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.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.