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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