when you’re older than your professors

This is a guest post from Dr Noelle Sterne. Noelle runs a coaching and editing practice and in 2015 published Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.



Marlene was one of the brightest and most conscientious doctoral students I’ve ever served in my academic coaching and editing practice. An older student, she had returned for her doctorate after three of her four kids were grown and out. Marlene held down a full-time job in medical billing, and her youngest was now in high school, so Marlene embarked on a lifelong dream—she enrolled in a doctoral program. We were working together on her dissertation.

When I answered the phone, instead of greeting me, Marlene raged for ten minutes. Her professor had track-changed almost every page of her paper and added a four-paragraph single-spaced memo stuffed with questions. Marlene shouted over the phone, “I’m calling the doctoral police!”

I understood why Marlene was so upset. At fifty-two, she had (bravely) entered graduate school. The professor was younger by at least fifteen years. She had done well in her courses but now, with the dissertation, he challenged Marlene at every turn, and just about every sentence.

Older Students Are Increasing

Marlene’s situation is not unusual. Like many other older students, she chose an online program to accommodate her full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Although with a passionate interest in helping primary-grade reluctant readers (as two of her children were), she had neglected graduate study for decades because of her job and family.

Most doctoral candidates I help to complete their degrees are in their forties and fifties, with a surprising number in their early to mid-sixties. They often blurt out their ages apologetically, and I ignore the self-deprecation and immediately congratulate them for their guts, spirit, and drive.

But they find working with younger professors—who could be their children or even grandchildren—difficult. The students may resent and resist the professors’ critiques and advice, and the issues that arise threaten to sabotage the degree programs and dissertations.

Why Do I Get All the Critiques?

As I told Marlene, expect revisions throughout your doctoral program, and especially your dissertation. if you’re an older graduate student and in a similar situation, your professors’ cries for revisions can stem from one of two main motivations. The first may indicate their perfectionism, vindictiveness, and pettiness and point to less-than-healthy desires to prove themselves and show you who’s boss. The professors may also recall their own tormenting doctoral tribulations and want to extract revenge.

The second motivation may be more wholesome. Your professors may push for revisions because they recognize your abilities and want a quality work for you and, by reflection, for themselves. Their comments aren’t personal, and they’re not out to get you. They genuinely want to help and so press you to live up to your potential. Probably too they see a publishable spinoff (with an acknowledgment to them) in your postgrad future.

From the other side of the doctoral program, U.S. dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist Michael Burawoy (2005) candidly observes how he formerly handled his advisees:

I used to make detailed comments that would go on for pages and totally overwhelm and even paralyze you. Sometimes you would never come back. It was rather disingenuous of me to complain about your retreat since I suspect that my barraged aimed to establish my authority, my credibility as a young sociologist—with little thought as to what might be helpful to you. (p. 47)

Burawoy’s confession is admirable. If, though, you’ve received a sheaf of critiques such as he describes or Marlene received, whatever you do, don’t act like an irate graduate student I heard of. Without an appointment, he stomped into his professor’s office, threw down the marked-up manuscript, which he’d peppered with own brigade of sticky-note soldiers ready for battle, and argued with every point the professor had made. Needless to say, the candidate only reaped more endless-revision reprisals.

As an Older Student, You Have Advantages

As an older student, though, you have some assets, so take heart. Research confirms you’re more persistent than younger students in reaching academic goals, more self-reliant, and more purposeful in mastering the required skills (Bertone & Green, 2018; Deshpande, 2016; Dunn, Rakes, & Rakes, 2014; Offerman, 2011; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012).

Here’s encouragement by Offerman (2011):

The contemporary doctoral student is older, more mature, and brings into the learning situation a wealth of real-world, career experience. The effective faculty member understands this and expects to learn as well as to teach, to act more as a colleague at times than a supervisor. (p. 27)

Hopefully, your professors embrace such an ideal perspective. If they don’t, you can nevertheless navigate successfully through your doctoral experience by keeping several points in mind.

What You Can Do

  1. Forget age and age comparisons (“He’s half my age, already tenured, published in five top journals, with twenty-three grants!”). Remember why you’re a graduate student and what your degree will do for you.
  2. If you’re an online student, your status can be a blessing—you don’t have to stare into that impossibly fresh face two or three times a week (unless the professor insists on Skype conferences).
  3. With your extensive experience in your field, swallow your pride and tamp down your knowledge.You may know a lot more about aspects of your topic than your professors, particularly if your dissertation investigates a problem in your workplace. And you may seethe at some of their critiques. But keep in mind that they likely know what’s acceptable for your dissertation.
  4. If, though, yours is an applied dissertation to suggest solutions to that problem at your workplace, and some of the professors’ critiques are based on inexperience with procedures, diplomatically verbalize your corrections shored up by your experience.“Professor ____, I realize you may not be familiar with . . . . but . . . .” (They have egos too!)
  5. After you get back your blood-red track-changed paper, arrange a meeting.

Admit your doctoral frailties, be open to the critiques, and ask for clarification. As Offerman (2011) and Cassuto (2013b) say, good advisors collaborate with their students. If you don’t understand, persist.

  1. Don’t whine or unburden about your other worries. Your professors have their own problems.
  2. In person, in the phone, or in email or text, act professional, as you do on your day job. You will gain the professors’ respect.
  3. Remember your real-world experiences in other testy situations with colleagues and family and how you resolved or responded reasonably and creatively. Transferring and applying your abilities can help you weather the tempests of an advanced degree program, and especially the dissertation.
  4. Treat yourself with self-respect. You have a right to your professors’ guidance and explanations (after all, you’re paying for it).
  5. Seek outside help if you feel you could really benefit from it (a peer, a recently-graduated colleague, a coach, an editor).
  6. Do the work diligently and consistently and do it well.

See how these suggestions can work for you. As an older graduate student, you’ve plunged into a highly challenging educational path that others half your age often avoid. (If they start, they frequently quit, most often before completing the dissertation.) So, wear your age proudly and be grateful for your life experiences. When you’re older than your professors, use your previous encounters, interpersonal skills, and infinite patience to complete your long-awaited degree.



Bertone, S., & Green, P. (2018). Knowing your research students: Devising models ofdoctoral education for success. Postgraduate Education in Higher Education, 471-498.

Burawoy, M. (2005). Combat in the dissertation zone. American Sociologist, 36(2),43-56.

Cassuto, L. Remember, professor, not too close. Chronicle of Higher Education.Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Not-Too-Close/138629/

Deshpande, A. (2016). A qualitative examination of challenges influencing doctoralstudents in an online doctoral program. International Education Studies9(6), 139-149.

Dunn, K. E., Rakes, G. C., & Rakes, T. A. (2014). Influence of academic self-regulation,critical thinking, and age on online graduate students’ academic help-seeking. Distance Education35(1), 75-89.

Offerman, M. (2011). Profile of the nontraditional doctoral degree student. NewDirections in Adult Continuing Education, 129, 21-30.

Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: Factorsdoctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of DoctoralStudies, 7, 199-219.

Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash



Posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, academic writing, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, feedback | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

peer reviewing your first paper


Patter now has over 800 posts. It’s pretty hard to find things on here, even when you know what you’re looking for. Some of the elderly posts are, I hope, still useful. I’ve decided to start an occasional ‘best of’ set of posts – well best of in my view – to recover some material that I still get asked about.

In 2012 I wrote three blog posts about how to review a journal article.

The first post was about how to read a journal article you have been asked to review. What do you look for and how do you decide what might need to be done?

I started by saying this:

Before even beginning to read, the first thing to get clear about is the STANCE you have to take as a reviewer.

Once you’ve clicked ‘agree to review’ and you have the article in your inbox, you now have to put aside all of those debates about whether blind peer refereeing is a good or a bad thing, or whether it’s here to stay or on the way out. You’ve got the article and you need to do a good job. The author(s) has spent a piece of their life writing it, they have put their faith in the reviewing system – that’s you – and there is probably a lot riding on whether it gets published.

The job of reviewing is about deciding whether the paper is of sufficient quality to be published, not whether it ‘s the most ground-breaking piece of research you’ve ever come across. And you have to read the text, not as if it’s the paper you would have written if you’d done this bit of research, but rather as the research and writing that has been done.

This is reviewing as an appreciative critical stance, rather than one which is dominated by

I offered a four stage process for reading and twelve questions that could be used to guide the reading process.

The second post looked at the process of making a judgment about what the writer needed to do. And it addressed the thorny question of what to recommend to the editor. I started by looking at what reasons we might have to reject a paper:

Aside from the obvious things – it’s a rant not a reasoned piece of argument, it’s a piece of journalism, it’s a blog, it’s been sent to the wrong journal , it’s plagiarised – here are some possible reasons for rejection:

(1) It’s straight from a thesis chapter – it’s a trawl of the literature, has far too much to say about methodology and/or theoretical resources, has no argument and no conclusion
(2) It’s bad research – the quants are wrong, the interpretation of the qual data is dodgy, you can drive a truck through the claims made
(3) There is no analysis – it’s a plodding report of a survey or a set of interviews and nothing else
(4) It’s unethical – people may be harmed if this is published, it’s sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist
(5) It’s got too many ideas in it – you can’t follow what is being said at all, there isn’t enough space devoted to each part of the argument, the various bits don’t seem to relate to one another
(6) The argument doesn’t make sense – you can’t follow what is being said at all, there isn’t enough space devoted to each part of the argument, the various bits don’t seem to relate to one another
(7) It’s not significant – there is no answer to the So What question. That is, it’s too local, it’s too small in scope to say anything… it’s naracisstic and self-indulgent, and/or the conclusion is what we already know and there are heaps of other articles which say the same thing and/or it doesn’t seem to say anything much at all.

We ought not to reject something because it’s written in a style we don’t like or it uses big words or we disagree with its party politics. We can raise all of these objections as reasoned arguments in a response which might, in the case of party politics, require revision to recognise different points of view.

We also ought not to reject something just because it’s boring. Again, that’s for revision, unless the reasons for it being boring are any of (1) – (7) above.

I then went on to look at how we might decide what level of revisions might be required.

The third post looked at how to write helpful feedback . I suggested there were four things that mattered when writing feedback: (1) Write the kind of comments you expect to get; (2) Use a structure for the feedback which allows the author to follow what you are saying; (3) Be clear and (4) Don’t tell them to read all your work – unless you really ARE the key figure in the field.

Here’s what I said about structured feedback.

Remember that the author/s now know that they need to do more, so they are reading with a sinking heart. So you need to be specific as well as kind.

I generally aim for three quarters to a page in length, unless it is an accept without change – this is usually just a paragraph or two saying what I think is great about the paper.

I have a bit of a formula I use for reviews. So here’s what I do – it’s not the only way to write feedback of course, but it’s ONE way to approach the task.

(1) Write two to four sentences summarising what the paper is about. So something like… This paper addresses… and presents evidence that … . The author/s argue that… This gives the author the chance to see whether you have understood what they wanted to say. If you haven’t got it, they can then consider how they might have produced this misreading.

(2) If you really enjoyed reading the article, say so now before you start with the concerns.

(3) Write something about the contribution, as in… The article clearly makes a contribution to/has the potential to add to what we know about/will make a significant addition to … This might be linked to a caveat such as… but needs further work in order to bring this to fruition/realise its potential, needs some revision in order to achieve this.

(4) Then, if there are suggested revisions, say whether they are major or minor and how many there are, as in .. I have two suggestions for major revisions and one more minor point… or I offer some issues that the author/s needs to consider in the methodological section and a recommendation for some restructuring of the findings…

(5) Then dispassionately state the changes that you think are necessary, based on your reading of the article. Try to focus on the things that are the most fundamental.

You may just outline the problem (s) and suggest that the author/s needs to find a way of resolving it/them. You might offer one or two suggestions. Or you might have something very definite in mind. Any of these is OK, although just outlining the problem can be a bit scary for the author/s when they come to revise. Whatever, you just need to be explicit about which of these you are doing.

If there is reading that the author/s need to do, give them the references, don’t just say there is literature out there that they ought to know about.

If you are suggesting major revisions, then there probably isn’t much point in outlining twenty five specific things for the author/s to do; it’s the big bits that are the most important for the author/s to grasp. Too much detail and they will be completely confused/overwhelmed/dispirited. And if it’s major revisions you will get another look at the paper, at which time you can pick up any small things that still need resolution.

Finally, succintly list any grammatical, proofing and referencing problems.

(6) Conclude with some encouragement. This might involve repeating the potential contribution and the importance/value of the author/s continuing to work on the piece.

You might want to follow up these posts in full.


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Posted in academic writing, feedback, journal article, peer review, refereeing, reviewing, reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

writing the thesis from the middle

This is a guest post from Dr Milena Popova, a rogue scholar and activist. They offer one-to-one academic tuition, and tweet as @elmyra.


As I hit the start of the second year of my PhD, one of my supervisors casually said to me, “Oh, you should probably aim to write your literature review this year.” It is very common for supervisors to suggest the literature review as the first thesis chapter to actually see daylight. And in many cases it makes a lot of sense: you will have spent a large chunk of your first year reading and familiarising yourself with the state of your field. The jump from reading to writing can be rather daunting, and a literature review may be within your comfort zone at that stage. And depending on your research design, you are likely to be deep in data collection in your second year, and therefore have nothing to actually write about yet. So in the interests of getting you to write *something* (which is an excellent idea!), many supervisors push for a lit review early on.

If this works for you, that’s great, but I’m here to tell you that there’s more than one way to write a PhD, so if the “lit review first” approach doesn’t work for you, there are others. Despite my supervisors’ best efforts, I wrote my thesis from the inside out.

Personally, I struggle to work from the theory down, and so I knew that any lit review I wrote in year 2 would have to be rewritten pretty much from scratch once I knew what my data actually said. A certain amount of editing and rewriting is inevitable in a PhD, as your ideas develop and you work out what you’re trying to say over time (and there’s a chapter in my thesis that I did rewrite three times), but some rework is avoidable. If, like me, you prefer to work from the data up, writing your thesis from the inside out might be the approach for you.

What I mean by writing the thesis from the inside out is writing the data chapters first. For me, those were the three case studies that formed the core of my research. Having more or less completed those chapters, I then wrote my literature review and discussion chapter side by side in my third year, followed by the conclusion and introduction at the very end. This approach has several advantages. For me, the data chapters were much more concrete, and having written them first meant I knew what the data was and what it was saying. That then gave me the foundation to build the theory on. Writing about my data early on also meant I developed a much better understanding of it, as the writing process became an extension of the analysis process. This approach also forced me to plan and do my data collection and analysis in a way that allowed me to start writing about the data early on. I was able to split the data collection into three separate stages (one for each of the data chapters) and do different tasks for each of the chunks in parallel.

Once I was past the data chapters, something I found important and helpful was to write the lit review (finally!) and the discussion chapter side by side. This allowed me to make sure that anything I was relying on in the discussion chapter had been adequately covered in the literature review. It’s a bit like Chekhov’s gun: if you’re going to shoot someone with it in Act 4, it had better be on the mantelpiece in Act 1. The final layer of this inside-out writing were the conclusion and introduction, which I also wrote more or less side by side, but really, the introduction came last because that was the point at which I knew what I was introducing.

The inside out approach won’t work for everyone. You may find it easier to work from the theory down than from the data up, or your data collection and analysis may be structured in a way that doesn’t let you do any early writing about your data. The important thing here is to be open to experimentation (both as a PhD researcher and a supervisor), as that is the only way you get to work out what works for you. I use the inside out approach for most of my research writing to this day, and I wouldn’t have found out that it was the right approach for me if my supervisors hadn’t trusted me when I said, “Um, I think I’m going to write something else actually.”

Milena’s approach is one I often recommend to PhDers too.  I completely agree that it helps to know what you are going to write about, your results, before you structure your argument and your text. 


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the risk of research feature creep


I’ve recently been reading a design manual – don’t ask – and came across the term feature creep. Designers define feature creep as “a continuous expansion or addition of new features”. And this feature creep is a problem. The term feature creep is often used in software development where the continued addition of new functions makes an application cumbersome/unusable.

Feature creep causes costs to spiral out of control. Television programmes which document house-building renovations rely heavily on feature creep for their drama – oh no, they decided to add gold plated taps at the last minute meaning they have no money for the roof and winter is coming. Oh no. Will they make it?

Feature creep is not a new thing. It has a long history. The seventeenth century Swedish warship, the Vasa, sank one mile into its maiden voyage because of feature creep. Too many guns, decks and carvings had been added during its construction. (The over-decorated and top-heavy Vasa now has its very own museum in Stockholm, disappointingly not called Feature Creep Museum. Now just imagine what a feature creep museum would contain. Hyped up university software anyone?)

By now I’m sure you can see how the term feature creep might be relevant in academic research.

Feature creep in research is when you add onto your initial plan in ways that endanger the whole enterprise, when doing more actually means you will have trouble staying afloat. Feature creep is a particular danger for people doing time-limited or funding-limited research – or both – as adding on may mean you just can’t get the work done.

  • Think you’ll just add an extra few interviews with a few more informants?
  • Why not do another round of the survey?
  • It wouldn’t hurt to just dig a bit more into the history would it?
  • Why not generate that additional data now as it might come in useful in the future?
  • Yes, looking at the website and social media wasn’t in the original design but it’s so interesting we do just need to take time now to have a look at it.

Which of these are feature creep? When are these feature creep?

Well, they’re not easy questions to answer. Let’s start by acknowledging that there are serious risks in adding more and more to your research. And infuriatingly, risks in not adding.

Because no research project is ever entirely comprehensive, there’s always the possibility of doing more than we initially planned. When we find ourselves faced with adding more, we need to take ourselves firmly in hand and ask whether we really need the data equivalent of more guns on deck to answer our research question. And can we afford the time to add on data – not only the time to generate but also to analyse a whole new lot of stuff?  Will adding on this additional bit mean that we then need to add on even more – the equivalent of the guns need carved stands for their operators?

And if you think this situation doesn’t happen, well… I have seen more than one doctoral researcher add more and more data just because they could. It seemed interesting. Perhaps even helpful. But at the end they found themselves with stuff they couldn’t analyse or include – and they also ran perilously close to their absolute deadline. While their research wasn’t the equivalent of the sinking Vasa, it was a near miss.

But there are the risks of not adding on. Because we don’t know what we are going to see and hear during our research, we do come across things that we hadn’t anticipated. And some of those things start out being of potential interest and, when we follow them up, turn out to be really important. We just can’t foresee all of the significant events, documents, occasions, groups, phenomena we may find. And when we encounter something of possible importance, then we have to decide whether to take the risk and follow it up – or not. Is this just an ornamentation to the research – like extra carvings and decks – or is it actually something that could change the research for the better?

And if you think this situation doesn’t happen, it certainly does. A lot. And after all, this is why we do research. We hope to find the unexpected. We hope to fall over something that is new to us. Something that helps us understand the situation we are researching. I certainly know doctoral researchers who come to a point in their work where they’ve had to make a choice about whether to follow a potentially interesting line of data generation or not. In most cases, adding on or changing direction has paid off.

This kind of useful adding on – or following your nose, going where the data leads you – is not really the same as feature creep. It may look the same as feature creep at the start. You don’t know whether this additional work is going to lead anywhere. So you do need to work out how long you are going to give it before you give up.

The question to ask at this point is whether you are looking at feature creep or not.

And deciding whether you are looking at a situation where you need to set follow-on, add-on temptation aside or go with it is tricky. The answer may not be immediately obvious. As painful as it may be, there are times in research when you need to say I’m sticking to my plan and noting there is more I could do = that’s for next time. And working out the answer to the risky feature creep question is something that doctoral researchers really do need to discuss with supervisors.



Posted in academic writing, feature creep, research, research as process, research decisions, research design | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

grow your own writing practice


You often hear writing described as a skill. And a skill is the capacity to do something well, to use expertise built up through practice. Skills are often seen as merely technical, but a skill requires specialist knowledge and often years of training. However, it’s the capacity/ability to apply and use that knowledge that matters.

We often think that skills are only needed for working with things – but the term skill equally applies to areas such as the cognitive and interpersonal. However, I am not convinced that it is particularly helpful to think of writing as a skill. Yes, writing needs knowhow and technique. But skills-talk about academic writing usually lapses into discussions of secretarial matters – the correct use of grammar and syntax for instance, or the ability to edit your own work. Reductive skills-talk in turn easily leads on to conversations about remedial support and better supervision.

When I start to talk with new PhDers about writing I usually avoid focusing on skills and talk instead about three important characteristics of academic writing…

1. Academic writing is a social practice

When writing researchers talk about writing as a social practice they/we mean that all forms of academic writing are produced in, and framed by, disciplinary, institutional and cultural relations, norms and rules. This is a bit of a mouthful. But essentially, for PhDers this means that what you write isn’t a matter of free choice. The university, where you are located and your discipline all shape the writing you do.

So part of the work of the PhD is to learn what these norms, rules and expectations are. Understanding the genres and codes that shape how academic texts are produced is part and parcel of the doctorate.

During the doctorate you will probably get to work on a range of academic texts – thesis, journal articles, conference papers, academic posters, blog posts, reports – as well as accompanying texts like bio-notes. You will also develop and build your own noting and recording system. And these all have their own conventions you’ll need to follow.

You do have some choice in how to write of course. You may decide to bend some academic writing conventions – for example you might engage with a range of narrative forms including fiction, performance, poetry and still and moving image. These are all now used as a means of presenting academic discussion and empirical research, so it’s not completely outlandish to stray into these text types.

2. Deep understandings about academic writing support you to write well

I think about writing as a craft that works from and with imagination and realised through connoisseur knowledges and artisan practices.The dictionary defines a connoisseur is someone who knows a lot about a particular topic – the arts, food, wine – and who can judge quality and skill in that particular area.

To be a connoisseur of academic writing means having a deep, and always growing, critical understanding of writing – genres, tools and techniques, histories, debates and traditions. A connoisseur builds a working knowledge of what they consider to be good/bad writing. They can explain to themselves and to others the criteria they use to make such judgments. A connoisseur of writing is able to use their understandings to evaluate their own work, to diagnose problems and to develop strategies that will help them to write ‘better’.

Becoming a connoisseur of any form of writing relies on lots of systematic reading, and on deliberate analysis of that reading. For PhDers, building depth of connoisseur knowledge means not simply reading for content, but also analysing what you are reading. Just as in other areas of your research, like methods, it’s helpful to read about writing. Writing research offers a language and theorised categories through which you can conduct your own analysis. You grow the habit of asking yourself why you think what you are reading is good or bad – what is it about the text that impresses or disappoints?

3. Writing muscles benefit from regular exercise

But why an artisan? The dictionary defines an artisan as someone who is highly skilled in a particular trade – they make by hand and with specialist tools. The artisan produces unique or a limited run of items, unlike a craftsperson who is generally engaged in a form of mass production. These days the artisan/craft distinction has been corrupted by advertising; it’s common to see signs about artisan bread, for example, when strictly speaking bread is produced by craftspeople – yeasty replicas made by hand every day. So if you prefer to think about writing as a craft, then focus on the commonality between the artisan and the craftsperson, that is, the development of highly refined and skilful processes.

Becoming a writing artisan takes continued practice. A writing artisan develops a rich repertoire of strategies for producing and refining writing. They build their writing muscles, and their flexibility, adaptability, dexterity and stamina. They equip themselves for the long research and writing journey ahead.

For the PhDer, learning to write means establishing routines for writing notes, summaries, journals and chunks for supervisors. It means taking time to try out writing in various styles, voices and forms. Working with description, quotations, with dialogue for instance benefit from experimentation. Testing out different approaches to anecdote, or writing with theory, means that you can choose which of your efforts seems to work best and why.

Sometimes you might get some help in building a writing practice. Perhaps the university might offer classes, writing workshops based around particular text types – journal articles and conference papers for instance. But more is required to build a sustainable routine and expertise. Generally, growing a writing practice is left to the individual PhDer. You have to design your own programme for acquiring expertise.

So what does this mean for you?

Well, if you take on board my three points – writing as a social practice, building connoisseur knowledge and an artisan repertoire of strategies – at the very start of the PhD, then you know you have to set aside regular time to work on your writing, as well as on your substantive topic. And given that the test of the PhD is the production of a persuasive, trustworthy well written and structured text, you also know this will be time well spent.


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Posted in artisan, connoisseur, PhD, practice, reading, routine, starting the PhD | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

a planner’s approach to the first draft

Writing a draft. Mmm. The word ‘writing’ suggests that all you have to do is sit down and type or scribble away. And lo and behold a text is born.

But there are different pathways to writing a draft. Some are less freeform than others. As Helen Sword suggests, academic writers are generally either planners or free writers. And if you are a planner, writing a draft is often as much about assembling and choreographing as it is working with either a pen and paper or on a keyboard and screen.

For planners, ‘writing a draft’ is not simply about generating text. That’s necessary of course and you can’t do without all the words. But planners see the real work of drafting as ‘getting the right stuff in the right order’

That phrase –  getting the right stuff in the right order – is important to the planner.

Planners like to make sure that what is eventually down on the page is roughly the shape of the final text. None of this thousands of words too much that need to be organised. Planners like to write to a word budget. Planners need to make sure that the moves in the paper make sense and are sufficient to make their case. Planners need to see that they don’t have to move huge slabs of text somewhere else. Or get rid of giant bits altogether. Or go and find lots more references. Or add in more data. 

So for a planner, writing a draft text, one that is ready for refining, usually consists of several steps. Some of these steps might be combined. But they are specific activities.

I’m a planner, just in case you hadn’t guessed. I usually set out writing a draft in these five stages:

  1. Work out what the text is going to be about – grasping the big idea

Most academic texts, be they a journal article, a chapter in a thesis or book, a professional paper or even a blog post, have a big idea. Lots of journal articles and books and chapters are rejected because they don’t have a big idea, or because they try to fit more than one big idea into one paper.

Here’s some strategies you might try to locate your big idea.

  • Writing chunks about bits of stuff that seem to be both important and part of the picture. Once these are written, you can think about what they have in common or what holds them all together -that’s generally the big idea. 

2. Sort out the argument or narrative.

This is a step on from thinking about the big idea. You first of all write about the big idea as the contribution that you are going to make. You then sort out how that contribution needs to be staged. What moves you need to make. Whether you think about your text as a report, narrative or argument (and a lot of academic writing is an argument), you have to get clear how you’re going to present – or choreograph – it. 

Here’s where these next two strategies can be very helpful.

  • Writing the title can help you hone, pare down the big idea into something short, snappy and punchy.
  • Move on to a Tiny Text. Writing small allows you to work out the composition of the major moves you need to make. You can of course make an outline now, but the problem is that outlines generally name the content rather than actually construct the argument/narrative. Working on a mini-me of the text to come is an economical way to test out various options. And the order of the stuff. 

3. Get the stuff – the raw material – sorted out

It’s important not to ignore your writing preparation, your mis-en-place. If you anticipate what you need, you don’t have break your train of thinking/writing too much by going off on a search. 

Getting the stuff sorted means pulling together the spread sheets, written chunks, mind maps, things you are going to reference (maybe as sub-libraries in your bibliographic software and piles of stuff on the floor), analysed data, notes, images and so on. Once upon a time you might have got this together materially, in a folder or filebox. These days you’re more likely to use software like Scrivener or a simple desktop digital folder to do the same compiling work. I still find I have some books in my heap, but you may not.

4. Sort the stuff into the right order. 

Once you have a Tiny Text and all the stuff you think you will need, you can then roughly assemble your paper. As you are doing this, you may find you need to circle back to points 1-3 and adjust them. Or you may even have a new and better idea to work with. or you may find that some things you initially thought would just be a small point actually turns out to be bigger – and vice versa. 

There are a lot of ways to combine the stuff you have gathered together with your Tiny Text. Your goal is to make the Tiny Text bigger but not write the full draft. So you might find it handy to try any or all of the following:

(People often send me pictures of this stage of their writing – often whole walls covered in postits and bluetacked notes. )

Once you’ve adjusted what seems to be the right order-right stuff, you can now go on to generate a full draft. 

5. Check for content and order. 

Once you’ve got your full set of words, it is of course entirely possible that the text still needs some adjustment.

A really simple way of checking whether you have the right stuff in the right order is to try a reverse outline. This is where you simply write the headings and the first and last sentence of every paragraph into a separate document, read them through and then see if they make sense. You check for order and for omission and repetition. You can also check whether the weighting you have given to particular moves in the argument/narrative seem OK. 

So there you are.

That’s a planning approach to drafting. It’s not the only one around. But you may like to try it out- or even a selection of the strategies – to see how it works for you.


I was reminded of the importance of the phrase ‘getting the right stuff in the right order’ a couple of weeks ago when talking to my colleague Dr Lynn Nygaard. Lynn is a former editor and knows a lot about writing and you can find some of her work here. So thanks to Lynn not only for the coffee, but also for the big idea for this little post. 

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, free-writing, looping, planning, planning a paper, poster, powerpoint, storyboard, storyboarding, Tiny Text, titles | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

oh no, it’s thesis hand-in limbo

It’s time to talk about the phenomenon of thesis limbo-land. That’s the unknown number of days between handing in and the examination.

Handing in the thesis is both a triumph and exhausting. It’s no surprise that many people think of it as finishing a marathon. Perhaps an ultra-marathon. The uber marathon. The marathon to beat all marathons – it’s taken several years of your life to get done. A marathon where, regardless of how well you’ve paced yourself, you still have to summon up every last ounce of focus and energy to get past the post, to make sure the final text is handed in.

And handing in is a great moment. Whether you hold that bound copy in your hand and take it in to the relevant office yourself, or you upload a PDF, this is a moment for real celebration. And celebrate you probably do. And so you should. It’s a real achievement.

But then. And then. And more then.

Your results can never come quite quickly enough. No matter if your exam is a viva, a set of written reports or a public defence, the waiting time drags on.

So what’s happening during this time? Perhaps your supervisor has to fill in some forms and contact examiners – although generally this has happened before you hand in. The office has to send out your thesis to examiners. The examiners of course need time to read. And this may take many days. Examiners are likely to be busy people. Despite their best efforts, you are probably going to be waiting longer than you want.

And you can’t really hurry the process up. In a viva or defence there’s a point when the examiners find a time when they can meet with you. And it’s at this moment that you know how much longer you have to hang around. But with reports… just becalmed in the great sea of waiting.

And this waiting time can be pretty awful. You may be running short of energy, but also short of money. Many of us well and truly max out our credit cards by the time we get to hand-in stage; the prospect of even more time without work and income can be pretty scary. If you don’t have work, then finding it is a priority. Some people of course are lucky enough to have a permanent or new job at the end of the doctorate; they still experience limbo-land but it’s a lot less painful than not knowing what you are going to be doing, where and when.

Of course, job applications take up some of your time, but they don’t change having to wait around. Both the thesis and job applications actually depend on other people – taken together they mutually reinforce the sneaky feeling that your future now depends on decisions that other people are going to make about, and for you.

It’s the lack of control combined with exhaustion and the stress of not knowing what the result will be that is so difficult. But there are things that you can do and you can plan to do if you are close to handing in.

You can occupy a little of your time preparing for your viva or defence. You can also get cracking on some publishing, or at least making a plan about what you might write. Your supervisor may help with thinking about publication, as well as support your viva/defence preparation.

And you can go to seminars, write blog posts and you may even get a little money from your institution to present a paper at a conference. You can of course read some of those things that you spotted while you were finishing off but, with great resolve, put to one side. You could get back to making – I know of one person who crocheted several thesis blankets. Or you might decide to do some volunteering.

You will certainly find a sympathetic ear from everyone who has been through the limbo process. But be careful. You don’t want to hear all the war stories. Some of us do have horror experiences that we hardly ever share – my wait was far more lengthy than I like to remember and I almost never talk about it. It did involve, at one point, someone who was set up to be an examiner saying to me at a conference “Your university forgot to send me your thesis.” I won’t say more and university systems have got much better since then – my experience won’t be yours, I promise.

It’s important when you’re in hand-in limbo that you don’t lose sight of your wellbeing. If you were eating badly during the last stages of the PhD, had become very sedentary and/or had stopped getting out and about, then now is the time to change these patterns. If you can take a cheap holiday, then do it now. Sitting on a beach or hiking up a mountain can do much to restore both your sense of self and Your connection with the wider world around you. You do have me-time and it is possible to convert some of that anxiety and restlessness into re-establishing life patterns that are more nurturing.

But this all takes energy, will power and mental strength. Who better then than your nearest and dearest? Your friends and family are very important at the limbo point to provide non-thesis focused re-energising activities.

And above all, do know that hand-in limbo is a thing. You are not alone. And if you see, now you’ve stopped the thesis marathon, that you are really not well, then do seek professional help from your university or local health service.

Posted in academic writing, hand-in limbo, handing in, phd defence, thesis, viva, wellbeing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments