“Most days you think ‘I am a worm’. This is the natural state of the researcher”. With these words Professor Simon Peyton Jones, in his brilliant and comforting lecture about how to write well in academia, lifted a weight from my newbie-PhD shoulders which had been severely hampering my enthusiasm to put fingers to keyboard and actually start writing – rather than just reading – stuff. I breathed a sigh of relief that I am not alone in my feelings of awe and lowliness in the vast lawn (permaculture?) of academia, or in my fear of being eaten alive by blackbirds….
In this 2-part blog post I hope to impart a few nuggets from Professor Peyton Jones and others about writing and thinking for a PhD that I have found useful. They proved mini eureka moments for me and have helped me to go about my wormly burrowing and decomposing with a little more confidence!
Part 1: Envisioning the Thesis as a Whole
I’ll get back to Professor Peyton Jones’s worms (sorry…) in part 2, but first I wanted to share some insights from a chapter in Authoring a PhD (2003) by Patrick Dunleavy. While Envisioning the Thesis as a Whole (chapter 2) is not specifically about writing skills its content has really helped me think of the big picture and what it is exactly that I’m trying to achieve with my PhD, something which I personally like to have in mind whenever I’m trying to write anything because it spurs me on and gives me a direction.
Essentially, Dunleavy advises addressing the following questions before investing too heavily on a particular research topic:
What is your dissertation about?
What contribution do you aim to achieve?
What will be new or different about your work?
How would you justify the time and resources that you will devote to it?
We all know that our research question and aims are bound to bend a bit along the way, but they are important to keep a hold on throughout the ups and downs of a PhD not only for the sake of your own morale and motivation, but also to ensure that your thesis is robust. For the thesis is basically a big book which communicates a question and then proffers to answer it. But, as Dunleavy points out, the beauty of this particular situation (in most instances, any way) is this:
You define the question: you deliver the answer
This provides the student a great deal of security because the assessors of the dissertation have to take the candidate’s question as the basis for assessment, but it also places on the student the responsibility to a) make the question clear and b) to actually answer the question.
Defining a half-decent research question from the outset is a daunting prospect, especially for anyone suffering from worm syndrome, so Dunleavy offers the following bits of advice:
What makes a good question for professional researchers is not usually what makes a good question for a PhD student, on their own, with virtually no budget. Remember that the kinds of ‘big questions’ you come across in the literature are not necessarily appropriate at the PhD stage but…
…don’t go too far down the other road to dullness and minuteness of topic! Not only will you probably bore yourself to tears by doing this but you may be shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to job prospects down the line.
It is best to try and frame your thesis round a problem or a paradox, not around a gap. Gaps in the literature usually exist either because the topic has little intrinsic interest or because it is too difficult to undertake. There is also the possibility that in the 3-4 years you take to do your PhD, someone else will fill the gap.
In short, Dunleavy says, the quickest way to get a great fit between the question asked and the answer delivered is to try to work out what you will be able to say, or hope to be able to say. Then frame your research question around it. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. Expect this ‘fine-tuning’ of question-answer fit to be an on going process of discovery and alterations.
Do not read – think!
The anxiety and uncertainty of choosing a research topic is – if you are anything like me – closely linked with nagging fear that your research won’t be ‘original’. Dunleavy points out that framing your own view – your ‘originalness’ – while still grounding your work in established academic literature is tricky and can naturally take years to get the knack of (great). For steering a middle way between being overly-reliant on existing literature and over-claiming the novelty of your ideas, Dunleavy recommends that we:
This was a bit of a revelation for me, and has given me the confidence – the permission, if you like – to think for myself. Yes there is a lot of literature out there and ideally I could read all of it before forming my own opinions but I can’t, so I should just get on with it! One reason why most of us overextend literature reviews, Dunleavy says, is because it postpones the psychologically-taxing task of thinking through ideas ourselves. Facing a blank page and jotting down new thoughts seems daunting but is worth doing. The very act of committing thoughts to screen or paper helps us organise and retain ideas in ways that just aren’t possible if kept locked away in our grey matter (even if we think it is).
Recognise that thinking is difficult
In academic institutions we are surrounded by people who make thinking look easy. But it isn’t, and like most things, we can only get better by practising. This means getting out of your comfort zone and forcing yourself to do things even if you don’t feel fully prepared to (you probably never will).
“Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” George Bernard Shaw
Get into the habit of thinking
We’re talking regular brainstorming and keeping a notebook to hand at all times. “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas” (Linus Pauling) – but apparently we can only hold around seven ideas in our minds at once, so writing them down is a (scientifically proven, folks) way of making space for new ideas and avoiding the stress that comes with the feeling that you’ll forget everything. Even better, it can free up our minds for the subconscious to get busy, making connections and processing difficult issues to one-day emerge as a miraculous ‘light bulb’ moment…
Once you’ve got into the habit of thinking – be creative and stay positive! It has been shown that creative people tend to be more persistent and less cautious in their efforts. Positive people are less put off by barriers and consequently ‘dream big’. But don’t expect creativity and ideas to be forthcoming – creative insight usually reflects the patient accumulation of ideas, and sustained attention to a problem is almost always useful.
“Being puzzled, being unsure, being mistaken, and changing tack through trial and error, seem to be integral and conducive to creative research” Lewis Minkin
“Sometimes slowness and depth of response are connected in getting to the roots of the matter” John Dewey
Make a commitment
“Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything” (Alexander Hamilton)
This was also a mini eureka moment for me. I’m gullible at the best of times and have been somewhat over-awed by the sea of literature and other people’s ideas I find myself in, often resulting in a massive lack of faith in my own point of view. But this, I am realising, undermines my ability to be original. Dunleavy reassures us that it is not only OK but useful to make a commitment of some kind, perhaps to an intellectual approach, a school of thought or a world view. While it is important to retain a capacity for relational argument, subjectivity is an integral part of the research process. More on the benefits of embracing our values and commitments here.
Envisioning the Thesis as a Whole left me with the reassurance that the first year or so of a PhD can be tough, confusing and daunting, and that it is OK to feel like a ‘worm’ – just don’t let all that put you off. In the words of Nelson Mandela “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. But to get it done I need to start writing…and if I can follow Professor Peyton Jones’ advice in part 2 then I might just do a half decent job!