if you have just started your doctorate, then your supervisor has no doubt asked you to read, and read a lot. By now, you probably have quite a few texts entered in your bibliographic software. You can start to write about these already. You don’t have to wait until you are asked.
#AcWriMo2020, held every year in November, is a good time to begin to experiment with ways to write with your literatures. Try out different approaches. See what it means to use the literatures to help you think and plan.
Here are a few prompts which you can use to write a chunk – for yourself or your supervisor – about the reading you have been doing. You could do any of the responses to these prompts as a timed writing session (a pomodoro), or you could set yourself a word or time target.
Prompt One: What are your literatures?
What combination of texts are you using, why and how? Are any of your sources unusual? What is your justification for this?
Prompt Two: How do the literatures help you explain the context of your research?
Write about the context, or background of your research, using relevant literatures.
Prompt Three: Write about your research question
What is your research question or hypothesis? Why have you formulated it in this way? How have the literatures helped you to select and word your question?
Prompt Four: Write about your key terms
What terms in your research question or hypothesis need clarification? Where do you stand in relation to the ways these terms have been used in the literatures you have read? Why?
Prompt Five: How do you understand the field you are in, and where you stand in it?
Use the literatures to help you construct a written description of your field, or of your multiple fields. Describe which group of authors and texts you want to align with and why. Your reasoning might be about content, but it is likely to also be about your positionality and methodology.
Prompt Six: Write about your research design
You may not have decided yet what your research design is going to be. Or perhaps you have. Whatever is fine. Just write about what your thinking about your design now is and why – think about the who, where, how many, what, how often…
Prompt Seven: Write a mini proposal
Done all of the above? Use your writing and the literatures to help you write a short mini proposal. Show all of the components of your research – of course it’s still to be conducted and you can change it at any time. Just have a go. Try using all of the above prompts, as well as the chunks of writing you have produced in response to them. Draft and edit. Share.
#AcWriMo2020, like all of its predecessors, works on the assumption that giving priority to writing during this one month of November sets up, or re-sets, a regular writing habit. #AcWriMo also suggests that you set writing goals and make sure that you are held accountable for them.
Writing goals vary. Writing goals generally are of five types:
time spent (in minutes or pomodoros),
tasks completed, or
tasks moved forward (this is often called a directional goal as it is less specific than the first four.)
And writing goals can be expressed as daily or weekly targets.
Whether you’re doing AcWriMo or not, it’s obviously important to make writing goals realistic. You have to think about what is feasible given how you know you write, and what is possible and practical, given your other responsibilities. Of course, it’s also important to build in some thinking time away from the screen and some real down time when you do something other than writing.
Many AcWriMo-ers translate their goals into a visual format. Targets can be put into a calendar format, on an Excel spread sheet, Gantt chart or table. If you are working on tasks you could also use a pie chart. But you could be more imaginative than this and construct your own image – the journey and mountain are pretty obvious, but I am sure you could think of others.
Once you have a visualisation, you can print it out. You can then cross off, colour in, put a gold star on the target when you reach it.
When your visual display of goals is pinned next to or behind your screen, you have an immediate visible record of achievement and progress – as well as a reminder to keep going. Some people like to also build in celebrations at the end or at key milestones.
Not everyone can work to these kinds of goals. And some people need to mix them up or change them along the way.
If you are wondering how you might mix up targets and goals, use AcWrimo slightly differently, or how you might carry it on afterwards, have a quick look at Canadian author K C Dyer’s Yahtzee planning approach. The Yahtzee method combines variable word count targets and counting back from a task completion goal. It’s an adaptable idea and can be modified to your particular circumstances.
If you have a moment, it’s well worth watching this Creative Writing Academy clip about how Dyer turned the idea of Yahtzee into a writing planning tool – and how it might work for you in the longer term.
And good luck with your writing for the remainder of the month.
I usually don’t have a lot of trouble writing. I’m lucky I know, but my capacity to just get on with writing is also because I’ve got a lifetime writing habit. However, even the most hardy of habits can be disrupted. This year, the various stages of lockdown have combined with the onerous and time/energy consuming task of moving teaching and supervision online. I’m just not as able to settle into my usual morning writing pattern. As well, a colleague and I have had several rounds of book proofs and indexing to do and that has had to take priority – along with this blog.
Unremitting online work is exhausting. I’m certainly not finding new times in the afternoon or evening for writing and my mornings are just much less productive. What to do? Sounds familiar, I am sure.
Now I already know lots of ways to start writing when stuck. Timed writing? Tick. Prompts? Tick. Sort out my workspace? Tick. Make plans? Tick. Set goals? Tick. Do all the preparation? Tick. Just write anything as long as it’s writing? Tick. Social writing spaces? Nope. I know they are magic for lots of folks but they aren’t for me, I work best solo or in a live face to face co-writing situation. Writing rooms and retreats aren’t my magic bullet.
But alas, none of these worked. So I went looking for some new resources to help me through the difficulties of getting into the writing frame of mind. Happily, I’ve found quite a lot, which I’ll blog about slowly over the next few months. But I want to tell you about the one which has helped me to get going again. I took the hint from Joanne Harris’ book Ten things about writing. Joanne Harris, author ofChocolat, and loads of other lovely books, often tweets a thread of ten things; this book brings various lists of ten things together, and elaborates on them.
The first section of her book is called Where do I start? It covers a range of topics from giving/getting permission to write, establishing habits, dealing with space and time, planning, getting ideas and doing research. Any of these lists of ten would be useful to someone wanting to build their writing practice. However the list of ten that spoke to me was one called headspace.
Harris wrote this piece thinking of the writer who travels, they are away from their usual workspace. However, I reckon it now applies equally to those whose usual writing space has become something else – now not just a place to write, but also to have meetings, teach, supervise and so on. The writing sanctum becomes the all-purpose multitasking location. This screen is now the everything work related. So there is a similar need, I’d now argue, to find ways to separate out writing time/space from the rest of the day/focus, even though the material location and office stuff remains absolutely the same.
Harris’ list of headspace ten are a set of exercises which help you get in the writing zone They work to help you to forget your surroundings and what ever else they are used for. Her exercises are sensory prompts and triggers. She says that they may seem a bit New-Agey, but it’s worth giving them a go to see if any of them do work for you.
Harris’ exercises range from choosing pleasurable objects that you handle and look at every time you turn to writing, to building a scent library, to visualising the perfect office. She also recommends choosing a writing unform to change into, reading aloud something you have written and like, in order to find your voice with its unique rhythms and cadences, and creating a memory book of important images that support you to focus and calm. She also lists strategies to remove intrusive noises, images and so on.
But it’s music that has worked for me. I always have music on when I work in my office. But in response to Harris I have changed what I do. I now only use music as an accompaniment to writing and turn it off at all other work times. I associate music now only with writing – yes just like Pavolov’s dog with treats and bells.
I begin writing time with the same playlist each time; the tracks start out pretty chilled and a bit classical but then become more subtly up beat. Because I subscribe to a streaming music service, the little music AI brain can then go on to offer a similar soundtrack for however long I am writing. Every now and then I change my starting tracks, although the genre of music doesn’t change that much. This repetition is important in supporting the writing habit.
I’ve discovered that separating out the aural time/space in which I’m writing does work to corral writing from other activities. The music sets the scene and maintains the writing mood. It tunes me in to writing.
Harris’ prompts cover sight, touch, smell and sound. As she says, we don’t all respond to the same sensory cues. I’d have tipped beforehand that I might respond more to the visual than I did, but it was actually disciplining the ways in which I used music that made the difference for me. I now know that when I play music, I can write. I do write. I am writing.
(And if you want to know, my latest opening tracks are Kjartan Sveinsson’s Volcano and Fljotavik and then a selection of Sigur Ros, starting with the very new Dvergmal. This music always reminds of the stunning vast Icelandic landscape, my second home away from home – I have really missed being and working there this year. Pics. from an Icelandic road trip a few years ago. So the visual is not entirely missing from the aural.)
Helen: It’s interesting to reflect on how we do this co-editing thing. We’ve been working together on this series since May 2017, so that’s three-and-a-half years. You and I hadn’t worked together before, though we’d talked a lot on Twitter, a bit by email, and got into a comfy habit of meeting for lunch now and again at a nice pub midway between our offices. Ahhh, those were the days… anyway, now it’s mostly email with the occasional online meeting. Those are the nuts and bolts, but there’s a lot more to co-editing a series than that. I think it helps that we share quite a similar outlook on life. Was that why you asked me to co-edit with you?
Pat: I’m always prepared to take an educated punt on who might be fun to collaborate with. I saw that you were talking with doctoral and early academic career people on social media, as I was, but you had a very different background. You were an independent researcher, as opposed to me, a full time academic. However, we shared an interest in methodologies and methods. But we also knew about some different things too. As I remember it, we hadn’t actually even met face to face, but “knew” each other online. I think that you can actually get to know people through social media, just as you used to be able to through the medium of writing letters. Over time, as you see how people are on social media you get an impression of how they are and how they might be to work with. So asking you if you’d be interested in working on a series was in part about our shared interests and complementary differences, but also about the hunch that you would be good to work with. But why did you say yes?
Helen: I was a little bit flattered by you asking, and I too thought you could be fun to collaborate with. But mostly I agreed with you about the gap in the market for short books on topics around academia that didn’t merit a full-length book and so weren’t adequately covered in the literature. It was so interesting to think about! I’ve just checked my records and when we met in April 2018, the first book in the series was being written and we had 21 other ideas of titles and/or authors to follow up. Some have come to fruition now, such as Narelle Lemon’s and Janet Salmons’ book on collaboration, and Petra Boynton’s book on being well in academia. That’s lovely to see. Some didn’t even get off the starting blocks, and we have others in the series that we didn’t consider in that meeting, such as Your PhD Survival Guide which offers doctoral students help for their final year. Many of our authors come from our networks, so clearly networking and thinking are two of the key skills for co-editing a book series. You have more experience of this than me; what would you say are the others?
Pat: Well there’s choosing a publisher. I’d had a very initial discussion with Sarah, an editor at Routledge who I had worked a lot with before. I’d floated the idea of a series for doctoral and early career researchers that were shorter than usual, covered niche topics were affordable. She was very enthusiastic about the idea and encouraged me to pursue it. She also sent me a few small books that I could look at. At our first meeting, we discussed the style and tone of the books. We agreed on the size question, and also that our books should have a voice somewhere between a blog and an ordinary academic book. We also wanted something where the layout was half way between a text book and a monograph – so we needed a template/house style that allowed for different kinds of exercises, examples, illustrations. So afterwards, when we wrote the actual book series proposal we not only knew the competition and the market as well as the prospective authors, we also had a clear idea of what the books would be and do. And then of course there was the series cover decision!
Helen: OMG the cover decision… that took us a while, didn’t it? But I’m happy with the results. I have copies of all the books we’ve published so far, and they look good together. That’s important for the Routledge stand at academic conferences – not that those are happening at present, but I hope they will be again in time. So promotion is another skill co-editors need, and of course social media savvy is helpful there too. I think communication skills are also important. You and I communicate well with each other and with our authors and would-be authors. And it mattered to us both from day one to be supportive to people thinking of writing, or actually writing, for our series. I don’t think all series editors do that and I’m not sure why; do you have any thoughts?
Pat: Well, we are really committed to the series and what we think it can be, and we want it to be super good. We want to make the dream we had about it at the start a reality. I guess we run the risk of being seen as being too hands-on, but I think I’d rather that than distant and un-contactable. And I’ve certainly had the experience of working with a pretty remote series editor when I could have done with some conversation about working with a production editor and that was much harder than it needed to be. We do want our authors to feel supported, and that also means offering some constructive suggestions for improvement. And of course it’s important that Sarah, our Routledge Editor, shares our view of what the series is and does; we do have a productive partnership with our publisher. That’s important too; we can make suggestions about the series, its direction and processes, and also about its promotion.
So here’s our twelve top tips for series editing:
Know the field, its debates and authors
Choose a co-editor with complementary skills and similar interests
Identify the niche in the field that the series will occupy, and the potential audience
Imagine the possible series – what it could be – and its USP
Identify the right publisher you can partner with
Build a list of potential titles and authors
Line up the first two or three titles and authors
Write a short and punchy proposal for the series
Work with the publisher on the series identity – size, layout, cover etc
Actively recruit authors and titles
Work with the authors through proposal and manuscript development stages
Actively engage with the publisher and authors in promoting the series
Look, just blame this bit of silliness on working at home since March. And a bit of clickbait from the Times Higher ( paywalled, but you can see the headline)
(cough) I know you’re there. Turn on the microphone. And the camera. We’ve got time before the meeting starts to have a bit of a chat. I’ve got good news, he’s not coming.
(pause) There we are. Can you hear me? Yes? OK. … So who’s not coming?
Him. You know – he who sits on the Inky Throne. Lord of Scopus. Baron of Thomson Reuters. King of the H Index. Him. Apparently the Middle Lands are locked in and he can’t travel. So they’ve sent us this story about him instead. You need to read it.
No time. I have to read and rank this pile of REFable papers by the end of the day. Just tell me what it says.
Well, it says he publishes a paper every two days.
Whaaat? That’s ridiculous. Impossible.
Well that’s what it says. He’s apparently published 161 papers so far this year.
You must be joking. How does anyone do that?
Well, he says these papers are mainly with his PhDs and former PhDs. But he reckons that he is involved in every one of the papers – he makes an intellectual contribution – he talks about being involved in the design and oversight of research projects and critical review of the papers.
So the Inky Lord does what most of us think of as supervision and then sticks his royal seal of approval on the papers? And he has like a little publication army that he sends out to conquer the scholarly world?
Well yes, but you know that some disciplines work this way. His is one. It’s their tradition.
Which is not the same as ours.
Well no. But you have to admit that his system might work to advantage his PhDs. It’s pretty competitive out there. Yes I know, don’t say it, it shouldn’t be this competitive. (stares sideways and reads) He does say that you have to do at least 5% of the work on a paper before you put your name on it. Sometimes he does much more, he says. So he can spend five or six hours on a draft.
Five or six hours. Huh. I should be so lucky. I routinely spend that long on half a page. Don’t even mention my overdue book manuscript and my half-written grant application. But hang on, it’s coming back to me. Don’t I remember something about gaming – cutting and pasting between papers? Or was that just a horrible rumour? And then there was something about publishing in just a few journals and publishing a lot with a particular journal editor – or something like that.
Dunno about all that. This says that his teaching is compressed into one month so that leaves him lots of time.
One month!! So not even a term’s worth of teaching then. Who gets to do that?
But he works a fifty to sixty hour week, he says. He puts his publications down to hard work, not just the doctoral support staff.
Like the rest of us don’t work hard. Is that the implication? And we should all be working fifty to sixty hours week in, week out. As if we don’t have actual lives. And if we don’t publish something every two days, we’re slackers? We’re not “performing”? We’re not “productive”? I’m glad he’s not coming to the meeting. But hang on, why was he coming to the meeting in the first place?
Not sure. Perhaps he was meant to inspire us. Or shame us. I don’t know.
Surely not to suggest that even though we are about to submit our output tithes to the national counting house, we still need to keep up the pace? Or actually increase it? I’m already chained to my desk and screen like the proverbial monk in the scriptorium.
Yeah. Me too.
( sighs) I really don’t want to hear any more. No more of the Middle Lands very own scholarly Ser Legane. Let’s talk about what it’s actually like for your ordinary academic foot soldier, and for all those trying to get over the Great Wall of Casualisation. He can just sod off. ( inaudible mutters)
Where have you gone? Your picture is turned off.
Yes, I know. This scholarly serf can just squeeze in a few more emails to quarantined students before the meeting starts. See you in a bit.
Writing, and its alter ego, reading, are the backbone of academic work. The practices that make scholarship what it is.
In the PhD there are multiple places and purposes for writing.
We often focus on the final text, the thesis, the writing that communicates what we claim to know, that explains the research we have done. We may of course also write other texts that deal with our research – conference papers, journal articles, and perhaps articles for professional publications, blog posts and tweets. We may write about our research in audit reports to the university or a funder, or send regular updates and small textual chunks to supervisors.
This kind of writing is product and action oriented. We assemble information, plan what we will say, attend to the order and structure of the text – we craft the writing so that it has the best chance of succeeding. We write so that the thesis is awarded, the conference abstract is accepted, the conference paper is engaging and encourages others to make connections with us, the journal article makes it through review, funding is continued, the supervisor and institution have confidence in us and our work.
We don’t entirely know ahead of time what this kind of writing-for-another reader will be – it is often the case that as we start to write, we see more and know more as we go along. We consolidate, as well as find new emphases and possibilities, through the writing.
However there’s other writing that scholars do, and that’s writing that is central to learning. This type of writing helps us to figure things out. During the PhD – and in any scholarly work – we write all the time. Not to publish. Not to send the text anywhere. We write to help us make sense of things. We make notes continually. We summarise and synthesise, compare and contrast what other people have said and written. We shape and craft our interpretations of texts into something that speaks with our particular research project. We make tables, codes, images, doodles, graphs, maps and diagrammes. We have piles of files of ideas, tentative explorations of data, emerging analysis, experimentation with theory. These writings help us to sort out what we might mean, can mean, can say and not say.
We start an idea, consider a text, speculate, attempt to put things together. Ideas coalesce and gel in ways we may not have expected. Connections and contradictions are clarified. Putting an idea into words, finding the words to consolidate thinking and talking, creating something more orderly out of scattered fragments – this is writing to learn. We also learn more about the writing itself. We experiment and play with ways to describe, to categorise, to explain. We learn how to craft a sentence, a paragraph, an argument. Our writing goal is simply to find out more.
There is a lot of this kind of learning-writing at the start of the PhD. Early writing is process oriented, we are less concerned with a well turned phrase, we are more interested in a clearer line of thinking. We are the primary reader of these learning texts. We are writing for ourselves. Of course, learning-writing can lead to writing intended for other readers, and indeed some of this learning-writing may be shared with supervisors or writing groups.
Some very famous scholars write in exactly this way – they start with an idea and then write it to fruition. Michel Foucault for instance described his writing just this way.
I don’t write because I have something in mind, I don’t write to show what I have already demonstrated and analysed for myself. Writing consists essentially of doing something that allows me to discover something that I hadn’t seen initially. When I begin to write an essay or a book, or anything, I don’t really know where it’s going to lead or where it’ll end up or what I’m going to show. I only discover what I have to show in the actual movement of writing, as if writing specifically meant diagnosing what I had wanted to say at the moment I begin to write. (Foucault, 2013 p 46.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Foucault started off his writing with nothing. I imagine him surrounded with books and notes but not yet a clear idea of how these would come together. Nor do I imagine that his written work didn’t go through many iterations and drafts in order to reach the point where it was fit to go to other readers. He may have even made a plan as his first step. He doesn’t say. But many scholars do begin their writing process with some kind of written plan or abstract, a small piece of writing that begins the process of pulling materials together. Other scholars do something more free form, and work through successive texts, shifting and refining as they go along.
And it is writing to learn that is crucial at the very start of the PhD. It is important to develop the habit of writing summaries of texts, jotting down ideas about your research design, keeping a reading journal, perhaps also a journal of reflections on your own learning, worrying away at the wording of your research question or hypothesis, writing regular updates of where you are for yourself and your supervisor. All of these kinds of writings will, even if they feel scattered and messy at the outset, help you to think through your research problem and your field.
And of course you need to make writing to learn a systematic, regular and frequent practice. Make sure that you find a way to organise all of this early writing so that you can find things again easily. Use bibliographic software as well as a system of naming, dating and grouping texts so that you can find things again. Work out when it is possible and good for you to do different kinds of writing – noting, reflecting, generating ideas – and set up regular times in your diary to do them. That’s because a key to the PhD is to see writing as your close companion. A friend to help you make sense of what and how you are learning. A friend to cultivate now, rather than later.
This is a guest post from Dr Randi Stebbins. Randi is Director of the University of Iceland Centre for Writing.
Peer review is a central part of academic publication. The process of back and forth between authors and reviewers is meant, in part, to ensure the quality and novelty of articles. Many journals use what is known as a double-blind process in peer review – neither the authors nor the reviewers know each other’s names. The double-bind process is touted as a safeguard against bias, particularly gender and race biases, and to ensure a broader range of authors gets published. And, there is some research that indicates double-blind reviews do exactly this.
What kind of bias do I mean? To explain, let me start with a hypothetical (I’m a lawyer by training and we love those). A PhD student submits an article to an international journal co-authored by various supervisors. The institutional affiliation of the authors is known to the reviewers, but the names are not. Based on institutional affiliation, at least one reviewer assumes that the authors, or at least the ones who actually wrote the paper, are not native speakers of English. One or more peer reviewers then puts in the almost obligatory comments about language and needing the paper reviewed by a native speaker of English.
Really, this story is not so hypothetical since I have seen it happen repeatedly to students who visit me at the University of Iceland Center for Writing, where I am the director. I have also seen it happen with students and faculty for whom I have acted as a professional proofreader. In fact, it has happened in my own submissions to academic journals. So what, exactly, is going on here?
Well, first is a bias against what reviewers take to be non-native English. I say “take to be” on purpose here because reviewers in double-blind peer reviews have no way knowing if the writer would identify English as their native language, or one of many native languages. Instead, the reviewers make blanket assumptions about the status of the English based on institutional affiliation. Interestingly, the comments on language often come from non-native writers of English themselves, if journal publication sites and mastheads are any indication.
That leads into another bias that seems to be active in peer reviews, that is the unspoken belief that there is only one form of academic English and that it needs to be as close to the reviewer’s form as possible. Perhaps this is why we see many comments about needing help from native speakers of English coming from non-native reviewers. They are possibly less aware of the breadth of language available to those who write academic English. This may lead them to misdiagnose issues of style and tone as issues of grammar.
And that is, in my experience, largely what reviewers are reacting to in their language-related comments—style and tone. When reading over a student’s paper in the Center for Writing or as a proofreader, my job is to either point out grammar mistakes or correct them if I possibly can. I also work to give my students resources so that they can better identify their own grammar issues to become their own best editors. Despite intensive grammar work, my students and clients still get comments on their language that make it seem like the reviewer has some higher knowledge of English grammar than they do.
And let me be clear at this point: native speaker bias also assumes that all native speakers of English have the same access to and understanding of academic English. As I like to point out to my students, no one is born a native speaker, and especially not a native writer, of academic English, not even me who now makes a living helping others to develop as academic writers in English, among other languages. I urge my students to be careful in picking someone to read over their work solely based on that person’s status as a native speaker of English. Quite often, a knowledgeable non-native speaker would be a better pick.
If only journals would take as much care with picking their peer reviewers or in guiding their reviewers regarding comments on language, but few do. Instead, we have reviewers who quibble over the use of “by” versus “from” and go sentence by sentence over a work that is quite grammatically correct only to suggest changes that are either not grammatical or do not fit into the style and/or tone of the original paper. In short, they are trying to turn the original authors into themselves.
Mistaking differences in style and tone for grammar is the last bias I see over and over again in peer reviewers’ comments. Better said, this is not so much a bias as a misunderstanding of the important role that style and tone play in academic writing, and in all writing. Perhaps this is quite understandable because it is difficult to really sit with a text and try to understand what about it you dislike that is not grammatically incorrect. It takes even more work to then explain that to the authors of the original text. And, it seems, it takes even more work for reviewers to stop themselves from assuming that their preferences for style and tone are anything more than personal preferences, instead treating them like grammatical rules.
This is a pity, particularly for students. All writing is an act of expressing parts of our identities, and many students are still forming their identities as academic writers, making them less able to argue against native speaker bias in reviews. If the student is a non-native writer of English as well, the damage can be multiplied. It is a very different position to be in as a native speaker with long writing experience. What I did with my co-authors, one native speaking and one not, was to write a letter to a reviewer who practically demanded we have the article read by native speakers detailing how we would be the very people who would edit such an article.
It is also a pity for the genre. It pushes more novice writers towards the belief that there is a canonical way of expressing ourselves around academic issues and entrenches the idea of a single, standard English. Instead, we should be promoting a multitude of Englishes that fit the multitude of realities, circumstances, and topics that drive people into research and to publish.
Add Randi’s cautions about language biases to things to think about when peer reviewing – see this post for additional reviewing advice: peer reviewing your first paper
If you are starting out on a PhD you are probably expecting it to be hard work. That’s not wrong. A doctorate isn’t easy – it’s an extended piece of work over a long period of time. It takes energy and effort to stay focused and working on working on. Stamina.
But you can’t expect to maintain the same pace and intensity throughout. There’s inevitably be some ups and downs. And some of these can be anticipated. There are some predictable points in the PhD which are challenging –
getting the research question or the hypothesis sorted out,
reining in the literature and working out how to structure your account of them,
devising a strategy to tackle all of the data you have generated
finding the theory that allows you to explain what you have
cracking the structural nut that leads to a coherent well-argued thesis text
clarifying the contribution that you make, to the point where you can say it in a couple of sentences.
These are challenging things precisely because they are places where you are doing work that is new to you. You’re pushing at the edges of what you already know. New thinking.
Formulating your “answer” to research “problems” is not necessarily going to come quickly, or to order. You may have to slough around for a quite a while before the pieces gel. So expecting that there are going to be some stuck points is sensible.
It’s also sensible to anticipate times when you’ll feel out of your depth. You’ve no doubt heard about imposter syndrome – more correctly called a phenomenon, as it’s not an illness, but it is something that a lot of people experience. Imposter phenomenon isn’t something to be frighted of. It’s pretty logical if you think about it. Feeling like you don’t know what you are doing or talking about is a perfectly rational response to being halfway through a project, to being in the company of people who have been reading and researching for a long time, and to having to put your emerging ideas out there. You’re really not yet sure of what you’re doing. And that’s the doctorate. It’s what it’s about, it’s built into the three year project. You’re not at all deficient or defective if you feel like a bit of a fraud sometimes.
There are of course ways to deal with the fear that you might be found out at any moment – good preparation. rehearsing, learning a bit of improv, owning the work in progress. But it’s also about recognising that not knowing and being unsure are integral to research and are as much a part of the process as actually knowing.
Along the way there may well be other dips and troughs too, related to your project, life, the weather – and these days, various forms of lockdown. These are unpredictable in the sense of when they happen – but you can realistically expect there might be a few life related bumps. After all, not a lot of adults have three to four years (or more) where nothing much happens.
If your plan for your PhD has a bit of slack in it, a bit of flex, then you can likely weather a lot of the PhD trickiness. Taking advantage of all of the support for wellbeing and self care, as well as finding and keeping the information about support services, is simply sensible forward planning.
You may worry however that the PhD is inevitably going to be an ordeal. You have probably read a lot about the trials and tribulations and not much about the pleasures. There are loads of stories out there about poor supervision relations, dysfunctional labs and departments, institutional discrimination and bungled or neglectful administration. These are all true and it’s as well to know that these are possible. But it’s also the case that these don’t happen to everyone. And when they do a lot of people still find a way to get through them, with help from support groups and sheer bloody-minded determination.
But there are times when the PhD is simply a joy. Anticipate these too.
There are creative pleasures in piecing together disparate pieces of literature, finding a way through a knotty data question, seeing the patterns finally emerge out of your time-consuming analysis, finding a text that really moves your thinking on, locating the big idea that will make the writing work. There are energising conversations and new friendships where ideas bubble over and unexpected collaborations happen. There are local and international networks where your work not only finds a place but is seen as important and exciting and where you encounter new and surprising perspectives. There is affirmation when others read even your most tentative ideas – and find them helpful or interesting or provocative.
These fulfilling occasions are also potentially waiting for you too, confirming your decision to undertake such a long haul intellectual project.
Finally. One last thing. You do need to know, as you start on the PhD, that the majority of supervisors and grad school staff not only understand what it takes to start and finish the doctorate, they also want you to succeed. We mightn’t always know what is best or right for you, and we might make mistakes, but our goal is the same as yours – that you get to do the walk across the stage wearing the floppy hat and full academic dress. We’re here to help.
Twenty other #startingthePhD posts that you might also find interesting
Most of us work in occupied research territories. Other researchers have been around at least some of the things that we are concerned with. Their work offers particular interpretations and perhaps ‘evidence’ that may – or may not – be useful to us as we work out what we are going to do.
Other people’s work is really helpful when we are deciding what our key terms will mean. Most of us use terminology in our research question or hypothesis which needs some explanation. One or more key terms. We have to say how we understand the term, and why. We have to say what we will include and exclude. We have to offer our take, what readers need to know about our particular version of the term. referring to other people’s work to help us make the case.
I often see people struggling with this kind of definitional work. Their first drafts are often a paragraph which goes – A understands (key concept) as this, B says it’s that and C has a different version again. But I’m using D which goes like this.
At this point I – and I am sure most other supervisors write – But why D? What is it about D that is important to you? And what are the implications of using D – what gets left out and what seems to be taken as important? Who else uses D and how? Does this matter? My hunch is that many people get a bit stymied about how to answer these kinds of questions.
I/the supervisor is actually asking for a little case to be made with some evidence and some interpretation about the term We are asking for your take. Here is where it is really helpful to read other people’s work to see the way in which they manage this task. How do they establish their take on their key terms?
Reading for the writing
Here is one example of researchers offering their take – making a case for the ways in which they are going to interpret a particular term. This example is a small section of the first chapter of a 2020 book called Culture is bad for you. I am using this example because I think the authors do a great job of explaining their take on a very complex topic in a very clear way. This whole chapter could be a really helpful teaching resource – and I can’t really do justice to the careful definitional and explanatory work that the authors do in a short blog post.
In this small section from pages 20 and 21 the authors outline their take on inequality – a term that has been used by loads of people over a long period of time and in many different ways. They go on to expand on and explain inequality further throughout the book but here, at the start, they are sketching the ground that they are going to cover.
Here’s the extract. The numbers refer to groups of references that are given in endnotes – that is, the backing for their take.
Inequality is now an important subject for academic research. Much of this has been driven by economists and sociologists. (25) That work has tended not to look at cultural and creative industries. Cultural and media studies have done extensive research on the subject. We’re aiming to situate our analysis between these fields.
There is extensive, and highly politicised, debate about the nature and extent of inequality. (26) This includes the extent of inequality within countries, as well as between countries. (27)
In the UK, along with countries such as the United States and France, the focus of research has been on inequality between the very ‘top’ of society and the rest of the population. The core argument here is that wealth inequalities are becoming greater. This is because profits from financial resources are outstripping growth in other areas of the economy, such as wages. This means that those who already have financial assets are getting richer faster than the rest of society. (28)
The setting for these economic changes is a decade of reduced levels of overall economic growth and reduced levels of government spending following the financial crisis of 2008. Just as the richest at the top of society are getting richer, social support for the poorest has been reduced. (29)
Economic inequality is only one part of the story. There are various other forms of division reflecting our unequal society. (30) We can see this in research showing the persistence of gender and racial discrimination, along with prejudice against other types of minorities. (31) Inequality is also, in the UK and elsewhere, seen in geographic divides, for example between London and the rest of England. (32)
We can think of these examples as social inequalities. These social divisions are linked to other sorts of resources beyond financial assets. These can include social networks and social connections. (33) Crucially, they have a cultural dimension. These sorts of inequalities are about what is valued and what is given worth. (34) This is the first part of our connection between inequality and the study of cultural production and consumption.
You can see at once that there is no A says and B says. Instead, there is a position being outlined. The authors explain how they understand inequality, show what they base their interpretation on. In doing this, they say what their project and the book are going to cover. And not.
Let’s look at the extract in a bit more detail. What appears below is of course my take on their take – and the authors may explain what they were doing quite differently. But you know, my blog, my take. Your research, your take.
Inequality is now an important subject for academic research. Much of this has been driven by economists and sociologists. (25). That work has tended not to look at cultural and creative industries. Cultural and media studies have done extensive research on the subject. We’re aiming to situate our analysis between these fields.
LOCATING THE RESEARCH. We have an interdisciplinary approach.
There is extensive, and highly politicised, debate about the nature and extent of inequality. (26)
SIGNIFICANCE We’re offering one take on a hot topic.
This includes the extent of inequality within countries, as well as between countries. (27) In the UK, along with countries such as the United States and France,
WHAT’S GOING TO BE EXCLUDED. Inequality is generally understood as national and international. We agree but we’re looking at the UK only – but read knowing that there are parallels with other countries.
the focus of research has been on inequality between the very ‘top’ of society and the rest of the population. The core argument here is that wealth inequalities are becoming greater. This is because profits from financial resources are outstripping growth in other areas of the economy, such as wages. This means that those who already have financial assets are getting richer faster than the rest of society. (28) The setting for these economic changes is a decade of reduced levels of overall economic growth and reduced levels of government spending following the financial crisis of 2008. Just as the richest at the top of society are getting richer, social support for the poorest has been reduced. (29)
WHAT’S GOING TO BE INCLUDED. STEP ONE. (What I’ve highlighted in bold is about as close to a simple “definition”as the authors get.) Other researchers usually look at the most wealthy versus the rest of us, referring to wider economic and social changes. We are going to do this too.
Economic inequality is only one part of the story. There are various other forms of division reflecting our unequal society. (30) We can see this in research showing the persistence of gender and racial discrimination, along with prejudice against other types of minorities. (31) Inequality is also, in the UK and elsewhere, seen in geographic divides, for example between London and the rest of England. (32) We can think of these examples as social inequalities.
STEP TWO. But we also include social inequalities of gender, race and location, these are linked to economic inequalities.
These social divisions are linked to other sorts of resources beyond financial assets. These can include social networks and social connections. (33)
STEP THREE. And we include social networks and connections.
Crucially, they have a cultural dimension. These sorts of inequalities are about what is valued and what is given worth.
STEP FOUR. We suggest that economic and social inequalities have a cultural dimension so we are going to discuss cultural value.
This is the first part of our connection between inequality and the study of cultural production and consumption.
MOVING ON Having told you how we understand inequality we now need to look at the next key term and concept.
This take is one example of the kind of rhetorical work that you see in book introductions and in some journal articles. It is also the kind of rhetorical work that supervisors and examiners want to see in a thesis. How does the researcher explain their take on their topic?
So here’s a strategy if you’re doing this kind of laying out the ground and definitional work. Take a bit of time out to see how other researchers in your field do this work.
You will see that offering your take doesn’t follow a set pattern – so the extract above doesn’t offer you a template or formula. But you will see something in common across most versions of the definitional take – the most readable ‘takes’ are those which don’t focus on the names of other researchers, but instead get to grips with the concept itself as it applies to the specific research project.
Writing about literatures doesn’t mean writing a summary of what you have read. You dont want a paragraph by paragraph laundry list of the texts you’ve been reading organised into a rough kind of order. Of course you write summaries as a means of making sense of your readings, but it’s not where you stop.
In writing about what other people have written you are:
evaluating and interpreting, pulling out major points and
connecting these interpretations to your topic.
So what you are writing then is not a report, but an argument. You are saying how you work sits in the field and how the field informs your work. This is arguing a case. Your case. Your argument is based in what you think the literatures mean and how you have understood them. You must then not only establish where your research fits in relation to the topic, what you are building on but also what you might want to speak back to, or expand further.
There are ways to make this writing task easier for yourself.
In thefirst part of this post I talked about developing three levels of themes from the data, and I showed how the three levels allowed you to structure a single piece of writing, a chapter, or establish where a global theme might fit as a section of a chapter. Here’s a reminder.
So how to you get from that to the argument? You have the structure but is that enough?
One helpful strategy for making the argument is to go back to the basic themes. You”ll notice that I’ve written the themes as points, not as topics. Each theme expresses the sum of an interpretation of a body of texts. The themes, as Ive written them, are more like the reminder notes you might have if you are speaking in a debate. Each bullet signals the line you are going to take and the thing you want the reader/audience to remember.
Now, I often see people working with outlines when they write chapters. The outline that they use usually has headings and subheadings. The outline looks a lot like a table of contents. The outline lists the topics that are to be written about. It might look like this.
Now the risk of this topic-based approach is that it doesn’t actually tell you what you have to say. What is it that you need to say about wellbeing, or supervisor experience? What bit of agency are you going to write about?
Well, it’s not that you don’t know this. You have this all in your summaries of readings so you can go back and orient yourself. However, the temptation of a topic approach is that you simply to write summaries and/or you find it tricky to pull out the key thread that is most germane to your work.
Outlines also support a tendency to write in little bites. First this topic, then that one. This kind of choppy writing is a characteristic of a lot of literatures writing and it’s one that makes it unnecessarily hard for readers – the struggle to put the bits together to follow the line of argument being made.
Working with a topic outline is not the same as working with themes.
Working with themes rather than topics allows you to do two important things –
you have in front of you as you write, the point you want to make, the point that you are building on, the issue that is most important to your work, that you take up in your research design and/or analysis. So you have that in mind as you start to write. You know that this is the idea that holds these literature together and that you must both show and discuss. As a bonus, having the points of each basic theme clear also helps you to be more concise.
you can see what is missing. If you look at the third element of this chunk on the doctoral experience you can see that these three things don’t appear to follow particularly logically from one another. It might be that there are some bits missing here, or I need to revisit my themes. Either way, focussing on the steps taken by the basic themes will allow me to see and get flow – a logical progression from one basic theme to another.
Compare the two -points and themes – and see the difference. Imagine using both of them as the guide to your writing. I hope you can see the difference that a point might make.
Working with themes and not topics is a writing strategy. It isnt the final thing. You don’t necessarily want the reader to see all of your scaffolding in the final text. So, when you do write the final table of contents, you usually convert the themes to topics. This is something that you do on a second or third draft once you’ve got the sequence and flow of argument sorted out.
For a first draft, working with themes can really help. Give it a go yourself and see the difference it can make.