co-writing – strategies for working with other people’s words

There are various types of co-writing practices. Pretty well all of them involve you working on text that other people have written.

This is a sensitive matter. Many people are anxious about their writing and do not enjoy the process of having their words erased and/or replaced. This may be the case with their own revision process, or may apply particularly to scrutiny from others. This sensitivity isn’t entirely illogical. Writing and academic identity are folded into each other – it is not too difficult to see any corrections to your text as also a commentary on your scholarship. Because of this textual touchiness,  co-writing strategies really do need to be discussed. And preferably prior to serious writing.

It’s helpful at the outset to know yourself.

  • Are you precious about words? Do you struggle to revise? Do you like revising and editing or do you find that these are stages you just want to rush through? Do you feel ‘word loss’ very acutely? 
  • Are there any co-writing strategies that you would find hard to deal with? For instance, I can’t stand writing with people who only write questions about what I’ve written rather than actually getting stuck in with alternatives. I’d much rather leave the questions to the things that actually need a discussion.
  • Are there any co-writing strategies that you think are helpful? I have found it’s usually helpful to have a discussion about big restructures, or changes to a line of argument. if one person makes a dramatic textual intervention, which then comes back as a very different piece, a co-writer will certainly be surprised  – and maybe not in a good way. I favour a talk-first-to-co-develop-the-new approach.

Productive co-writing relationships are built on trust. It’s important to not only think about how you respond to your partner’s writing, but also how you will respond to what they say about yours.  This means not being immediately defensive when co-writers question what you have done. If they suggest that radical textual surgery is needed on your first draft, it may well be a good call. This is hard to take, but it is inevitable in all academic writing that some texts work better than others. Sometimes we are so close to what we’ve done that we can’t see the problems we’ve inadvertently created. One of the benefits of co-writing is that other people can save us from sending these misjudgments off to be reviewed. So, it is tempting to leap to our own defence, but good to take a deep breath and hear what is being said.

So now a bit more practical stuff…

It’s often good to kick off co-writing a paper with a shared plan. Now this might be drafted by one person, or it could be developed via conversation, or it could be something as simple as an email. However, new co-writing relationships often benefit from building a more detailed joint understanding about the writing to be done at the start. And in the case of doctoral researcher-supervisor papers, shared planning is a time when the supervisor can support the doctoral researcher to learn a new genre and an approach to mapping out a paper, choosing the journal and so on.

Part of shared planning is negotiating the role that co-writers will play. Are you a minor player, a bit actor in a performance by the first author? Or are you an equal partner, with authority to change the paper in the ways you think it needs? This negotiation leads pretty easily into questions of material process – so the questions are raised about the hows, whether you should delete, track changes, raise questions…

Ideally, co-writers should read the document they get from a co-writer as equivalent to one that they have written themselves – in other words, they should understand the labour that has been put into getting it to this stage, but also see the text as something that they are able to add to. A co-writer should feel able to act, and not be tentative and unsure of their colleague’s reaction.

It’s worth thinking about ‘voice’ too and whether you want to read like one person writing rather than two. Think about your various writing idiosyncrasies and how they might mesh. Consider whether one person needs to take final responsibility for smoothing over the text so it does read easily.


And it’s good to think about some ground rules if this is a new co-writing partnership. Here’s three to kick around:

  • Negotiate the time taken for writing drafts of sections and for doing re-writes. This avoids the situation where one person gets anxious about what the other is doing/not doing.
  • Agree how the changes are going to be made. Track changes? New text highlighted? Whole new version?
  • Agree on how the new documents will be saved. How will you name each iteration? Title, date, author? And where will they be filed so you can both get at them – cloud store of some kind, or simply ping pong by email.

If you are co–writing, and almost all of us do at some point, and some of us more than others, then it’s very helpful to have as much as possible sorted at the start. But you also need to keep an eye on process as you go along and be prepared, if things start to go awry, to stop the writing for a moment to sort things out.

And remember, co writing can be one of the joys in academic life. Real conversations. Shared sense of achievement. Learning from each other.

Photo: Timothy Takemoto, Flickr Commons.

Posted in academic writing, co-writing, revision, revision strategy, Uncategorized, voice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

tame your inner writing demon

We all have writing demons. They go by various names – imposters, internal critics, inner editors, blockages, procrastinations … they are nasty and stop you writing. Mostly you wish they’d go away and just leave you be. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t want to get rid of these demons entirely. You don’t want to slay then and rid yourself of them forever. Well, probably not. They can actually be useful, you see, at the right time and in the right places.

The imposter demon stops you being cocky and making over-claims. The internal critic offers you a way to evaluate your writing, the first step in thinking how to change it. The inner editor focuses you on textual features that need attention. Writing blockages can help you to rethink to see if your warrant, argument, evidence, angle aren’t suitable for the task. Procrastination can create some helpful re-thinking time and space.

Because the demons can be useful, in their place, it can be helpful to think about what they actually are and what they are ‘saying’ to you. It can be good to consider when and how your demon might be a benefit, rather than a barrier to your writing.

Health warning. Playful strategy ahead.

This is a small, somewhat silly exercise I sometimes do in workshops if participants are having a really hard time getting their writing demons under control. You do have to be in the right frame of mind to do it, and I understand that some people will find this activity pretty odd/naff/stupid. (However, the exercise does have an actual therapeutic basis – re-narrativisation.) It’s not a completely bad thing to do in a group where you can all have a laugh together about the demons you share – and the smart remarks you make to them. But if you’re not in the mood for a bit of play stop HERE, NOW. 

First of all, imagine your demon. If there is more than one, just pick the one that appears most often.

Now give it some kind of shape – human, animal, fantastic, surreal, whatever fits the feelings it creates … You might like to draw it, or find a picture of something that fits and stick it on a paper or digital slide.


Now imagine your demon speaking to you. Write down what it says – if you are working with a picture use a speech bubble…

The next step is to put yourself into the picture. Imagine that you are speaking back to your demon. You may want to just vent for a moment. But then –

Answer back. What is unhelpful about the demon’s statement? Say it as rudely, sneakily, cleverly as you can. 

And now –

Answer back again. This time… Reframe what the demon is saying … what is it about the demon’s comments that might be helpful? How? And when? Stay where you are inner editor until I ask you to come and help with… you get the idea. Tell the demon when you will let them spring into action. 

And there you have it. Writing demon. Tamed. Put in its place. Back in its box.

In a group it’s always fun to print out and post up all the demons and share the jokes. Sometimes I even hear people putting their demons away, as they go on writing…. 

Posted in academic writing, inner editor, procrastination, strong inner critic, Uncategorized, writer's block | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

researching on someone else’s project – it’s a relationship

This is a guest post by Nick Hopwood and Teena Clerke from the University of Technology Sydney. Together they reflect on their separate and shared processes of researching on someone else’s projects. And yes, one of them now works for/with the other. 

From jobbing researcher to PI: Nick Hopwood

I was struck by the patter series about working on someone else’s project. The posts took me back to my time as a newly minted PhD, and nudged me into thinking about my position now – as someone whose research other people work on. In the second half of this post, Teena Clerke writes from her perspective as a Research Associate on ‘my’ projects.

Pat wrote about an identity shift that isn’t always easy or welcome, going from pursuing your own agenda to working on something of someone else’s conception. Was my capacity to ‘assume the identity and practices of a fully fledged researcher’ abruptly curtailed in the way Pat and others suggest often happens? Yes. And no.

My main recollections of that time was that I was energised by a feeling of importance and being valued. In my PhD I wasn’t needed by anyone, apart from as a completion statistic for the University and funding body. Never having had a proper job, I was suddenly gainfully employed, trusted by someone else to do stuff they needed doing. So this was an expansive shift for me, rather than being curtailed, my identity was infused with new, unfamiliar layers. At last my friends couldn’t tease me for never having paid taxes or for lifelong avoidance of the ultimate four-letter word: work.

But there was some awkward academic identity-shifting going on, too. I remember vividly one of my first mornings, sitting proudly at my desk, arranging all the free office supplies (pens of every conceivable type, my personal stash of staples and letterheaded paper) and planning out the first tasks that I had to do for my boss. I had a boss! An administrator came through to tell me my meeting with the Head of Department was starting. A few minutes later she came back, saying they were waiting for me. Later still, and quite insistent this time, she escorted me to the office. So engrossed was I in arranging my free staples that I’d overlooked that my schedule was no longer my own. Other people got to decide where I needed to be and when.

It wasn’t just my schedule that was determined by others. This job had nothing to do with what I’d been researching for my PhD, so I had to create an identity in a whole new field – defined by the job, not by me. The job involved research that we approached in a way that was ultimately determined by the PI, Lynn McAlpine. I am naming her here (with her permission) because she was a fantastic person to work for (work with is probably more accurate). While she gave me a lot of freedom (I’ll get to that in a moment), she decided many key features of the research we did together. Quite rightly, I now realise, because it enabled us to merge our analyses with data coming from Canada, where she was also a PI.

So yes, there was some awkward shifting going on. I’d just got my research driving licence, and found myself unceremoniously removed from the steering wheel, the accelerator, and the brakes.

Here’s where the magic of working with someone like Lynn comes in: that wasn’t the overriding feeling. Lynn had relentlessly high expectations of me, and matched that with high levels of trust, and what I recognise now as high degrees of freedom. When your boss expects the best of you, entrusting you with roles in research that you’re unfamiliar with and feel somewhat unprepared for, it’s hard to feel curtailed. I wasn’t diminished, but stretched; I wasn’t boxed in, but pulled into new opportunities; I didn’t feel I was losing control over my academic destiny, I was being given unprecedented responsibilities and openings.

What made this possible? While there were some decisions I didn’t get to take, I was always involved in how we implemented them; and Lynn only ever took a few, big-picture decisions. The detail was always up for negotiation, and indeed we developed things together that fed back to and changed her Canadian projects. I was trusted to plan and write my own papers, while always being given the opportunity to join in papers authored by Lynn. I was allowed to apply for mini-funding to have my own spin-off projects, and to publish from them. In this I was not what Pat describes as ‘the extension of the PI’. This capacity to set my own terms was crucial to my career, as by the time I finished my first contract I had a number of grants under my belt, some with me as PI.

I was a jobbing researcher, but I was challenged and trusted to grow in the process. The project had its bottom lines, but I felt Lynn cared as much about my development as a researcher as she did the deliverables.

Pat asked, can such positions play out into real, permanent jobs? For me the answer would be yes, but not directly. My next job was another contract, and yet again requiring me to move into a new field and reinvent myself. But that was a Postdoc Fellowship – 4 years to do what I promised in the proposal (which was shaped to the institution’s strategic priorities, hence the repeated upheaval of field). And that job led to a one-year extension as a fixed-term lecturer, and that contract led to a continuing position.

So, my experiences as a jobbing researcher were confusing at times, challenging, but affirming of an evolving academic self. Lynn set a horribly high bar for how to work with jobbing researchers. One of the most daunting things about my Creating Better Futures project has been the pressure to live up to Lynn’s standards. So it means a lot to read in the second half of this post how Teena, the most important jobbing researcher in my career so far, reflects working with me as PI.

Pat asked me to think of an image that could go with this post. The one I chose speaks to the issues in this series in a number of ways. It is in my office, showing us working on a theoretical framework I decided we should work on. But Teena is holding the pen: we are creating a joint understanding and vocabulary to work together. In that sense it is symbolic of a way of working that seeks to create a sense of co-ownership, to flatten the hierarchies, and which leaves material traces of the ‘jobbing researcher’ in the privileged spaces of the PI.

Nick Teena 01june 15 1.jpg

 The view from the other side: Teena Clerke

Reading Nick’s reflections, I am reminded of my various experiences working on other people’s research projects. Unlike Nick however, I came to academia and educational research as a practitioner, not in education, but in graphic design. I had been self-employed and began teaching in the mid-1990s, which led to my enrolment in a Masters degree and then PhD in adult education. My supervisor was Professor Alison Lee, who sadly passed away in 2012. At the time, it amused me to hear Alison refer to my PhD as ‘my work’. I was not being paid to do this ‘work’. To me, it was ‘study’.

Alison co-opted me into the business of research in 2007, the second year of my PhD, where I was paid as a jobbing researcher to do what has sometimes been called the ‘grunt’ RA work. In this case, it meant following Alison’s directions as to what to do, where to find information and how to manage, analyse and extract from the analysis something significant that could be published. Together we wrote my first published, peer-reviewed paper and co-presented at a national conference. Yet I felt like a free loader, because Alison’s ideas, direction and writing got us there.

Between then and completing my PhD in 2012, I worked on a range of small, unfunded research projects for various faculty members. Different ‘bosses’, different purposes, different methods, different audiences. But the same feeling. Although I was ‘doing’ research, this was not my work. I was not really a researcher.

In 2011, Alison encouraged me to apply for the RA position on Nick’s project, which involved long-term observation methods called ethnography. I didn’t know it then, but it was also Nick’s first experience of having someone work on his project. Twenty years apart in age, it was Nick’s first big funded project, while I had run my own businesses, changed careers several times, and was finalising my PhD as Alison fell ill. But I had no experience in ethnographic fieldwork, nor in working for such a boss, who held higher expectations of myself then even I had!

Yet similarly to his experience with Lynn, Nick gave me ‘freedom’ to develop my own ethnographic sensitivities working on his project, while learning the importance of research administration and team communication. These experiences were documented in a book  (for which I’m first author – an example of Nick’s high expectations and trust), and encouraged by one of the reviewers, it includes my reflections on the ‘hidden’ gender dynamics of an older woman working with a younger, more experienced male researcher.

Five years out from my PhD and having worked on a multi-member and institution research project in between, we are completing the third year of Nick’s current project. Nick now trusts my research instincts, while mentoring my writing practices. There is mutual respect for our differences and leeway to negotiate and navigate compromises. I can say that it feels more like working on our project than the first one. Not quite, but almost.

Our co-work began with me seeing Nick as some kind of research guru, freakishly good at fieldwork, analysis, writing and teaching. Now I see that he is human too. And he cares about my development as a researcher. Through our collaboration, my identity as researcher has grown to the point where I work with Nick on the project, and I also work on other research projects. My professional instincts honed in other careers guide me in navigating the multiple and complex uncertainties in research, not the least of which is not knowing what is to come after December as I mourn the loss of our partnership.


Posted in doctoral researcher, early career researchers, emerging researchers, identity, Nick Hopwood, PI, researcher, researcher identity, Teena Clerke, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

EN and me

I write a lot about co- writing and the particular people I work with. But there’s one co-writing situation I don’t talk much about. And I should own up. I have been in a writing relationship with EN – full name EN Dnote  – for over twenty years. I confess that I have very occasionally flirted with other newer, cheaper models, but have always returned.


Like all bibliographic software, EN is a great time-saver. I can’t imagine writing a long document like a book without being able to amass citations and references as the work proceeds.

I know a lot of people do somehow get along without a scholarly labour saving assistance, but really – why? Is it the initial time you have to spend settling EN into your writing stuff/time/space that puts you off? You know all that time you non EN lovers spend post-draft doing the references? It quickly adds up to more than you’d spend if you established an ongoing, working EN library. It’s time well spent I can assure you –  it’s great finishing writing a draft, knowing that you’re done with the referencing at the same time.

I actually hate having to do without EN. Very occasionally I have to write something for a publication which has a style so peculiar EN struggles. It’s then I realise how much I depend on EN. My process of writing and EN have become entangled. I like the way EN’s small window sits alongside my docs on screen. EN is constant, always there. I can search EN at any time I choose and material is simply waiting for me to call it up.

I am seriously accustomed to working together with EN on a text. And not just to do the drafting and revising. Sometimes I use EN to mass a set of notes which I can massage into an outline. Mostly EN and I proceed together at the same pace through writing but occasionally, I let EN have little rests, and we then do a retro-reference job.

And EN has changed over the years. Like me, they’ve got better at academic writing. Once a pretty simple data base – best thought of as electronic library cards – EN, like its companions, is now meshed into the web and multiple libraries and platforms. EN stores PDFs if you want it to, can talk with other people’s EN libraries, has multiple styles and can even make new bespoke styles with you.

Hang on, any bibliographic software can do this, I hear you say. Well yes. That’s true.

But EN and I have shared history. Twenty years’ worth of reading for writing is accumulated in my EN’s files. I can’t possibly remember all of this. But EN does. I do have to help EN with memory work by making sure that I enter all of the appropriate notes and key words. But once primed, EN is almost infallibly reliable. Together, we have a prodigious grasp of over nine thousand books, papers and newspaper clips.

EN and I know each other’s eccentricities and needs. EN knows that I often require work on very long book texts and they are up for the challenge. And I found out early on that if I didn’t enter book and paper titles in lower case, and use surname, Christian name format for authors, then EN would sometimes struggle to produce orderly references.

But very occasionally EN deserts me. Well this usually isn’t EN’s fault, to be fair. There was a time not too long ago when word processing updates got way ahead of EN and I could no longer cite and reference. Forced to choose between writing with EN or not, I uninstalled the new wordprocess software. New wordprocess or EN? It wasn’t a choice.

And just the other day when I migrated data from my desktop to a brand new laptop, EN decided not to move into the new environment. I panicked. Where would I be without EN? What use was this expensive new laptop without EN? The whole point of getting new gear was so that I could write anywhere, anytime, and for that I needed EN. I soon realised I was at fault not EN. I needed to do a total migration of data in order to get EN on board with me. Once I’d done that, we were reconciled.

I know other people have other bibliographic software loves and fancies and that’s well and good. To each their own.  EN is my choice of co-writer. You see, EN and I just suit each other. There may well be better, faster and smarter models on the market now, although I have yet to be entirely convinced of this, no matter what you say.

EN and I are one. Divided we are weak. Together we are powerful. It will take quite a bit to make me forget twenty years together.

Twenty years and still going strong. EN, here’s to a great post-humanist writing collaboration.

Posted in co-writing, Endnote, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

co-writing with your supervisor – do we need a code of good practice?

Yes, universities now promote the practice of doctoral researchers writing with their supervisors, but their advice and support for those involved lags well behind their encouragement.

Most universities sign on to the Vancouver protocol, developed by medical researchers, which clarifies publication standards and delineates who ought to be counted as an author. The ICMJA – the National Committee of Medical Journal Editors – has helpfully reworded this Protocol. The ICMJA say that an author of a publication is someone who

  • has made substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • been involved in drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • has final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • agrees to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

So all four things together count as authorship, not one or two.

In ICMJA’s words:

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. 

So here’s one problem. If an author is someone who has engaged in all four specified activities, doctoral researchers who have undertaken only one of those tasks – perhaps involvement in the generation of data and its analysis – are, according to the ICMJA guidelines, to be acknowledged in the paper, but not counted as authors. If they want to be an author, they should be involved in the writing and manuscript development and approval. But getting into the other three activities might be out of the control of a doctoral researcher.  PhDers who have been engaged in data generation and analysis might not qualify as authors simply because their supervisors have not invited them to become part of the writing of the paper. They have been involved in one stage but, involuntarily, not the other three. And it is probably the asymmetric power relationship of supervision that allows this to happen.


ICMJA also suggest that:

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

While this statement is useful, it doesn’t actually resolve all of the issues in authorship, particularly in supervisor –PhD collaborations.  For instance, as I wrote last week, does a supervision relationship automatically count as a a substantial contribution worthy of authorship? Does guiding data generation and analysis and giving some feedback on the text count as critically revising a paper for important content? Certainly, some supervisors seem to think so.

And the ICMJA guidelines don’t address another common issue, namely, in what order are authors to come? Simply knowing the nature and/or percentage contribution doesn’t necessarily equate to the person doing the most work being first author. Should the author list be in order of seniority? Reverse order of seniority? Alphabetical? Reverse alphabetical so that those whose names start with a later letter, through no fault of their own, don’t always come last?

And is it realistic and/or sensible to suggest that all authors actually do have the last say on a paper? Does this mean the last track change? Or is there, for stylistic and coherence reasons, a rationale for giving one person the sign-off tasks and if so, what does this do to authorship order, particularly if that (senior?) person hasn’t done much else?

VITAE offer the following advice on author order:

In general, the person who has done most of the work is first author. In some fields joint first authorship is now common, to acknowledge the equal contribution of more than one person. The last author will usually be head of the group or the person whose idea it was. Generally, most of the writing is done mainly by the first and last authors. Another coveted author role is that of corresponding author, which is often the same as last author but can be someone different (for example in the case of collaborations).

Authorship order and sign off are bread and butter issues in large research teams which variously work them out. (Lots of anecdotes here, many not so good.) The usual advice to research teams is to develop an authorship protocol at the start of the project, making sure that this is fair and recognises all career stages. This is good advice, and I’ve often given it myself. However, there may well be a need to revisit an early authorship agreement – circumstances change, planned papers don’t work out, new publishing opportunities emerge. Like any ethical matter, authorship is an ongoing negotiation, not a one-off event. How does the PhDer in the team get a say in author order and sign off, alongside more senior and institutionally powerful colleagues?

And many PhDers are not in lab teams.  They are a lone researcher working on their own project, with one or two supervisors, or an advisory committee. So how is an individualised negotiation about authorship to happen? The doctoral researcher is very much at the mercy of the supervisor here and their ethical judgments. Who even initiates the publishing conversation? And when?

And to whom does the doctoral researcher turn if the authoring relationship with their supervisor goes wrong?  To whom do they appeal? On what grounds? If their university has no explicit guidelines on writing and publishing with supervisors, then how can they establish a case for inappropriate practice? They can’t very well appeal to the ICMJA or the Vancouver protocols, in part because of their gaps and lack of specificity. But mainly they can’t because these guidelines may not be binding within their institution. Doctoral researchers need a writing-with-supervisor guideline that is particular to their institution or graduate school.


Photo: Julian Hanby


However…   A series of individual closed door negotiations between PhDers and supervisors won’t ensure parity of opportunity and treatment for all doctoral researchers. Parity means institutional action. But if their institutions want to do something, where can they turn to for advice?

Research Councils in the U.K. routinely fund doctoral studentships, and co-writing with supervisors is something they might provide some administrative guidance on. And VITAE, you‘ve put publication in your researcher development framework, so you clearly think it is important. However, I couldn’t easily find anything on your website on writing with your supervisor (for PhDs) or writing with your postgrads (for supervisors) – even in the password members-only section where the authorship advice is general, not specific enough for the doctoral researcher-supervisor situation.

So how about it RCUK, VITAE… Why not a serious discussion about writing with supervisors leading to some kind of national statement that might influence what individual institutions then take up as ethical guidelines…

This post is in part about sharing some information about the guidelines that do exist. But it’s also a call for some kind of action. Supervisors and PhDers are working individually on co-writing issues, and in increasing numbers. It would be extremely helpful for everyone if there was some discussion about under what conditions this ought to happen.

Ideally, I’d like to see institutions adopting a code of good practice for supervisor-supervisee writing and publishing, in order to ensure there is both quality and equity, to borrow a bit of corporate jargon, in the collaborations. And I’d like to see relevant national research bodies get a bit more interested in this practice.

Posted in academic writing, author order, authors, authorship, co-writing, ICJMA, publishing, supervision, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

a doctorate at a distance – take two

Thinking back on my own doctorate by distance I can see that there were some key things that helped in the process. Of course, what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you – we are different people, and there are different resources and opportunities available in different locations. Nevertheless, four things did and do seem to be important to the far-away study option:

  • set yourself up for independent study

As I was a distance PhDer, I knew I couldn’t rely on my university for a desk, computer software and IT support. Before I started, I sorted out an office space which was out of household’s harm’s way. It was where I could retreat and not be disturbed. I know that many people do end up writing their distance PhDs on the kitchen table, or in local cafes, and if that suits you then that’s all good. The point is simply that it’s helpful to think about the long haul at the start and sort out what you need by way of space to work and stuff to work with.

Before I got too far into my reading, one of my friends who had recently completed his own PhD showed me the way that he had organised his ‘stuff’. His first and best advice was to get onto Endnote straight away. He had his photocopied papers organised alphabetically and numbered, and he put each number onto the appropriate Endnote record. I didn’t follow his system but his example alerted me to the fact that you need to be able to find your original copy of something, and not just rely on remembering the reading. His advice also helped me to realise that doing the PhD was going to be a lot about efficient ways of recording, storing and retrieving information. Time spent on this apparently tangential task would not be a waste. It was the opposite – essential.


I also set up a daily routine right at the outset. It was pretty basic – write in the morning, read and prepare for the next day’s writing in the afternoon. This worked for all the days except field for days and the odd day off.  I’ve written before about how I have daggy writing clothes, and usually write early with a cup of tea and use breakfast as a bit of between-writing-sessions thinking time. This was the routine I set up during my PhD and I still use it now. Of course, some mornings I did and still do have to do something else, but the PhD routine established the habit.

My routines and ways of organising myself won’t necessarily suit you, but the basic elements of being an independent scholar – having a place of your own to work undisturbed, great information management systems, and a work habit that works for you – are important.  All doctoral researchers need them, but it’s especially crucial if you can’t rely on some close-at-hand version of peer pressure, peer envy, peer support to stimulate your will to study.

  • organise conversation and support

I discovered another distance doctoral student living in the same city and we used to meet up occasionally for a therapeutic coffee and discussion. I was also able to join in a reading group held at a local university where I knew quite a lot of people. This group was not researching in the same area as me, but the reading group was focused on social theory and it seemed not too far a stretch from my own interests. I did end up reading some books that I wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up, but this didn’t hurt. And I did find one theorist who has stuck with me ever since. The reading group certainly helped to introduce me to the discipline of ‘close reading’ which has subsequently been a key scholarly practice. I was also lucky enough to get a bit of casual researcher employment through this group, and the experience of being on a big project and seeing how it was managed, and how ‘real’ research as conducted, was also very instructive.

You won’t have exactly the same set of opportunities available to you where you are. But there may something. There may well be someone else around who is a doctoral researcher who you can meet up with regularly, a shut-up-and-write or a PhD-in-the-pub or some other kind of self organised doctoral group. And there are often seminars and public lectures in local universities which are good to attend and you can meet local scholars in this way.  And there is always social media, not only as a networking and social forum, but also as an avenue to contact other people close to you in miles and/or in topic.

The point is that it is very helpful in the distance doctorate if you can cut through the isolation with some relatively regular peer conversation, and if you can find another group of researchers that you can shadow or hang around a bit for the intellectual stimulation and mentoring.

  • help your family to help you

It is very hard to do a doctorate ‘at home’. This means all kinds of things, as home circumstances are very different.

By the time I did my doctorate, I was an ‘empty nester’ with no parenting responsibilities. I did have some caring responsibilities but they weren’t onerous. I was also full time and was able, with the help of a scholarship and savings, to afford not to work. And I had a partner with a smallish business that kept him very busy six or sometimes seven days a week. It was not difficult for me to find a lot of time to spend on my research.

Many people do the long-distance doctorate much tougher than this. Working and doing a doctorate part time by distance, and with a young family or intensive caring responsibilities is probably about as tough as it gets, but people do manage it. Someone recently told me that one of their children had only ever known them as a ‘student’ – and one of the things they were looking forward to having now completed, was getting to know their children better. It’s as well to know this and think about what it will mean to work on your doctorate for some years – think carefully before you begin and talk about it with the people who will be affected by you studying. Whatever the circumstances,  researching and writing from afar is always better in a supportive environment.

But partners and other family members may not entirely understand what it means to do doctoral research. They may not appreciate that at times you will – talk about things they have never heard of and aren’t really interested in, become distracted and absent-minded, get completely obsessed with a particular line of thinking, will suffer anxiety about whether you can do it, feel guilty about the time you are not spending with them, worry about the writing. They may also not be prepared for – the sheer volume of books and papers that suddenly inhabit their living space/your working space, requests to go to libraries and museums when on a supposedly weekend off, intense conversations in restaurants and on walks, taking the lap top with you on a weekend away…

Whatever it is that you’ll need, it helps to tell your loved ones that this is all part of the way that you are getting the doctorate done. Even if they don’t actually live with you, your close and extended family and friends can and will provide much needed appreciation, love and comfort.

  • establish a clear contact regime with your supervisor

It is important for you to set up a schedule of conversations with your supervisor and ask for help when you need it. When I did my distance PhD, supervisor contact was either through a primitive form of email or face to face when I visited. These days, supervision contact is much easier – it can be by email, Skype, phone, facetime… But while the medium makes it easier, the point is that it is important to make supervision conversations fit into some kind of regular pattern.

Universities now usually set a minimum number of supervision sessions per year – this is both an entitlement and also an audit requirement. Different disciplines also have different patterns of supervision with some expecting more frequent conversation than others. As a supervisor, I tend to the flexible, and I allow doctoral researchers some slack in determining how supervision is arranged, whether it is on a regular schedule or whether it is more on demand. However, it is generally important not to let non-contact drift on too long.

Nevertheless, I know that some people need more, and some less, supervision connections than others. And this is why I don’t talk about my own PhD very much. I was a pretty aberrant PhD ‘student’. I didn’t see or contact my supervisor very often. Far less often than would be considered desirable these days, and far less often than was the norm even then. Three times a year perhaps, at most. But that was quite enough for me and it suited me entirely to work away on the PhD as a solo effort. I had a very clear idea of what I was doing and the theoretical work I needed to do in order to get it done. I was a mature age student and already a pretty experienced writer. And I could ask for help whenever I needed it. I just didn’t need or want much and that suited me. I couldn’t get away with that now !

So that’s my initial thoughts about doctorates by distance.

I am still very interested in hearing from other people about their distanced doctoral experience and any other advice that you might have to offer on the basis of your own experience or research.

Image credit: AntoinePound


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co–writing with your supervisor – the authorship question

A doctoral researcher recently told me, and several others who were in the room at the same time, that he wanted to write a journal article. Good eh. No. Not really. The trouble was that his supervisor insisted on being named as co–author even though they weren’t contributing anything. The response from those listening was immediate, and negative. “No” came a chorus almost in unison, together with a few audible intakes of breath.

This is far from the first time I’ve heard of this. And in fact, I do know of some disciplines where it is automatically assumed that a supervisor’s name will go on whatever a doctoral researcher publishes, regardless of whether they have even looked at the paper. This default authorship practice seems to have its roots in the view that: (a)the conversations held in supervision inevitably mean that some of the supervisor’s knowledge is taken up by the supervisee, and (b) the supervisor’s intellectual contribution to the doctoral researcher’s project needs to be acknowledged through being named as co-author. But I’ve also heard some of my colleagues put exactly the opposite view – that the supervisor shouldn’t ‘interfere’ with their PhDer’s publications and should never co-write and shouldn’t ever appear as co-author.

So the question of writing with your supervisor is contentious territory. There aren’t clear cut policies and actually precious little discussion. Yet, as the pressure to publish during the PhD ramps up, and as more and more people undertake PhD by publication, it seems pretty urgent that the question of supervisor-supervisee co-writing becomes something more than a corridor conversation and a question at conferences.


My own view, for what it’s worth, is this.

Teaching –  and supervision is a teaching relationship of a very particular kind –  always involves the teacher offering the gift of their views and expertise to the ‘learner’. This offer can be coercive, as in “you must think this way and woe betide you if you don’t.” Or it can be much more light touch and generous, as in “how about this point of view”, or “how about reading this next” or “this makes me think about” or this would be more readable if you put this here not there.” 

In supervision, it is almost inevitable that at least some of the supervisor’s perspectives will be influential on the doctoral candidate’s thinking. But not always. Regardless of the take-up, a supervision ‘gift’ is built into the pedagogical exchange. Supervisors don’t put their names as co-writers on the thesis because supervising is gift giving – the thesis is seen as the candidate’s own original work and the supervisor is thanked for their contribution in the acknowledgements. And of course, the ideal supervision relationship is one where the supervisor learns too. Giving is reciprocal.

Writing for publication is now part of the supervision process. This is formalised in the UK for instance, where the annual review process usually includes reporting on how the supervisor is supporting the doctoral researcher to publish. These days, a doctoral researcher can reasonably assume that, as with their thesis, they can discuss writing and publishing with their supervisor. They can talk over the purposes of writing a paper, get some direction in writing, and some feedback. The supervisor offers this conversation as part of their pedagogical process. Support for publishing is not a supervision addition, an extra. It is, like the production of the thesis, integral to the doctoral process. And the same rules that apply to the thesis ought to apply to writing for publication, the supervisor offers a gift. They don’t expect to be automatically named.

However, it may be that the supervisor does more than offer advice and a bit of feedback. They actually write part of the manuscript. They contribute something over and on top of what the doctoral researcher is able to do themselves – this might be by way of writing about relevant literatures or methods, some refinements of analysis, a theoretical framing, the development of the mandate and contribution… There is an actual contribution. These are circumstances where it seems not unreasonable for the supervisor to claim some degree of co-writing.  But because the substantive research is the doctoral candidate’s, the supervisor really ought to think quite hard about why they wouldn’t want to be anything but the second author.

It may be that the supervisor does more than simply make a contribution to the doctoral researcher’s paper. The supervisor might write something where the doctoral researcher is offered the contributing role, perhaps they provide some data to a larger supervisor-produced corpus, write specifically about research methods, offer some literatures, do some of the analysis. This scenario is often the case when the doctoral researcher is working in a research team, or on the same project as their supervisor. In this case, authorship credit and order needs to be carefully negotiated. Disciplinary conventions, supervisor generosity and calculations about percentage contributions all come into play at this point.

Writing with your supervisor is tricky. But not impossible to manage. Authorship negotiation can be difficult and sometimes unduly hard, and I will say even more about this in another upcoming post.

If you have helpful experiences or advice to offer to others about writing with your supervisor, do let me know. I’m keen to keep the conversation going.



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