Postgraduates on Writing
I’m in the final push of my PhD now, and over the years have developed a little rhythm when it comes to writing. I get up at around 8:30, have my first cup of tea and listen to Radio 4, then – still weirdly with the radio on – put my earplugs in and start writing. I write hard in the mornings, and spend the afternoons reading, planning and ‘blocking’ out text for the next day. There is a lot of tea involved. By five o clock it’s not uncommon to see 6-8 teabags piling up next to the kettle. There is also a lot of bathing. Whenever I am over-agitated, or over-excited, or can’t figure something out I have a bath. On the last day revising my second chapter I had four baths in one day.
I have three quotes stuck up by my desk. One is a comment from George Michael, sage that he is: “everything you do is you, even the lies you tell”. Another is from someone I once overheard, though I can’t remember where or when: “writing is about overcoming your fear”. The third is from my mother, quoting me when I was a little girl. Apparently I used to say “I can’t think of anything I don’t know...I think I must know everything”. I like them because they remind me of the foolishness of perfectionism, and of imagining that my work will represent me in ways which are always under my control. They help me to crack on, which is one of the biggest things I’ve learned in the PhD process.
I have lots of other quotes too, little notes and scribbles and pieces of material. As I went through my data, did reading and started the writing process I threw post-its up in front of my desk, as a sort of stream of consciousness. Every few weeks I take a look at what I’ve thrown up, organise them in little piles, try to spot themes and organise them into bits of my dissertation. It’s amazing how often I write the same thing down, again and again and again... thinking each time that I’ve had a new idea. I used to think this was absent mindedness, but I’ve come to realise that because these are the same ideas found from different routes, they are actually a means for me to connect my material, with theory, other ethnographies and my own writing.
I’ve been very, very blessed in having a supervisor who understands how good emerging writing needs to be at different stages in the game. I look back at some of the pieces I gave her now and am astonished at how delicately she managed to foster my confidence whilst guiding me away from some truly dreadful lines of enquiry. The process of getting feedback on work has sometimes been difficult, and it’s been interesting how some of the people in the department who thought my work was particularly awful have now become key discussants for me. There was one faculty member who took particular exception to my writing, and we now joke that he is my ‘worst case scenario’ reader. It still turns my stomach and itches my skin to give work to people, especially early work, given to people I don’t know very well. But as time has gone on I’ve found ways to cope with the discomfort – baths, tea, Radio 4, my friends and family, and the experience that this too shall pass. The sting of criticism and the nausea of confusion will pass; as will the excitement of generating something new. Strangely then, whilst the PhD has been a process of seeing through a project with a long life-span, it has also been a process of learning to live, and to write, in the now.
Challenges of Writing up
I am anxious. I feel I must know every bit of information published on my chosen subject, because I am working on a PhD. It follows that I have to read a great deal of subject material to be able to write up. I cry out, "There is not enough time!" Then, luckily, I remember my supervisor's two useful suggestions. The first one is, "Start writing up before you read anything." "Writing before reading" allows my ideas to flow freely. I do not confine myself to any theoretical approach at this initial creative stage. This helps me avoid influence from other sources to a certain extent. Most of all, it reflects a change in attitude towards my research: I have started to appreciate my own fieldwork experience.
Her second suggestion is equally invaluable, "Don't lose the joy of writing." I have also come to know by now that when I enjoy writing, my fingers on the keyboard follow helpful muses. Usually the paper in the end perplexes me: How could I think of those ideas? It makes me feel very expressive.
I should start writing now. Instead, I am distracted by: reading emails, articles and news, preparing tea, Skyping my parents overseas, cooking, reading over field notes, ferreting out funding, and researching conferences and concerts. It is already 6 pm. I have spent all day doing little tasks that must be finished before writing up. It seems now that the time for writing up has arrived at last. It is not that I do not enjoy writing, indeed I do very much, but I do not enjoy starting up! I feel worried for not having a clue on how to start.
I wrote down some ideas while looking at my field notes earlier today.
There are two things that I usually do for inspiration in this circumstance. The first is reading the field notes. I try to see if they can make a chapter. It seems promising enough at this stage. Despite this, I am preparing tea again, but still not writing. I have to bring myself into the mood. I will not be writing unless I do enjoy it. So, comes the second thing to do. I put on a tape in the voice recorder, any tape from the field will do. I listen to the voices of my lovely informants. I listen to their laughs and their sorrows. Being immersed in the images of the field gives me a strong push. I remember a conversation that took place in one of the houses in the village where I was staying. Five women (including me) were gathered around a round wooden table on the floor, having a substantial breakfast and chatting. We were talking about a number of issues regarding marriages and sexual life (My PhD topic is about involuntary childlessness). Aunt Cevriye, a fifty five year old woman with a radiant smile always on her face, gazed at my voice recorder and cheerfully noted: "Merve, you have everything about us in there. That recorder is a part of you. When we think of you, we will remember you with it."
Kerime (my best friend in the village): Merve, when will you come back?
Merve: I really don't know. I hope to finish up in a year. But, who knows? It won't be easy.
Kerime: We will pray for you.
All the women around the table: We will pray for your success. Don't worry; you are going to succeed.
Oh, God, I have to write! I feel indebted to them. Now, I feel I have to write. Before losing the triggering sense of enthusiasm to the stress the feeling of compulsion brings, I open a Word document. Something comes to my mind. Although it may seem trivial initially, I want to write it down before it totally disappears and before I start writing the chapter. But, yes, words follow one another and that small note becomes the chapter. I enjoy very much going through these inspirational moments. The more I write, the more I feel like a creator of worlds of words from memories, images, theories, stories. In my words, "others' stories" become "my chapters", "my theories". Am I appropriating their worlds to construct new ones - probably not much familiar to them? Now, I have to fight with feelings of guilt. I have found out that I feel less guilty when I think they were already "our stories", "our encounters", produced together. Yet, I am still concerned about being unfair to them: Perhaps I am losing the messages they wanted to convey through me. In my efforts of being a participant in the field, I am not the "previous me" any more. I am not "them" either. Just like what Clifford (1986: 23) said: "Every version of an "other", wherever found, is also the construction of a "self"."* I have become a hybrid during the fieldwork and writing process. I carry on writing with the hope that their messages are not totally lost in mimesis.
*Clifford, J. 1986 "Introduction: Partial Truths" in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, eds. J. Clifford & G. E. Marcus, pp. 1-26, Berkeley: University of California Press.
On not writing
Like perhaps many post-grads I was instructed by my eminent supervisor to read C. Wright Mills ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship' to appreciate his ease with words and the many useful hints and tips on how to work at the ‘craft' of academic writing. True, it was lovely reading but it was also hugely dispiriting. Where are my carefully arranged cross-classified files? My creative journal that bridges personal experience with academic reasoning? I mutter to the wall above my computer but this is not perhaps the cultivation of helpful imaginary characters that Mills was referring to? All the encouragement to daily writing results in a paralysis of thought and deep-seated inertia where the trivial and unimportant triumph. My bathroom needs cleaning, shirts ironed and holes badly mended in cheap socks. Eventually I reach my desk where papers must be sorted and surfaces cleared before I could possibly think about writing. My ‘to do' list that I wrote last night or maybe weeks before glares up at me and then I remember I tore a hole in my new orange tights and replacing them with 100 denier ones becomes of primary importance. But google tells me there are so many online tight stores that this will demand considerable careful and nuanced searching and cross-comparison. A friend on facebook assures me that the Queen is really an alien with her UFO base hidden under Balmoral. A factoid on wikipedia claims that Mills and Boon sell a book every three seconds and perhaps I might have greater success writing about rugged hyper-masculine men and virginal but feisty heroines where the weight of intellectual giants is not so evidently apparent. This is perhaps my ‘nun in the toilet.' The ghost that terrifies school children from using that particular loo is staring down from my bookshelves in the form of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Wittgenstein, Foucault and others. So many of them; the great minds that have said all that can be said about the world we inhabit, how can I possibly contribute and is it not pathetic arrogance on my part to even think that I could?
So I turn up whatever cheesy music mix I am currently listening to, something where the discovery of rhyming couplets is considered the height of poetic genius and dance away feelings of inadequacy, watching with glee as my inertia sprints for cover from the relentless pounding of the bass. I am invincible and the giants of past and present are benignly whispering words of encouragement that only I can hear. So what if it has all been said before? I will find my academic haven and there weather the storms of insecurity, failure, dreadful prose and the insidious oncreep of inertia once again. I will let grime gather in my bathroom, leave my partner to iron his own shirts and throw away the cheap holey socks. I will remember that I have a wardrobe stuffed full of orange, purple and cartoon coloured tights and even though the Queen, UFO's and Mills and Boon is sociologically fascinating, it is not my PhD and some other soul can apply to do that one. I will stop writing about not writing and finally start that paper my supervisor wants to read in the next four days ...
Mills, C. Wright (1959) ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship' in The Sociological Imagination pp195 -226 New York: Oxford University Press
M. L. Snellgrove is doing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh alongside inflicting her academic angst on a long-suffering partner and children. email: [email protected]
He does these gorgeous pictures, and leaves them lying about the house, too modest to show them to anyone, nevertheless too proud of them to throw them away. I take the pictures and bung them into old frames that we have in the house. They look a hundred times better, and I display them proudly on the wall.
‘Oh,' he says ‘where have you found that one from... the sky isn't right,' or' I haven't finished the foreground to that one.' Still he leaves them on the wall, and says things like ‘they don't deserve such a posh frame.'
My sister came to stay and saw the pictures. She and her husband are artists. He is a real one and she makes her house look like some kind of magical installation. We always bow to their taste, because we don't have those talents, so never spend time on such stuff, and any kind of ambiance that we manage to create in our house is purely accidental.
‘You should get a proper frame for that one.' She said.
So I took it down to the framing shop, and spent hours deciding on a mount. This red one that I had originally thought was wonderful, was not right. The girl in the shop said it was too overbearing. You need a pale colour that will take your eyes to the horizon where the storm clouds are.
I thought that she was probably right, but I had not thought of the clouds as storm clouds before. I looked at the picture a bit differently.
She suggested more and more colours, and I was getting more and more confused. The shop was busy and other customers were peering over my shoulder giving me advice. They all loved the picture-I told this to my husband later- but they all had different thoughts as to how it should be presented.
At last I chose a colour in desperation, aware that I was taking up too much of the kind assistant's time, and left, thinking that I had done my duty by the picture.
When it was ready, I collected it, and put it on the wall. I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I didn't love it, but I had spent £26.00 on it so it was going on the wall ‘lump it or not' as my other sister used to say.
When my sister came for her next visit, she made a passing comment about the picture. It perhaps should have a larger mount, a bigger frame. I immediately saw that she was right. Was it right because she had said it, and I always followed my sister's advice, or was it right because I had always known there was something wrong.
I put it in a larger frame and immediately saw that it was miraculously transformed into a beautiful picture again.
After several attempts of mounting other creations, I realise that I cannot anticipate what his pictures will look like until they are actually in the frames: until they are up there on the wall and looking at you.
This is a very expensive flaw, and I have a feeling that this flaw intrudes into other aspects of my life.
I don't know if the shoes I buy fit until I have left the shop, and have worn them for a week. I am not sure about colour schemes until the whole room has been decorated. Sometimes, very rarely, my husband takes his pictures down from the wall, out of their mounts, insisting that he still needs to work on them. I get rather cross, because he puts great thumbprints on the expensive mounts, and I think they look fantastic the way they are. We argue about it, and I say that I will stop being his agent, and he says he doesn't want an agent anyway, so we don't speak for a while. He perhaps thinks I try to control his art, looking to the presentation rather than the content.
I wonder if these character flaws affect my research. I will not know where this research is taking me until I arrive, and it is framed by my writing, aided by experts.
In the meantime, I often feel uncertain- that something is not quite right. I reframe ideas, theories, use different methods and seek new reference points until things start to settle comfortably with my own standpoint. It has occurred to me that I might be controlling data in order to frame it in a way that is convenient and aesthetically pleasing to me: not giving enough thought to the contributors, informants, and their wishes. I try to guard against this by showing them what I have written to seek confirmation. The whole process seems very complicated, messy and I have to concentrate hard not to get bogged down. I hope I will come up with a finished project at the end.
Nicky Watts is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield
Writing: Ups and (Yvonne ) Downs
Well into my second year of a PhD I have not (consciously) written a single word of my thesis. Sometimes this concerns me. It concerns me when students who began their studies at the same time as me report completion of one or more chapters. I also quake at the teeny scraps of study time and space remaining after being ‘mum' to teenage boys. At such times I experience a kind of palsy during which it becomes impossible to get a grip on any productive activity. Nevertheless, contrary to the impression I may have given, I write almost daily and I write prolifically. However, this writing would, I'm sure, be labelled ‘writing down' rather than ‘writing up' if it were to count at all. Like a designer's diffusion label, it's good but not the real thing.
My ‘diffusion' writings consist in the main of my journal, field notes, notes taken when I read, emails, my blog, updates for my supervisor and sundry jottings in notebooks. I am not saying that they could or should be accepted in lieu of a thesis. The thesis is for public consumption and carries with it particular obligations to its readers/audiences that these other writings do not. I am also persuaded that the ‘thinking through writing', of the kind alluded to by Richardson, is of a different order when ‘writing up' rather than ‘writing down', just as writing a shopping list or transcribing my interviews is different. I am guessing that the difference is in the type of creativity involved. But the inference that writing up is what really counts and writing down is the beer and skittles element of doctoral research seems to me a strong one.
Sometimes I can ignore what others are doing and confidently keep faith with myself (the role of my supervisor is also crucial here). However, it is only through writing this piece that I have come to appreciate that this confidence may not be (just) mindless optimism. It is not simply that I know some of my writings will be directly incorporated into my thesis, because at this stage I cannot guess which. Equally, I have always known that everything I write is in a sense relevant, part of a complex and barely understood process of sorting out my ideas; sorting of a different kind, moreover, to that which goes on in my mind while I am cooking supper or staring into space. What I am suggesting here is that writing stuff down which is not consciously part of the ‘real thing' may account for the relative ease with which I then do write the proper stuff (which is not to say I don't get frustrated sometimes too). In a sense writing down is akin to the displacement activities that are more usually a prelude to the immediate business of writing up. So, although I tear my hair out sometimes, most of the time I find myself somewhere on a continuum of writing pleasure. And at this point in my life I do have to take my pleasures as I find them.
Yvonne Downs is a PhD student in the Department of Education at the University of Sheffield. Details of her research and life as a middle-aged student can be found on her blog-in-the-making http://phoenixrising-mindingthegaps.blogspot.com/
Writing for Blogs
There is more to blogging than writing. For one thing, blogs are becoming increasingly multi-modal - my blog includes links, tags, RSS feeds, images and video. Blogs are also powerful socio-cultural tools with strong links to biography, personal journalism and social commentary. But it is the textuality of blogging I wish to focus on here, and how blog writing conventions and practices may influence, contribute to, and distract you from your PhD study and doctoral experience.
If we are to conceptualise blogging as writing across boundaries, then these boundaries define academic communities, disciplines and literacies, and delineate pluralistic conventions such as formal and informal learning, old and new media, personal and professional practice, and private and public life.
I started my PhD blog in the first month of my doctoral studies. I'd blogged before, and I had regularly read blogs related to my field. But this is the first time I have developed a specific study-based blog.
Writing for a PhD is essentially a disciplined process. As a regular activity, blogging can hone writing skills, and keep you focused on the 'meta-narrative' of your PhD; particularly useful during periods when you may not be writing (e.g. during data collection or analysis).
No writing undertaken during a PhD should exist in isolation. Blogging allows experimentation. You can use your blog to shape ideas, formulate thoughts, concepts and work in progress, which may provide raw content for your thesis, or a journal article or conference paper. This process can work equally in reverse. I may take a topic, problem or argument from a formal written piece of work and 'blogify' it; perhaps with an emphasis on personal experience, or in a different writing style, or to a wider audience. And if you think about it, blog-length texts are prevalent in academic writing: in drafts, proposals, poster texts, abstracts and biographies - in fact anywhere where you need to summarize, or focus on a specific argument.
I would suggest blogs represent a largely risk-free environment. This does not mean you are not exposing yourself to scrutiny and critique from your peers - that's the whole point. Nor is it an excuse for sloppy writing, bad grammar or poorly constructed arguments. Blogs represent a largely risk-free environment because there is an inherent cultural bias towards informality, transparency, openness and experimentation.
Most PhD students have access to formal support structures in which they can get feedback on their writing and research from experts and peers - such as supervisions and conferences - but these are limited in both and scope and regularity. Blogs provide the opportunity to establish sustainable channels of discussion, peer support and feedback systems that extend far beyond your immediate research community and the walls of your learning institution.
Finally, blogs accumulate to represent a narrative of your doctoral experience, and as such can provide a powerful (and searchable) tool for documentation of process and reflection.
Andy Coverdale is a PhD Research Student at the University of Nottingham and blogs at http://phdblog.net/
Two knees and a PhD: On writing a PhD in adverse circumstances
A year ago, I started writing my thesis. I already had a handful of conference papers which I hoped to use as the basis for some of my chapters. All that was required (I thought) was gracefully to embroider them together in some kind of order, and hey presto! One thesis.
Oh, that it was so easy. I'm a full-time working mother with an older, mobility-impaired husband. I registered to do my PhD part time five years ago. Apart from four weeks' study-leave for writing up, I did my research entirely in my spare time.
I'm not about to tell you how to write graceful English and elegant arguments, nor how to structure paragraphs so as to present your arguments in all their pristine, innovative glories. Let me give you some mundane advice instead.
How did I do it? Scheduling and log-keeping. I applied the same principle to my thesis-writing as I do to my youngest son's school projects. How many words are required? How many chapters? How much time is available? Parcel it up and write it down. Do you need your supervisor to read each chapter as you go? Only you will know how quickly that's likely to happen. Timetable this in as well.
During your writing session, keep a second document to note down inspirations about other things you need to check out or get from the library. This means you won't forget them and can follow them through later, without interrupting what you're doing right now.
Finish each writing session by doing a word-count, and keep records of words per chapter, and total words. It's a powerful incentive.
Start your bibliography at the start of your research project. Find out what information is required and how to format it, and keep it that way. Use EndNote if you find it helpful - I only used it for record-keeping. As I cited a work in my writing, I added it to my EndNote bibliography, so that I'd have a record of what I'd referred to. It helped when it came to compiling the final bibliography at the end.
If your institution offers a course on formatting your thesis in Word, take it! It is worth every minute!
As you approach the end of your project, make another timetable. Allow time for proof-reading, checking references, checking any formatting of footnotes or bibliography etc. I never use spell-check, but I used it on any words which I might have spelled wrong - in my case Scottish surnames and Gaelic place-names.
Check the rules about submission, and plan when you intend to print your thesis, how many copies you need, where you're going to get them bound, and how. Invest in more ink and paper than you're likely to need - having to go to PC World halfway through is a complete pain in the ***!
You'll be wondering about the title of this piece. My husband had two knee replacements this summer - one, a month before I submitted my thesis, and the other a week after my viva, and I discovered in between times that I'm now legally considered his carer. It's been a stressful summer.
My revisions have been accepted, the final volume bound, and graduation is in December. I've learned a lot about my subject - and I'm quite proud of the results - but I've learned every bit as much about organisation and determination. As my school headmistress once said, "Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." You know what? She was right!
Karen McAulay, whose research was on C18th and C19th Scottish song-collectors, is a librarian at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Research is an emotional journey to which the good and successful researcher commits her or his heart and soul. Sometimes, as I found to my chagrin, it can end in the disappointment of the resultant journal paper or thesis being rejected. Yet, at other times, there is the great pleasure and ego boost of having one's work published and presented to a wide audience.
Before I started my candidature I had a vague idea that the data could be gathered, the results written up and publication take place all within a few weeks or months at the most. Now I know better. It can be years between the start of planning the data collection and the resultant journal paper seeing publication. If I wished to be cynical I might suggest that a lot of research is well out of date (Dare I say obsolete?) before it sees publication.
Increasing the number of journal papers I got published depended on improving my writing rate. It is sometimes difficult to find the time to work on a journal paper due to the other writing work, such as reports, the thesis and seminar presentations, that have to be produced. One of the most useful writing skills I have developed during my candidature which increased my production is multi-tasking.
In the past I wasted a lot of time being able to only work on one thing at a time. I often had to put a job aside and wait for inspiration or more information before I could continue with it. In the meantime I couldn't work on anything else and so got little done. I found that if I tried to work on more than one thing at a time I got confused and ended up making a mess of everything or had trouble going back to earlier writing jobs because I had lost track of where I was.
One of the advantages that came from handling multiple writing jobs was that sometimes one might influence another. Thus one job might provide inspiration for another, or suggest ways of breaking a block or just give me a break and allow my mind to process thoughts about the other work in the background. Working on something different for a while can provide a welcome break when the work gets a little tedious. I've found it sometimes helps in breaking writing block as well.
Once I learnt how to work on multiple writing jobs my progress was much quicker and my production went up. I no longer have to wait to finish one paper before starting another so a lot of time waiting for information or inspiration is avoided. Thus my time is used much more efficiently, I get a lot more done and my production of journal papers has gone up.
Learning to write more journal papers more efficiently helped my development as an independent researcher as it meant that I could get my findings out into the wider community quicker and become known to my peers. It also helped with opening up avenues as a prospective academic after I complete my PhD, since the number of publications is important for gaining such a position.
Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. His profile is at http://cedam.anu.edu.au/people/rod-pitcher Email: Rod.Pitcher[at] anu.edu.au
Thinking about what you did leads to doing what you need to do to get it done
Since finishing my thesis people have asked me, on a significant number of occasions, how long it is, how many words it contains, or how many pages it runs to. I know rough answers to those questions, but I can tell you to four significant figures, thanks to the Royal Mail's self-service machines, that the hard-bound version weighs 1.379 kg. Unpackaged, it would cost £5.66 to post within the UK. However, that is really only a distillation of a much larger mass; I had collected a great deal of qualitative data on which my thesis could have been based. When it was time to return from my fieldsite in Germany, a very much documentary society, my collection of pamphlets, objects, old books, hard disks, the computer where my photographs and interviews were stored, and - of course - my 'notebooks' of fieldnotes cost a great deal more to send back 'home', even using the cheapest service. Getting all this stuff down from the fifth floor of a building with no lift confirmed that there was going to be much to get through when I got back! Well, there is now a thesis. So I must have done it, as strange as that still sounds to me. It was a very daunting prospect - extremely daunting. I wonder what I really did to overcome the fear of approaching this great quantity of all so interesting but all so terrifyingly voluminous information. Let us think about it together. But there is a question that needs to be asked first: 'What did you learn on your fieldwork?'. It is the question to I think all ethnographic researchers need to ask on their return too.
A socio-cultural anthropologist, or anyone doing ethnographic fieldwork, experiences a place, events, interacts with people and much more. Imagine yourself saying to yourself : 'You went. There was a point to that. You were not merely a data collector. You were a data experiencer. What did you experience? Tell me.' And indeed, that really is the point. It is the best place to start dealing with that mound of data, even if the question is asked a few weeks after adjusting to life back home. The alternative approach, and one that I suspect leads to avoidance of the problem, is having the urge to 'code', and with that to 'code' everything, before doing anything else. It seems like productivity, but is really procrastination. What is the point of sending an intelligent, feeling human - with an analytical brain - somewhere to conduct ethnography if a robot with a microphone for ears and a camera or two for eyes is really all that is needed? And that human who went somewhere (even if down the street), and who put in all that effort, has now a story to tell. It may well be a story with references, theory, some figures, some contextual information, but telling what happened is the key. Lo and behold, it is a type of narrative - but at the beginning a simple (if, quite understandably, possible cloudy and messy) one! Think of the research questions posed before collecting data; what are the big things, the big topics, that you really need to talk about based on your experiences that deserve being dealt with in some detail. Writing them down in some form, then adding a bit more detail, is the key to the answer. Thinking of ways they are linked is also useful. All this together is alternatively known as an thesis plan. Do it first. It is the key to all the writing. It gets your mind working, it gets the sense of possible directions in gear, and it starts the process off with a relatively painless task. It also uses your biggest asset: you.
The technique is really the key to all the chapters you write as well. The question is once again that of what needs to be told in this chapter to deal with the topic, and what is the best order to place it in. Of course, in general, when you code, transcribe interviews, re-read fieldnotes, re-examine photographs or documents, you may find that your memory is 'wrong' - but there is nothing 'wrong' in that. Re-adapt in this iterative process. However, your impression as a human participant is important. Why did you think what you did? Does it appear other people think it? Why do they? What does that reveal? It is also the task at the end of the process, namely when the abstract is to be written and placed at the front of the thesis! It came quite clear to me on another occasion, or occasions, when I went back to my fieldsite after initial submission. Having to tell the people I had written about what I had written about them and the place they live really made me realise that it really is all about telling a story. At times, they would interrupt and comment, and remind me of experiences together, and it made me feel better about approaching the viva. And indeed, as far as I can remember 'what is your thesis about?' was the first question - either that, or I read that in a guide to vivas! When I think about it, the answer to the question now is of course much more detailed and intricate that I could have offered when I came back from the field. It developed through thought and time as those 1.379 kg were produced. However, the answers at the two points are - in spirit - much the same. It really is worthwhile asking yourself that question at the beginning, the end, and at strategic points in-between!
Gareth Hamilton recently completed his PhD, entitled Selling, yet still social : The continuing rhetorical importance of a consociational personhood among the self-employed in eastern Germany in the department of Anthropology, Durham University.
From Transcripts to Text: How to get started the fun way
On my hit list of people who really irritated me during my PhD (other than my supervisor, who was a strong candidate at times) Phillips and Pugh are most definitely on the list. I should have known that they would irritate me, just by their book's title: 'How to get a PhD'. As if getting a PhD was naturally obtainable! When I had completed my fieldwork, which involved interviewing many bereaved people who supported natural burial in Cambridgeshire, the great pile of interview transcripts in uniform Times New Roman, font size 12 and double spacing certainly did not promise enticing material that could lead to the production of a thesis. I felt inadequate and lost amongst all my rambling material. I had no hypothesis I was looking to test or a theory I was setting out to critique. I didn't even have a list of key themes or terms. How was I ever going to turn all my interviews, which seemed so disconnected from each other, into a compelling narrative that would offer some original insight into how and why Britain is the home of natural burial; the latest disposal innovation to radically change how we view and engage with our dead? I couldn't see how my copious pages of interview transcription were ever going to constitute what Philips and Pugh outline in Chapter 6 of their book and terrifyingly refer to as 'The form of a PhD thesis'. This chapter filled me with dread and paralysed me. In short, I just cried and stashed my dense pile of transcripts behind the sofa hoping that they would vanish from memory.
Then a friend I had always looked up to because she had the good sense not to entertain my vices that often made logical thought harder (i.e. hangovers) appeared on my doorstep to shake me out of my despair and inertia. Her advice was simple and very effective so I shall reiterate it here for any of you who are in that (unenviable) stage where you feel lost and scared, perhaps very scared, because fieldwork is over. There is no chance to go back and get more (and let's face it, better) data. You have to make do with what you have got (those rambling notes to self and rantings in what is supposed to be the 'fieldwork diary' and people's complete life stories captured on a voice recorder with absolutely no mention of the subject you are interested in). How on earth do you compose an original and intellectually rigorous 'story' using these composite sources into anything that might slightly resemble a PhD thesis?
Well, you could get some coloured pens, post-it notes in various colours and huge swathes of paper. Ideally, paper that comes in sheets as big as wall paper rolls. Then, go and buy your favourite tipple and snacks - for me this was a bottle of Tesco's cheapest Pinot Noir (I didn't discriminate between place of origin) and Nairns oatcakes with stilton - and have what you'd politely refer to friends as a 'quiet night in'. This involves getting comfortable on the sofa with all food and beverages within reach and the great pile of transcripts on your knee, pen in hand. Get gently sloshed as you read through those transcripts numerous times and start identifying recurring topics between the transcriptions. Make a note of these as 'themes' and assign each theme a colour and mark appropriate sections of the transcript with the appropriate corresponding colour....yes, this is dirty 'coding' before such a term was formalised in Nvivo.
After such an evening I had built up a relationship and familiarity with my transcripts and even had a list of themes. I was elated...and a little tipsy.
Then I cut up my themes and relevant sections of interview text and started to play around with them on the paper that I had fixed to the floor under piles of books on the curling corners. I began to consider how I might group the topics into clusters that would become my thesis chapters. It actually became fun. I enjoyed moving the topics around; exploring how each little thread was attached to another. I arranged my themes with pertinent interview excerpts underneath so that they could be used as ethnographic evidence to draw upon in discussion, and grouped these under larger, more encompassing themed clusters. I then assigned an order to my clusters which became ranked from 1-7 as seven discrete units (i.e. 'chapters'). Next, I constructed seven descriptive working chapter titles, which encapsulated the purpose of each chapter; i.e. was the chapter in the thesis to provide context, an introduction to a topic or particular terminology, analysis of a problem or data, or reflection and discussion.
All of these little bits of paper were then glued onto my giant piece of paper that was then given some added panache with some hand-drawn arrows to convince me there was some 'flow' and 'sequence' to my story, and then I hung this flimsy skeleton of a thesis above my desk. In the year I took to concentrate on writing the thesis I referred to this poster numerous times and took great delight in drawing a large cross through sections I had used. It also allowed me to see, very clearly and visually, where I had referred to particular bits of interview text elsewhere and in what context. Aside from re-naming all the chapters, adding an additional chapter six months into the process and amending or deleting sub-themes in the discussion, a lot of this poster actually became my final thesis. In fact, a year on from the PhD, I still hold onto this poster because it encapsulates a positive turning point in the thesis generation process; one where I suddenly felt, albeit momentarily, empowered and capable of writing the thing.
There was no science in my method and it was far from a system advocated by the likes of Phillips and Pugh, but I still managed to produce an ethnographically rich PhD thesis in less than 3 years with only minor corrections using a highly inductive, flexible and creative process. It helped me to fashion a story that would give me a narrative thread for a thesis that, from the outset, had no definitive questions to answer.
I sometimes look back and wonder what a lot of my despair was about, but I know now that it is because I have come out the other side and no longer see a PhD thesis with intellectual mystique. It really doesn't matter how you get there, just so long as you do, and I hope sharing my 'method made simple' will help you do that.
If there's anything you can take away from reading this, then just remember that when in doubt and despair, there's no harm in sketching and experimenting with wall-size posters, coloured pens and post-it notes!
Hannah Rumble recently completed her AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at Durham University. Her PhD is entitled "Giving something back": A case study of woodland burial and human experience at Barton Glebe.
Strange encounters : Reflections on authoring a doctoral thesis.
Writing is not an innocent practice. The technologies of writing create gendered social texts where desire, intimacy, power, class, race, ethnicity, and identity come alive.
In this short piece, I reflect on language and the writing of my doctoral thesis as a bi-lingual student at a British university. Writing became the site where the emotionality experienced during my studies and the institutional power of existing academic structures and norms most acutely intersected. Themes of loss, gain and possibility, as well as power, resistance and submission are prominent in the reflections offered.
The production of my doctoral thesis was interwoven with numerous sites that engender challenges and tensions concerning language and the demands and norms of academic writing. These sites include: writing across two languages; the general demands of academic writing conventions for an English audience; reconciling disciplinary norms and traditions of a faculty of health and social care (were my research was carried out and examined) with feminist and anthropological textual practices; and writing a doctoral thesis, a process which reflects a particular form of knowledge production and specific academic conventions. Being a mature student and researching my own profession adds further dimensions.
My research explored the practice and use of Western herbal medicine (WHM), a 'holistic', alternative healthcare modality. The metaphor of a 'spider's web' is frequently drawn on in the rhetoric of alternative approaches to health and healthcare and also in feminist discourses about women's lives, highlighting the centrality of relationality and human interdependence in both contexts. While practising and teaching herbal medicine I often drew on the metaphor of the web to explain the breadth and depth of enquiry in WHM, and my initial concept for the presentation of empirical chapters built on the spider's web. In using this metaphor inflected with ties, knots and inter/connections, and also strength and flexibility, I intended to convey the importance of relationality to women's practice and use of WHM. In this, I followed Callaway (1992: 29) who observes: 'The language we use [...] becomes one of the first areas of critical awareness in seeing the implications of gender for the "translation" of other cultures'.
My mother tongue - German - also mirrors the intricacies of webs. Its grammar, syntax and writing conventions facilitate the expression of complex and multi-layered thoughts, ideas and experiences in one, or a few, sentence/s. In early drafts I crafted multi-faceted sentences and paragraphs in order to communicate the multi-layered relationships in women's lives, to express the conceptual intricacies in WHM, and to approximate the complexity and nuances of my reading, description and analysis. That is, though writing in English, 'embodied' modes of thought and expression resonated with my research engagement.
Invariably, readers advised me to 'unpack' sentences and paragraphs, to 'simplify' and write 'short sentences'. The need to produce a 'reader-friendly' text that 'tells a story' was repeatedly reiterated. I vividly recall my sense of frustration on reading feedback such as 'unpack', 'this sentence is too long' or 'this paragraph is too dense' in the margins. A short entry in my research journal captures my increasing irritation:
I feel exasperated! How can a sentence comprised of S[ubject] - O[bject] - V[erb] and not much else possibly be anything but simplistic and lacking in depth??? The very word 'unpack' infuriates me and engenders feelings of being infantilised. 'Unpack' - what does it mean?
Several months later, I record:
I can now pinpoint almost 100% accurately the sentences and paragraphs which will be [...] considered to be in need of 'unpacking' and simplifying. However, whenever I do do the 'unpacking' I lose a layer (or two or three) of my intended expression, subtlety of thinking, processing and descriptions. The word that keeps coming to mind is 'impoverishment', due to lack of precision, subtlety, complexity, and a profound absence of 'flow'. While I may be gaining greater clarity of expression on some levels, I lose a sense of the intricacies and connectedness of it all. [...] I feel [...] wary of the power of hegemonic practices. [...] Even more acutely, I fear losing any potential for creative thinking, playfulness and imagination.
Over time my focus shifts from the spiders' web to individual 'threads' that make up the web. This can be seen as a response to my readers' ongoing exhortations to simplify and 'unpack' my writing, and thus to produce a reader-friendly text, and increasing analytical depth. Gradually the metaphor of the 'journey' gains prominence - individual journeys, journeys consisting of individual paths, steps and stages, journeys of individuals. Like a red thread, 'journeys' wind their way through the final ethnography and shape the 'story' of the thesis. This shift signals to me a move from complexity to linearity. More precisely, an intermediate layer of linearity is superimposed on the complexities I cherish in herbal medicine and in linguistic expression. To me, the metaphor of the journey suggests a predetermined end point, though I recognise that for others it may conjure up associations of process, multiple directions and diversions. To me, the metaphor of the journey does not reflect the richness of the multi-layered relationships I aim to express, nor echo the complex conceptual challenges I struggle with. Progressively, and almost imperceptively, I cease to articulate the fluidity and complexity of my research topic. The language I use begins to create a particular view of the phenomena I interrogate.
Operating on this intermediate layer feels like the painstaking process of applying the rules of a new language. This new language is the language of written, academic English where 'I'm constantly on the lookout for breathing spaces to deal with the fact that I can't express what I have in mind' (Ugresic 2005: 9). The use of this language is an ongoing process of success and failure. Alongside is also resistance. I experiment with how far I can go before 'unpack', 'simplify' or 'too dense' appear on the margins of drafts. I try to subvert the imposed constraints by pushing the limits of punctuation in the vain hope that this will offer me some respite from the fragmentation and truncation of my thoughts. I attempt extremely short sentences, but cannot carry it off in any meaningful way. Looking back, I realise that my readers were equally on 'the lookout for breathing spaces', simply because they could not find their familiar and normative conventions in this 'strange encounter' (Ahmed 2000) where we do not speak/write/embody the same language.
One day, a senior academic remarks that since my thesis will be judged within British academia I will have to accept the normative conventions and expectations - should I want to achieve a doctorate. Following this stark invocation of institutional power I surrender. I inscribe the linguistic, academic and disciplinary norms in my emerging thesis, 'writing out' the 'messy' and complex that is considered troubled and troubling. I perform rather than author. Yet somehow, traces of my silent/silenced efforts remain in the interstices of the text. This 'ground-level guerilla warfare against the repressive structures' (Denzin 1999: 572) becomes emblematic of how the existing academic structures and regimes become embedded in my identity and subject position of 'researcher', as much as of how I inscribe myself int these same structures and regimes. Writing thus becomes a constant reminder that 'the personal is political'.
Today, I still long for the intricacies, richness and 'flow' that expression in a language with different writing conventions might permit, and I continue to mourn the loss of the 'spider's web' in response to the requirements of academic English. Yet, the language/writing (and other) skills acquired during my doctoral studies are but one tool that serve to shape my particular ways of knowing, doing and writing research, of be(com)ing a researcher. Thinking, speaking and feeling - living - in this new language of written academic English, embodying and inhabiting this researcher-self offers another way of being in the world, another way of being suspended in a web of significance in search of meaning (Geertz 1973).
Ahmed, Sara 2000 Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge.
Callaway, Helen 1992 Ethnography and experience: gender implications in fieldwork and texts. In Anthropology and Autobiography. J. Okley and H. Callaway, eds. Pp. 29-49. London: Routledge.
Denzin, Norman K. 1999 Two-Stepping in the '90s. Qualitative Inquiry 5(4):568-572.
Geertz, Clifford 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana Press.
Ugresic, Dubravka 2005 The Ministry of Pain. London: Saqi.
Nina Nissen completed her PhD in 2008 and is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Southern Denmark.
Keeping a PhD Journal
I have found that keeping a PhD journal is a very useful and profitable way to occupy my time. I note down many things that happen during the day, such as meetings, discussions, decisions and ideas that come to me. All are grist to my PhD journal mill.
Occasionally something in the journal turns out to be important such as proving that something happened at a particular time or place to satisfy an argument. But more often the journal is just a place to play with ideas.
I use the journal as a sounding board for my ideas. I ‘talk’ to it about what I’m thinking and how my thoughts surround some idea that may or may not have any relevance to my research at some later or earlier date. The journal helps me to think through ideas and clear up my thinking about them.
I keep my journal on my computer. If I try to write longhand to keep up with my thoughts I can’t read my own writing. Using the computer allows me to get the ideas down quickly. It doesn’t matter if the spelling and grammar are not the best. At least it’s readable. If the idea becomes important for some reason at a later date it can be cleaned up for public consumption. For my own use, near enough is good enough. The important thing is to get the flow of thoughts written down. As the pages fill up I print them out and put them in a folder. Each year goes in its own folder to make it easier to go back and find something when I need it. I have spent many happy and profitable hours going back and reading my old thoughts.
A PhD journal can hold your thoughts about many things. What you chose to put in it is up to you, but I would recommend that you start one if you don’t already have one going. Use it as a sounding board, a test of ideas, an archive for bits and pieces about your candidature. You never know what might be useful. If you don’t write it down somewhere you will forget it. A journal is an ideal place to put all the bits and pieces of writing that you don’t know what else to do with.
I am writing my thesis as the story of my development as a researcher. My journal is being very useful for the notes I made in the past as I sorted out particular problems with my research or played with useful ideas. It is also interesting for its own sake as a document of my time as a PhD student. If ever I write my autobiography my PhD journal will become invaluable for the information it contains about my time as a PhD student.
There’s no reason why you have to stop keeping a journal when you finish your PhD. If you go on to an academic career, keeping a journal will still be useful, for all the same reasons as keeping a PhD one was useful.
Rod Pitcher is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that doctoral students use when describing their research and other matters related to their studies. His profile is here.
Type a few sentences
They were crap
It just goes on and on and on
Type some more
A cup of tea
Is it 11am?
This is the life of the PhD
You remember a new song you heard
So you find it on youtube and listen to it
Over and over again
Until you get another idea for a sentence
And you type it
And maybe you type another
And maybe for a half hour you manage to write something useful
What is useful?
It’s only a ‘chunky’ document
Who’s going to read it?
But future PhDs looking for
Examples of published PhDs
But inside your PhD
They won’t see the hours you spent
Checking email and making tea.
Morgan Windram-Geddes is a postgraduate researcher whose PhD 'Fit for Girls', Fit for Life? Emotive and Bodily Geographies of Scottish Secondary School Girls in the space of PE will be submitted in the Department of Geography at Dundee University. She attended the 2012 Writing Across Boundaries workshop and subsequently wrote this poem about her PhD writing experiences.
Writing other people's lives
My research involved human subjects, so ethics was always going to be an important part of my PhD. When I thought about research ethics, I primarily considered the fieldwork encounter – my presence in someone else's home, talking to families about their lives and experiences. I diligently followed the University's research ethics protocols, considering people's capacity to give consent, issues of power and coercion, how to handle sensitive topics, protecting participants from harm during the research encounter, how to anonymise the stories that people told, and how to secure the data that was collected.
I thoroughly considered all the issues that seemed relevant. But as I started to write, I felt that I had failed to address one of the most important issues: what it means to write and represent someone else's life. Conducting biographical, 'life history' interviews gave me rich, in-depth data. People told me intimate details about events in their lives, emotional accounts which covered issues that some participants had told few other people. Then I went away to analyse and write up these stories within a sociological frame of reference. I was entrusted with writing other people's lives, doing justice to all the complexities, inconsistencies, contradictions, and emotions that were contained within their accounts.
I had already decided that it would be impractical to actively 'co-author' the thesis with participants. Not only would this require more time than I had, it would likely have resulted in a different set of participants because of the much greater time commitment. Would the busy families, shift-workers, carers, and lone parents that I interviewed have had the time to co-author their stories, seen through the lens of my research questions? Probably not.
So there I was, a researcher, a writer, with responsibility for writing other people's lives. In a way, all sociological researchers are engaged in this process, but with biographical research you have so much of someone's life that the responsibility to somehow do justice to that person feels even greater. On writing, I found that there was tension between addressing my research questions and ethically representing people's lives. As I wrote thematic chapters to consider my research questions in turn – a logical approach, I thought, and one which may help me when it came to dissecting my thesis into papers for publication – I began to feel that I had lost the essence of people's lives. When you have biographical data and you write thematically, you are working against the grain of the data and something can be lost in the process (Thompson, 1981).
I needed to write another chapter, one which focused on specific biographies. Writing other people's lives was complicated; you are interpreting their stories, what they meant – what they really meant – when they said this, or that. I wondered whether people would recognise themselves if they read my interpretation of their life. And would they agree with me? I suppose you could say that it didn't matter. People had consented to me interpreting their lives, given me control over telling their stories and locating them in a particular frame. But can you really prepare someone for the way in which their life is told by someone else? As I wrote people's stories, I privileged my interpretation over their own: you said this, but you meant that. In a way, that is the job of the researcher; to situate people's lives within a broader frame of reference. But I found it surprisingly difficult to write about other people's lives without returning to think about the ethics of my role. As Josselson (1996) reflected, the process of writing felt like talking about participants behind their backs in a public place. It is hard to capture the interpretive process of writing on a consent form, and having your story re-interpreted and moulded into a different form may have emotional consequences for an individual, something that I did not appreciate until I came to write these stories myself (Chase, 1996, Smythe and Murray, 2000).
In a way, the process of writing is both the problem and the potential solution – through reflexive pieces like this I have tried to write my way through the judgements, interpretations, and compromises that I have made as I have written other people's lives.
Chase, S., (1996), "Personal Vulnerability and Interpretive Authority in Narrative Research" in Ethics and Process in the Narrative Study of Lives Volume 4, R. Josselson (ed.), Sage Publications, London, pp. 45-59.
Josselson, R., (1996), "On Writing Other People's Lives: Self-analytic reflections of a narrative researcher" in Ethics and Process in the Narrative Study of Lives Volume 4, R. Josselson (ed.), Sage Publications, London, pp. 60-71
Smythe, W. & Murray, M., (2000), "Owning the Story: Ethical considerations in narrative research", Ethics and Behavior, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 311-336.
Thompson, P., (1981), "Life Histories and the Analysis of Social Change" in Biography and Society: The life history approach in the social sciences, D. Bertaux (ed.), Sage, London, pp. 289-306.
Jenny Preece is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University. Her PhD takes a qualitative, biographical approach to understanding the role of work in residential mobility in more deprived communities. Her profile can be found at: https://shu.academia.edu/JennyPreece.
Scattering over the page
To you and me?
Convince the audience
Store the learning
Work a juggling
Make a better place
Each and every day
Organised on the page
Sarah Russell qualified in 1989 and has worked in palliative and hospice care as a nurse, manager and educator for over 20 years. She juggles her part time professional doctorate with family life and work. Her research on Advance Care Planning is her complete passion, but her daughter and husband will be very pleased when she has finished and stops talking about death and dying all the time. She can be followed on Twitter: @learnhospice
Soibam is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. She is also a poet. Her poems have been included in an anthology called "Tattooed with Taboos" published by Loktakleima Publications (2011), Imphal, Manipur.
As a scholar of Sociology, she is currently engaged in documenting and analysing changing meaning of "sites" in the context of military operations. She is in the final phase of writing up my doctoral thesis.
The poem was written in the context of revisiting 'fieldnotes' and half written chapters, after a conversation with a fellow researcher who was going through the same phase. It was written, she recalled, ' after one of the umpteen tea breaks in the tea stall right in front of the library where we work from'.
I visited the abandoned chapters;
they had grown sullen and strange.
The scribbled notes
as if a morose,
wait for me
to decipher their bitterness.
I coax the words
to enlarge their meanings.
I cajole the mundane
for a missing clue.
says the law of writing,
amongst escapade tea breaks,
In the loneliness
of losing words
I pour over words
A leap years' pact hung above