don’t do as I did, don’t do as I do

I really love reading about other people’s experiences of the PhD and beyond. But I don’t much like talking about my own. Well, I do sometimes talk about myself on this blog. Talking about me makes the blog a bit human. And occasionally I do a bit of show and tell on the blog about how I do something. But by and large I’m not one for talking a lot about my own academic work. However, I’ve been asked quite a few times why I don’t, since that seems to be the blogging way. And I got another set of questions about why not recently… so here’s an answer.


My methods of work are very idiosyncratic. For instance, I can generally sit down and just write. Even if I have nothing in my head I can just sit down and write myself into something. If I get stuck, and I do very occasionally, I generally can – with only one notable exception – work out what is going on and eventually summon the willpower to sort it out. I can do this now because I’m pretty experienced at writing all the stuff. But I know that’s not the case for everyone and this blog is about what’s likely to be useful to newer researchers.

And I do lots and lots of things that people tell you not to do. For instance, I do my email at the start of the day. I leave the email on while I’m writing. I often do email when I’m in the middle of writing something and then I go back to what I was writing. Or twitter or Facebook. In fact, when I write, I usually do things that are potentially distracting. Spotify is my writing BF.  I listen to all kinds of music while I’m writing, often new releases, and quite frequently stop mid-sentence to chase something is that I’m listening to. But this isn’t a problem. Even when something takes me away from writing for a bit I can always get back to it. Writing is now a deeply embedded habit and it doesn’t take much for it to kick in. But knowing that I have a writing habit doesn’t necessarily help anybody else.

Oh, and I now take a lot of short cuts. My hacks don’t really work for researchers starting out, the blog’s target readers. The ways in which I work with literatures for example don’t involve highlighting or indeed a great deal of note-taking or additional writing. My ‘little’ system works for me as I’m building on a whole lot of other reading I’ve already done and I have a good short-term memory. But this minimal process isn’t likely to work for anyone just starting out.

The blog is really not about what I do – it works with what I know from research, from being a teacher and from teaching and supervising a lot of different people over a long period of time, and from what I read that other people are writing about themselves.

But if the blog is not about what I do, it’s even less about what I’ve done. I don’t talk about my PhD much because I was an aberrant PhDer. I occasionally meet someone like me – we didn’t have a hard time doing the doctorate. In fact, we positively loved our PhDs. And we not only finished on time, but also finished well before the three years were up. Even writing this just feels like bragging to me – and I’m squirming about it as I write – and it’s not in the slightest bit of help to anyone else and probably not really of interest.

Nor do I talk a lot about the process and products of my writing. I have blogged about co-writing and I posted live on a couple of book writing projects. But I don’t do this a lot. It’d be totally boring to hear about what I’m writing. Nor do I want to use my writing as the justification for why what I say might be of use. The thing is, this is a blog, not an ongoing commercial. I have a books page on the blog and people can check it out if they need to. And a list of book chapters and papers are on my university webpage. These blog posts ought to stand on their own merit. They are either worth reading or not.

And I don’t write about me mainly and primarily because times have changed. What worked for me was at a particular time and place. The rules and expectations about academic research and writing have shifted, and not necessarily all for the better. On the one hand, there is a lot more experimentation, interdisciplinary research and global chatter. On the other, audit requirements and precarious employment prospects make it pretty difficult to get into and on in any local academy. What I say on the blog can’t really be based in and on my own experience, but must take account of what is happening now, and what might be possible in the current situation.

So I rely not on my own PhD experience, but on research and on reading what other people have to say about their own current experiences. I read a lot of PhD blogs and research about PhDs. And of course, there are conversations. Conversations at workshops and with PhDers I supervise. And because there isn’t a one best way to do anything, especially with writing and research, and because what emerging researchers need are lots of strategies and options, my focus is on generating more ideas, not less. I collect strategies and approaches, the more the better. Other people’s experiences feed the blog.

Let me be frank. This blog would be pretty tiny and sporadic if it just relied on what I do and did. I’m really not that interesting. Patter depends on and responds to what other people do, ask and say.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to don’t do as I did, don’t do as I do

  1. Thank you for this quite refreshing input.


  2. casscolvin says:

    I have been reading your posts for years, and never commented – until now. “I’m really not that interesting”. How wrong you are. It is you that chooses to not only write your blog, but also determine the content you share. You are a source of motivation and inspiration for many – you certainly helped me through my PhD, and now through my early years as a researcher. This post was quite unique for you – but just as valuable. Authentic, personal. Thank you.


  3. Thank you for this post! I think it only serves to make all your other advice more realistic. Plus, we early career academics may still hope to work up to our own shortcuts in due time!
    When I started my Masters, I used to actually physically cut out quotes from articles and rearrange them on the floor while writing a paper. It took forever, but I was so new to the whole idea of building up a paper on a foundation of existing literatures and somehow adding my own tiny contribution to it that I just couldn’t deal with the task any other way. Moving on to using a citation manager only felt like a huge step forward. I suppose with enough experience one’s brain becomes something of a citation manager!


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