the personal narrative in the thesis introduction

So you are going to write a personal narrative as the introduction to your thesis. Not everyone has – or wants – to do this. But some do, or they want to. But in some disciplines – and places – it seems to be almost mandatory to begin the thesis with a few pages which are about yourself. In other places and disciplines to do so would be unthinkable.

Why do people want – or are required – to write a personal narrative? Well there are at least three reasons – any or all of:

  • The personal narrative is intended to locate the researcher so that examiners can see how the researcher’s actual life and/or work experience might influence the research, for better or worse. The narrative enacts the (epistemological) position that no research is neutral and all research is written from somewhere, and where matters. Of course, understanding something about the researchers’ experiences can raise questions for examiners about potential blank and blind spots and the need for researcher reflexivity.
  • The personal narrative is intended to show how the research question arises from the personal life or professional work experience of the researcher. In applied fields for instance it is not uncommon for doctoral researchers to find the mandate for their research in their professional context. They know from their direct experience that a particular kind of research would be valuable and useful and so their thesis reports a piece of work which does just this. And researchers do often end up researching something that is directly related to their life experience. They have a child or friend with… or they have experienced… Alternatively, the research may be a continuation of a scholarly interest formed earlier.
  • The personal narrative is intended to lay the ground work for a claim for professional knowledge. In applied fields, and often in professional doctorates, people draw on their own experience as part of the data. For instance a headteacher might use their experience of school budgeting to advantage, a midwife use the need to work both emotionally as well as on the body, and so on. (This is sometimes called working with Mode 2 knowledge as the knowing arises from experience in work settings or working on applied problems).

It is helpful to understand the reasons for writing a personal narrative as these will explicitly guide the choice of what information to include and exclude. No introductory narrative will be comprehensive – it’s not a biography, but a carefully chosen set of information put together in narrative form.

Once upon a time I dreamt of being a researcher...

Once upon a time I dreamed of being a researcher…

And the introductory narrative must be more than just a story. We all have stories that we tell to ourselves about who we are, why  we got to be where we are and why particular events and people are important. These are not dissimilar to the stories that we are told by our research participants – they are not “authentic”, but are a kind of fabrication- not false, but constructed to tell a particular story. The thesis personal introductory narrative needs to be more reflective –  and scholarly –  and situated – than these stories we usually tell ourselves.

So we might say to friends for example – I am the first person in my family to get to university. But we might write in our introductory thesis narrative – I grew up at a time when it was possible for young people to enter higher education in larger numbers than ever before. I, and some of my peers, were the first in our families to go to university.  We might say – My parents wanted me to do well and so I did.  We might  write this or perhaps – Because my parents belonged to that section of the working class that believed strongly in the power of education, and regretted not being able to go further in their own schooling, I was positioned at the outset to take advantage of the opportunities that schooling offered. And so on.

It’s important in the introductory thesis personal narrative to hold what we usually say to ourselves up to some critical scrutiny and to make the connections to the following research very clear. Don’t leave it up to the examiners to guess these connections.

Just to show you what I mean here are a couple of paragraphs from my own PhD which looked at the changes in South Australian schools after a major national poverty funding programme was stopped. The introduction to the thesis begins with a brief historical snapshot of schools in Australia and then says something about the particular poverty reform programme that was abandoned. I then go on to write about myself. I trace my own work history and the way it was tangled up with the particular programme in question and then say:

I have lived in the educational, political, social and cultural changes of the postwar period, lived in the struggles for equity and the permanent improvement of schooling for working class children and young people. I have not been the central figure in these events, but I have been there. My identity, my sense of self, is therefore strongly connected with the location of this research text, not only geographically, but also in its politics. This is no disinterested piece of scholarship but rather is another phase in an ongoing career. This research grows from my commitment to social justice and an abiding anger at the ways in which particular classed, raced and gendered students do not benefit from their schooling, whereas other students who are already privileged seem to gain even greater benefits.

While I am unequivocal about the axiological positioning of this research, I am also alert to the dangers that such a ‘will to truth’ and insider solipsism might bring. Even in this brief introduction I have used terms that are hardly innocent bystanders – words such as class, gender, race, advantage, justice and education. Both my story, and the troubled lexicon of sociology, are subtexts in this research.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that you follow this as a model. There are things about these two paragraphs that I wish I could rewrite. Darn it, I can’t.  So don’t copy it please. But I hope this exposure of my former self does serve to illustrate one of very many ways in which a researcher can connect their personal narrative with their research, signaling as they do that they also know the potential problems that might arise for their research from this tangle. You need to find your own way to do this –  but you do need to do it if you are personal narrative bound.

The personal narrative as thesis introduction needs to work for you and not to present you as someone who might as well be telling a tale in the pub to their mates. The narrative needs to serve a purpose and show you as a reflective situated scholar.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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7 Responses to the personal narrative in the thesis introduction

  1. Styles and academic (fashions) conventions change, Pat, and as you so correctly note, any introductory foray into the realm of locating the researcher has to work. It has to work, not just for the writer, but also as a contribution that persuades the examiners. Reflexivity has become an ‘OK’ thing to weave into a thesis but I’m bound to say that from the innards of a Psychology Department in the early 1990s, I was seen as something of a deviant (in psychological terms you understand) because not only did I use a mixed methods approach for gathering data, but I also used the first person singular whenever I needed to emphasise or underscore a point I was writing about.

    My approach, at that time, was not the done thing but over the years, it has became quite acceptable. The use of I was a way of placing the writer/researcher at the core of an academic argument – the proprietor so to speak.

    Now, though, people use advanced organisers far more extensively than even you did in your thesis: they say what they will be doing and then they do it. Such a strategy was not encouraged in the early 1990s and I guess in time, current conventions of allowing “…I will…” may inevitably shift yet again. But the important point, and one you that you make, is that the personal narrative has to be scholarly because it is, after all, but a part of an assessment tool that will be appraised by three appointed examiners. And only one of those chosen three should be a first time examiner.

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    • pat thomson says:

      I think in some Psych Departments this would still not be acceptable so you were clearly a trail blazer in this area in your discipline. And… sorry if I wasn’t clear – the question, anticipation of argument and the outline of the thesis all come after the personal narrative if there is one. This is either as a separate chapter if the narrative is particularly lengthy, or as separate sections if it’s quite short. The narrative of course doesn’t substitute for any of these. The introductory chapter often concludes with what I call the Outline of the thesis to come.

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      • Yes, I agree with you, Pat, on all sorts of planes. I was not so much a trail-blazer but an obstinate researcher who had something to say in what I know would be the most appropriate way. They changed the rules for appointing examiners at the UNE after one of them, a psych person from UQ, could not grasp the possibility of mixed methods but that’s another story. Many of my own students have included in their first chapter, the kind of personal scene and person introducing narrative you spoke of and frankly, I encourage that. And yes, it must be pertinent. As well, the traditional outline is always included.

        As a throwaway comment, I’m back in Australia doing a one year stint at the UNSW trying to morph academics into becoming teachers who can engage their students. One of my kids had twins so we decided to leave our research retreat at Woodhill Part for the year and help them out with their premature babies so a job at UNSW became a very convenient way of doing that. Any rate, my point is that at a colloquium for Education PhD and Masters students yesterday, I mentioned both your blog and that by Inger to the students. Few had heard of it and I suspect that even fewer staff were aware of it. There’s a pressing need, still, to guide supervisors in the art and science of supervision (paraphrased from the late Malcolm Knowles).

        Cheers,

        Jens

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  2. Kate Bowles says:

    Thanks so much for this, Pat. I’ve just been re-reading the second chapter of Shawn Wilson’s Research is Ceremony, where something like this happens. The personal narrative is in the form of a letter to his sons, and it’s in a different font to the other parts of the chapter that contain a different kind of commentary on the practice of research, that we could loosely think of as “professional narrative”. What works for me is that neither is subordinated to the other: both have powerful reasons for being told in the way that they are told, and in the final paragraph both narratives come together to address the reader on the purpose of the book, and its unflinching ethical goal. Your post is so timely for me as I’m getting ready to introduce these ideas of personal narrative to undergraduate researchers next week. (Next week? Yikes.)

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  3. Pingback: the business of self presentation | patter

  4. CTSatLCC says:

    Reblogged this on CTS at LCC and commented:
    So you are going to write a personal narrative as the introduction to your thesis. Not everyone has – or wants – to do this. But some do, or they want to. But in some disciplines – and places – it seems to be almost mandatory to begin the thesis with a few pages which are about yourself. In other places and disciplines to do so would be unthinkable.

    Why do people want – or are required – to write a personal narrative? Well there are at least three reasons – any or all of:

    The personal narrative is intended to locate the researcher so that examiners can see how the researcher’s actual life and/or work experience might influence the research, for better or worse. The narrative enacts the (epistemological) position that no research is neutral and all research is written from somewhere, and where matters. Of course, understanding something about the researchers’ experiences can raise questions for examiners about potential blank and blind spots and the need for researcher reflexivity.
    The personal narrative is intended to show how the research question arises from the personal life or professional work experience of the researcher. In applied fields for instance it is not uncommon for doctoral researchers to find the mandate for their research in their professional context. They know from their direct experience that a particular kind of research would be valuable and useful and so their thesis reports a piece of work which does just this. And researchers do often end up researching something that is directly related to their life experience. They have a child or friend with… or they have experienced… Alternatively, the research may be a continuation of a scholarly interest formed earlier.
    The personal narrative is intended to lay the ground work for a claim for professional knowledge. In applied fields, and often in professional doctorates, people draw on their own experience as part of the data. For instance a headteacher might use their experience of school budgeting to advantage, a midwife use the need to work both emotionally as well as on the body, and so on. (This is sometimes called working with Mode 2 knowledge as the knowing arises from experience in work settings or working on applied problems).

    Like

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