Jackie Barker is a second year PhD student at the University of the West of England (UWE). Her research is on patient and public involvement (PPI) in a health network. She tweets as @opsologist or you can find her on LinkedIn. In this blog post, she offers her experience on how to proceed if you feel that none of what you read applies to the research that you’re doing…
I want to start with an exchange on Twitter between a friend and I: –
@elmyra tweeted: Taking a moment to recall the PhD motto: If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research.
@opsologist replied: @elmyra I think the full quote is: if we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research, sob.
This blog post is about the time, the floundering, and the upset that happens while we work out what we’re doing. It’s also about whether there is any way to spend less time and thus floundering and upset. From the outset of my research, I adopted golden nuggets of advice from people I trusted. My Masters dissertation supervisor told me that the key to a good PhD was to find a narrow gap in current knowledge, let’s call it a gap-ette, which you can then understand to a depth no one else will ever care to. That’s at the front of my year 1 research journal. At the front of my year 2 journal is the advice on writing, not writing up, on writing anything just to build the habit. I’ve done more than note this advice: I convene a Shut Up and Write Group in order to get writing done. But the truth is, that while I do write at SUAW, up until now, 19 months in, I haven’t written my thesis. It’s not that I haven’t understood how good the advice is, it’s that I haven’t been able to follow it.
I do not have a gap-ette. I have accidentally happened upon a chasm. I am researching Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in a network. There’s a ton of literature on PPI. There’s another two tons on networks. I was just going to be one of the few people to read all of it and bring it together. But. The literatures will not be brought together. They co-exist and are parallel and separate. No one has brought them together ever. There are no models, no analytical tools, no hypotheses, no concepts, no papers, nothing, nada. I have kept reading, and hoping. And still nothing. I have watched my peers go to conferences, send papers off to journals, edit books, do guest lectures, and produce first drafts of their literature reviews. All that time, I have read more. Still nothing. (Note to self: perhaps a less high achieving peer group is part of the answer?). I just assumed that I had missed a great gobbet of knowledge that was out there somewhere if only I could track it down with the right search terms in Web of Science.
I realise now that six months of that reading was displacement activity. By turning to each of the literatures (more and more panicked each time) I was looking away from the space between them. I was pretending it was not there, or hoping to read it away. I wish now that I had faced up to the chasm. I could have said to myself: this is the gig. It’s not that I made no progress at all. I had small ideas about how to proceed, how to get something (anything) done. I have pursued each of these (more reading). But it was months and months later that I made a big breakthrough. Just in case the picture I’ve described resonates with any readers of this blog, here are the steps I wish I’d taken 6 months before I did:
- Take an ENORMOUS piece of paper.
- Write up a summary of the main themes of each literature down opposite sides of the paper. (Leave a big gap, you’re going to need it).
- On each side, write the reasons this literature is not a good fit for your research.
- Then write the things your research can use from each.
- In the middle, in the scary white space, write the small ideas you’ve had (in pencil or on post-it notes). Leaf through your research journal for those moments of insight you had as you were going along. Add those.
- Now stare at the small ideas in the big white space (this bit can’t be hurried). Can any of them be linked together? Do any logically precede or follow others? Is there any full or partial organizing principle?
- If you can draw arrows between the ideas, and back into the literatures at the sides, or if you can group your ideas into a few different blocks, or range the ideas along a continuum then you’re on your way.
- If you can’t, then pin your piece of paper above your workspace, ready to add to when inspiration sparks. Keep turning over in your mind the idea that the researcher’s job is to stretch some concepts from this side, and adapt some from the other, and introduce something completely new and different from somewhere else entirely. The researcher’s work lies in the big white space, not at the sides.
- When you think you have something, sketch it out somehow, and put it to the test: can you describe it to someone? I’d start with someone friendly and low risk, a fellow PhD student perhaps. (I didn’t. I tried to explain my nascent scheme to my supervisors. They seemed to expect the direction of my arrows to mean something. Plus they wondered how I was going to linearly write something that I’d drawn as a never-ending cycle. I went away and did more work).
- Keep working it. Refine it. Re-draw it. This is the messy part of the process, as 3 different versions of my scheme show.
- Now explain it again. (The second time I explained my scheme to my supervisors they looked…relieved).
- And there’s a point where it’s strong enough to start writing. And now the writing and the scheme inform each other. The scheme guides your writing. Your writing will throw up areas where your scheme doesn’t quite work. Refine it again.
The time you spend floundering in the big white space is a difficult phase during the PhD. And many of the tactics and strategies that I’ve read about, don’t help with this part.
My approach won’t work for everyone, so if you have a different approach, please share it. Let’s help other PhD-ers through.