenda.
In the next post I’ll talk about the publication plan as a strategy for refining the agenda and setting some goals.