Doorways are for going through

I glance at my nephew’s artwork on the monitor desktop, titled Man in a Doorway. It’s the same one I have set as my picture on this blog. The subject of the painting was never specified. It could be any man, any person. This morning, I am the man in the doorway. I stand on the threshold of another week and another phase of my PhD process. I have begun thinking and writing my thesis as a whole piece. It isn’t just individual chapters any longer. Each chapter has a place and a role within the broader structure. It’s gone from being bits that should fit together somehow to a larger story that has contours within and between each of the chapters. This is rather exciting but also quite scary. There is a lot of work yet to be done on it before it will be ready to submit, but now I know more about it than I did before.
I am standing in the doorway, on the threshold of this thesis. Through the doorway is a lot of hard graft as I write this thesis into being and write myself into being as a scholar in the process. I can see some of the way into the next phase of work, even if much of it still lies in the shadows. The light from behind me is spilling in through the doorway to illuminate the next few steps of the path. I am not stepping into complete darkness because I know this material. It takes me a while to articulate it sometimes, but I do know it. As much as I learn more about my data set every time I review something or apply another element of analysis, I can say I know my thesis now. My thesis, my argument, only addresses a small component of the possible analyses of the data so I would not expect to know everything about the data set as a prerequisite to developing my thesis. What I’ve done is enough rigourous analysis to craft a defensible thesis.
I stand on the threshold of my thesis. It feels more than a little intimidating, because this has to stand up to examination. At this point the statistics on outcomes of PhD examination have little impact on calming my fears. Most theses are accepted (or accepted with minor editorial corrections) or amend. A smaller percentage get revise and resubmit. Of course I worry about ending up in that small revise and resubmit percentage, or the even smaller ‘recommend for another degree’ category. I think most thesis students fear they will be in one of those latter groups.
I stand on the metaphorical threshold of my thesis. Realistically, I have already taken the first step through the doorway. I have a nominal full draft of my thesis, with every chapter in at least first draft. That alone is a major achievement. I have already started the thinky work for the ‘end to end’, working out what I need to do in preparation for moving into the writing. Having had some positive and constructive supervisorly feedback on my detailed thesis outline section in my draft introduction, I am feeling more prepared to acknowledge that I am moving through that threshold. I’m cautious about saying how far, though. There may be a steep staircase through the door, or it may even be one of those climbing walls. Whatever it is, it’s going to be hard work.
I am also not the man in the painting. I am not standing motionless in the doorway. I am stepping through the doorway and it is leading somewhere.

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Not a Nobel Prize and That’s Okay

There’s a rather famous paper titled “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” that investigates how experienced examiners interpret the vague criteria for assessing research theses. It touches on many of the anxieties faced by PhD candidates worried about whether their work is ‘good enough.’ Most PhD candidates don’t have prior experience by which to gauge their work against those criteria. Not having that sense of how well you’re doing is remarkably disconcerting, and is a possible reason that many PhD candidates feel they have to do more in order to meet these admittedly vague criteria.

This has been in my thoughts as I’ve been drafting my way into my own thesis. My background in critical studies means I am very used to building arguments so some of this mess is familiar. What has taken me by surprise is the amount of mess involved in the writing. Research is messy. I understood that while I was doing my fieldwork. I wasn’t so prepared for the mess in writing.

I’ve been pondering over this for a few weeks as my draft has grown from a couple of chapters into 6/8ths of my thesis. As I draft the next chapter, bits of the previous chapters fall into place and I get a feel for what I will need to do with them in the next revision to get them to work better. It’s all delightfully organic and iterative. I was somewhat prepared for this, but perhaps not quite the magnitude of it.

The problem? I keep comparing my draft work to the polished and published work of others. This is one big disadvantage of only seeing the finished tapestry of research – you don’t get to see the mess behind the curtain. What is presented to the viewing public is a (hopefully) beautiful and coherent whole. People rarely write about their process along with the product so you don’t get to hear about the bits that didn’t go quite as planned, or the serendipitous interaction during fieldwork that became a major part of the final product. Everything gets smoothed over, ends woven in and tucked away, rendered seamless and as if it were all planned that way and everything went according to plan. It’s enough to make a pre-early-career researcher weep with a sense of inadequacy.

All kinds of research can be messy. Equipment can fail or not do what it’s supposed to. Introduce factors like participants and there’s a whole new set of things to go differently from the way you’d planned. Then there’s co-researchers, colleagues and the wider academic community. The troubling practice of using freedom of information requests to attempt to undermine scientific research inadvertently uncovers how messy the process of doing science is. Although the intent is to discredit the science by uncovering the robust and messy challenging that is integral to the scientific process, it illustrates exactly the illusion of neatness that is created when the final polished piece of writing draws a curtain over the mess. The end product presents the knowledge clearly (hopefully), beautifully (sometimes) and confidently (most importantly). Outsiders don’t get to see behind the curtain very often if at all. That doesn’t make it wrong or deceptive, but it can be disconcerting to be confronted with mess when your image of research is that it’s all as tidy as the polished final product.

My research process was not tidy. It was creative and responsive to context. It started out quite vague and I had to sit with that as I figured out a way to investigate the things that interested me. There were numerous things that could not be planned before I was there in the midst of it. It seems silly to write about it as if the data set I have and analysis I have undertaken were things I planned at the beginning. That would have been impossible. Maybe some research does work in a tidy and orderly fashion like that. Mine certainly didn’t. I guess what I was struggling with, and still struggle with to some extent, is the degree to which I can hold back the curtain while still presenting a thesis that can be considered PhD-worthy. Sure, it was messy. That’s not the same as poor research.

Now I have a thesis to write and create further coherence. I’m still tentatively searching for ways to discuss that process of discovery alongside the ‘product’ that is more than a bland ‘here’s what I did for the last three years’ report. Slowly, segments of argument fall into place. I have already set myself a standard that anything that is in the thesis has to contribute to the argument. This was the beginning of this whole reflection. I have a chapter that was mostly descriptive and didn’t feel very analytic and I wasn’t happy about it. I had a sense that it had some role but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Finally, last week as I was doing some first revisions on it, the Point became clear. It was like tugging on a thread that suddenly makes the pattern pop out. Now the chapter has a role in my argument, my thesis, and is more than just a bit of colour and movement.

My writing process isn’t tidy either. The Supervisors tell me I’m doing well. Okay, they may use a few more superlatives than that but I’m cautious. I still haven’t done this before and while I respect their experience and prior knowledge from supervising many other PhDs to completion, I’ll stick with ‘okay’ as my measure for progress towards meeting the vague and wooly criteria for a PhD. It doesn’t need to be Nobel Prize worthy nor does it have to be the magic panacea for all the world’s ills. It does need to present an argument – a thesis – and I’m well on the way to achieving that. My currrent drafts are just that. Drafts. It isn’t fair to compare them with an illusory polish that most drafts don’t achieve.


PhD Game

Draft chapter tally:

  • 6 out of 8 in first draft
  • 1.5 first revisions
  • conclusion and introduction starting to take shape

+ Scaffold Badge for Achieving a Coherent Structured Thesis Outline

+ Running Man Badge for Effective Pacing

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Anna Logue is Still My Friend

I love my electronic and online technology, really I do. I wouldn’t count myself as a ‘super user’ of any of them, but I do my best to make them work for what I need to do. That includes Scrivener for drafting, Mendeley for reference manangement and portability, Prezi for lots of my presentations, Twitter for networking, Evernote for, well, notes and saving random stuff and recipes as well as thesis ideas, and even this blog for experimenting with writing. Drafts get sent to my supervisors by email, after I’ve compiled the section out to that other word-processing programme. The data for my study is mostly video and audio recordings and my analysis has used software for handling those data. I do a lot of my work online and electronically, and back-up fairly obsessively as a result. Even my thesis topic focuses on social media.

A lot of my work is digital and yet there is still a place for analogue. Today I transferred my mindmap of a chapter onto a collection of system cards in pencil. There is something about the process that helps me think. Maybe it’s shuffling the cards, maybe it’s writing things out by hand, maybe it’s all of these and something more. This is not to say that it’s better. It’s different, and sometimes different is good for putting thoughts together in a way that fit more clearly, or merge more smoothly, or that I like better than the way they were before. I’m sure some of it is the change of activity and doing something different with my hands. I can get some of this effect when I take a knitting break.

I was reminded of this today when I was faced with wiping the mindmap of my literature review chapter I’d just sent to my supervisor in order to start work on the next draft chapter, which will be a lot of theory and connect with ideas I critique in the lit review. Fortuitously, it coincided with Shut Up & Write Tuesday on Twitter. I didn’t want to just photograph it (which I’d already done, thanks phone!), because there was a lot of detail that I wanted to be able to play with. Handle. Manually. Fortunately I have a stack of system cards on my desk and so my SUWT project was to organise my mindmap onto system cards so I had the detail and could flick through them as I think about the re-theorising work I want to do in this later chapter. I practically wrote my honours thesis on system cards (this was 1993 – they were way better than any digital option at the time), and Corkboard is one of the features I love in Scrivener. Still, I wanted and needed the card cards, and now I have another structural support for my thesis that’s a bit more portable than the Scrivener project.

Hybrid seems to work for me. There are some days I want to read on paper rather than on the screen, and scribbling over a printed-out journal paper is more useful than highlighting and noting on the PDF, even if I then transfer to the digital version. There are some things that would be way more difficult as a manual process, like designing graphic presentations, but are a snip in a digital document. I have not yet found a mindmap programme that does what I want it to (and I’ve tried plenty). They all want to start at a point that’s the next step of organisation on from where I use mindmaps, hence why the whiteboard (or sticky notes on the wall) will remain my tools of choice for that part of my writing. Analogue is still my friend and I think there are some things that digital won’t replace. I’m okay with that.

I have done so much since my last post here, but all the writing love has been for thesis drafting. It’s not been for lack of ideas, just time and energy!


PhD Game

Draft Chapter Tally:

  • 5 out of 8 in first draft
  • 2 with supervisor feedback

Bravery Stripe for Sending First Draft Chapter to Supervisor for Review Even Though It Was All A Bit Messy And Awful

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one bite at a time

1 January, 2015. This is the Year of the Thesis. Of course, the process started quite some time ago, but there is something about the calendar year ticking over so that the year matches the one on everything where my planned submission date appears. If clichés abounded before, I’m bracing myself for another inundation now. Rubber hitting the road, putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, hard yards, light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train, and so on.

If I’ve wibbled over things before, I am prepared for that to pale into insignificance before this thing that I’ve never done before – write a book. The PhD thesis is an odd kind of book, but it is nevertheless a book of 80,000-100,000 words (somewhere in the region of 200 or so pages of double spaced text). The unique and arguably still valuable thing about the thesis is that it requires the candidate to write an extended and coherent argument based on their research project in a way that you don’t get with a series of journal publications. There are a whole mess of conventions about what has to be included and how which make them odd if you’re not used to reading them. It also presents challenges for people writing them to make them engaging to read for examiners (see Pat Thomson’s post about keeping your examiner on track).

If I may indulge in a few clichés myself, this is really the pinnacle of this project, the . The whole point is to produce an argument, a thesis in the most precise sense of the word, about which I have designed and carried out my research and have something to say as a result. That’s exciting, and also mildly panic-inducing. Even though I have everything that I need to do it – data, time, support, and lo even an argument – it does feel like looking up at the North Face of Mt Everest in the knowledge that I have to climb it. It is also uncharted territory, as I didn’t get to this point Last Time. It’s also the ‘home stretch’ because this is the only part I need to do now, write the damn thesis and submit it.*

How easy is it to slip into hyperbole …

Late last year I was reminded of the joke about how you eat an elephant. So now I have a picture similar to this stuck on my wall for when I need reminding …

One bite at a time

It is a lot and I will have to pace myself. Last thing I want or need now is indigestion. What a lovely mess of metaphors in this post. I think the only one I haven’t used of my regulars is the ‘endurance race.’

Welcome to Year of The Thesis. Yes, there’ll be dragons. Hopefully it’s mostly a fun ride.


*yes, there are actually other bits I will need to do for the examination, including an oral examination (I think), but I’m not thinking about that right now!


PhD Game:

Surely has to be some XP in here somewhere

Steel Trap Merit Badge for Tenacity – Reaching The Home Stretch

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Drafting, drafting, drafting …

I’m gazing at the current draft of my methodology and methods chapter. I refuse to call it just ‘methodology’ because they are distinct things and I will need to discuss both.

There needs to be some organising applied because there are places I have just written stuff and not everything is where it belongs yet. There are also some elements that need to go *somewhere* but I haven’t found the spot for them or which ‘friends’ they need to be sitting next to. Perhaps the thing is to stick them somewhere and attend to flow later on. Taking my motto of ‘one bite at a time’ means it doesn’t matter if I’m not sure where in the order it will settle. It is an important part of that discussion so having it *there* is the thing, irrespective of whether it is in its right spot yet.
There is a tension between ‘just writing’ stuff and getting stuff written in a form that will prove useful. In a way it’s similar to the distinction between productive work that is just being busy and doing lots and productive work that is effective and achieves what you need it to. This is one of those instances where a word count as a raw metric isn’t the most helpful. I can blather a lot of words but they may not always come out in a coherent enough form to be useful drafting. Especially when I am still figuring out the structure. My challenge is usually that I’m a bit of a plotser (a blend of plotter and pantser). My writing style is a combination of both planning out the structure before writing and working out the structure while I write. This has some advantages in being able to get some ideas onto the page and having some flexibility with the structure, but it can also be frustrating, especially if I have not sorted out enough structure to be clear about my argument. As an aside, this is where I am finding Scrivener coming into its own for me. I’m still getting used to not having to write in the linear way dictated by other word processing programmes that shall remain nameless, but it’s getting easier the more I play with it.
I’m on the cusp with this chapter. I’m pretty sure of what needs to go in it, and I have a fair amount of that in varying degrees of flabby writing. The structure isn’t settled yet and part of that is related to the argument problem. I know what the chapter needs to do but I have not settled on the flow of the discussion to make my argument. Seeing isn’t solving, but at least I have an idea of what my problem is so that I can do something about it.
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Performance enhancement

Hierarchy is alive and well in university world, and nowhere is that more visible than in the allocation of office space. I have a desk in a large office that used to be a seminar room that houses 8 desks (not all of them currently occupied and some people are part time, but still …). Shared workspaces are a special brand of torture for me, not only for being sensitive to environmental noise but also not wanting to be the Grumpy Person all the time. However, this is not a gripe about resources or less than ideal work spaces.

One of the things that I have discovered to get me through is music that I don’t have to curate. With my comfy noise-cancelling headphones, I started exploring Spotify and happened across the Intense Studying playlist.The premise is linked to the ‘Mozart Effect’ on spatio-temporal reasoning, which may or may not generalise to other activities, including running and other sport/exercise activities. Initially this was in desparation as a means of drowning out office chatter so I had a hope of being able to focus on what I was thinking and writing. It does reasonably well but I also found it to help me stay focused and be less distracted even when there isn’t extraneous noise.

I have started using it more and more because I have found it helps me put the metaphorical blinkers on and stay with the thoughts and ideas I’m chewing on. It may help that I enjoy the broad classical music genre and find the ‘wall of sound’ it creates useful for keeping the aural input downregulated so that I can think, organise my ideas, and write. I’ve since discovered an electronica equivalent playlist that scratches that auditory itch. I could create my own playlists on Spotify or on various other music playing devices, but the beauty of these are that someone else has already put them together and I just have to hit ‘play.’ The classical music one has also reminded me how much I enjoy Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F (the ‘Pastoral’ symphony – if you’ve seen Fantasia, you’ll recognise it).

I may be training myself into a conditioned response or it may have some other means of effective performance enhancement, but at this point I will consider any trick that might work to get this thesis written. Of all the possibilities, this one is quite pleasant, has minimal impact on others and the only side effect I can imagine is that it may take a bit more work to get into the writing groove without it if I get too habituated to it.

I’m writing this in part because I need to write. I’ve crafted myself a writing schedule and promptly intimidated myself over the amount of work I have to do in the next year. Even though blogging is not the same as drafting a piece of academic writing, it’s still writing and it’s useful to remind myself that I can organise my ideas into a form that is intelligible to others.

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On the board

There is a noticeboard on the corridor wall for our research group. It has pinned to it people’s photos and names, a few odd university notices, emergency information, and copies of published papers produced by people in the research group. Very soon I will have a paper to pin on the board, with me as first author. I found out very late Tuesday night that my revised paper has been accepted for publication.


Yes, it’s still real. The email from the journal says “we would like to accept your manuscript … in its current form for publication”. I’m not dreaming.

At some level, it does feel like this has been something of a charmed process. The writing itself has been hard slog and has taken a long time. To be fair, the first time you do anything it tends to take a long time because you’re learning. It was around a year between the seminar presentation that inspired the idea for the paper to submitting the initial version to the journal I’d selected. To be even more fair, it was not the only thing I was doing. I know some people who have waited six months or more to hear back from journals about an initial submission. I had substantial reviewer comments in around three-ish months, so I count that as pretty sharp work on the part of the journal. It was just over 5 weeks between submitting my revised version and receiving the email accepting it for publication.

I realise that not all submission-to-publishing processes are so efficient and prompt, but I’m delighted with this as my first experience of submitting a paper for publication. Bolstered with this, I feel a bit more ready to deal with the less ideal experiences with publishing that are almost inevitable in the world of academic publishing. I have had my ideas and writing blind-reviewed by scholarly peers in a journal that publishes work I respect. My work has been accepted as being at ‘scholarly peer’ standard rather than ‘student’ standard. That feels really good. To borrow the image from an earlier post, I’ve not only pulled up a chair and sat down, now I’ve been given a warrant to join the conversation.

Other things are nice about this too. Now I have already demonstrated my capacity to produce work of a scholarly standard. I’ll be able to include the published paper in my thesis and it contributes to the research-based funding ‘points’ for my supervisors as well. It also means I have the beginnings of my publication section for my academic CV. Yes, there are flaws with the academic publishing system and the uses to which it is increasingly put. For now, I’m content to celebrate the good stuff about this for me personally and professionally.

And make a celebratory cake to share with the office!

PhD Game:

You betcha this is a LEVEL UP!

“Author, author!” Achievement Badge for First Publication as First Author.

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