Knowledge: claims, contributions and confidence

Going through my blog stats recently (one of my many procrastinations last week), I noticed that my post on what a contribution to knowledge is has garnered many hits in the last 2 years especially. That a doctoral study has to make a novel contribution to the researcher-author’s field is one of the main things that sets a PhD apart from other postgraduate qualifications, but it’s not something I have written much about, other than that one post. I have been thinking about different contributions to knowledge in relation to my book-in-progress, and paper writing for journals, and student development, and have a few more thoughts to add to my earlier ones on this topic.

In South Africa, all our qualifications are set out in government policy, and the purpose and main goal of the doctoral degree is there defined thus: “The defining characteristic of this qualification is that the candidate is required to demonstrate high level research capability and to make a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of a discipline or field” (HEQSF 2013: 36, emphasis added). This contribution is judged as significant and original by your supervisor(s), examiners, reviewers all chosen because they have expertise in the knowledge of your field, and where your research fits in this field.

This is pretty full-on – significant AND original, at a high level of capacity and ability (seen through the writing, argument, data and so on), and subject to critical evaluation by more senior researchers/scholars/knowers in your field. Yikes.

This idea of ‘contributing to knowledge’ in a novel, interesting, important way freaks out many doctoral scholars and researchers writing papers for journals, and writing books. But let’s break it down, because it’s not as hard, or as scary, as it sounds.

Research, which is behind pretty much all the formal writing we do at postgraduate and career level in academia, is fundamentally about curiosity, and questions. Why? How? When? To what extent? And so on. We read the field, and engage with peers, and see potential gaps, places where our questions could fit, and lead to answers that could fill that gap, and add new understandings, data, knowledge, practice and so on to our field. You could ask: If you are not going to say something the pushes your field forward, why do research in the first place? Research is active, it involves agency, and choices, and drive on the part of the researchers to find those answers that they really want or need.

This curiosity about possible gaps in knowledge starts us off on a research process, and this is why the first step is always readingimmersing yourself, through published literature, in the existing questions and answers in your field. You will have a sense, after spending a significant amount of time in the reading, what kinds of research is being done and what has been done, what kinds of theories have been used and useful, what methodologies have been employed by other researchers, and what questions remain un(der)-answered. This is a vital part of making your own contribution that is both significant and original.

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Another part of this immersion in the current questions and answers, as part of finding a way to your own original research question, is talking to peers and colleagues about your emerging thinking. This should include other PhD students in your field and department, your supervisors, other academic researchers in your field. I have had students reach out to international scholars via email and Twitter, to ask questions about papers they have read and ideas they have, and joining a writing circle within your university, with writers working across different fields, is always a good idea. This all gives you opportunities to try out your own ideas, and hear them out loud, as well as to test the potential contribution with its future audience: is this idea new enough for the field, focused enough for one PhD, interesting/valuable/useful to those working in this field alongside you?

If you are undertaking PhD research because you are training for an academic career, research will be part of your life from here on. Reading, writing, talking to others about your work, getting critical feedback, being told your arguments are not new enough and pointed in the direction of more critical thinking – this will all be part of your life from here on. The PhD starts this off proper: saying something to your field that has not quite been said yet is important, because it enables the research we do to add to knowledge about the world around us, and because it enables you to find and claim a researcher identity and voice. This is a precondition for working as an academic researcher, scholar and future supervisor.

I suppose, what I am thinking now, is that a contribution to knowledge is not one kind of thing – in papers, dissertations and books, it takes different forms and can be a different ‘size’ depending on the length and purpose of the research, and the written (or visual) text. But, regardless of whether you are doing this in a book, or book chapter, or paper, or thesis, the common point, to me, seems to be that you have an argument that has a place of significance in your field, recognisable to those in your field as such. In essence, you have something to say to peers in your field, in relation to the research that has already been done, that takes it a step further – whether through critique of existing work; new data from a new site that adds information to existing studies; new methodology or theory used to cast a different light on an existing problem; or identification of a whole new problem we need to be solving. There are many different forms this contribution can take.

If you are struggling to find, or see, your contribution and hear your voice, consider a few practical steps. Perhaps you need to do some more reading, and writing in your reading and research journals, and talking with peers and your supervisor. Odds are the idea is there, but we can often struggle with mean voices and Imposter Syndrome, and the fear that we have nothing to say. This can all very much get in the way of your progress, and confidence. You have the agency to claim this though. Rather than letting the fears and doubts paralyse you, get writing, and reading, and talking. Confidence grows as you actively out yourself out there, and discover that you do have a voice, and that people want to hear what you have to say. Claim your space, research it well, and the contribution will be there.

Paper writing: the reference list

I was teaching a writing for publication course again last week, in which I work mainly with writers who are publishing a paper that comes out of a thesis, either Master’s or doctoral. Thus, they are all trying to create a small, focused argument from a larger argument. This is a significant challenge, and one aspect to think about, and focus on, is the reference list. Specifically, how many references you include, and the link between the references you need and the credibility and currency of your argument, and claims to knowledge.

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When you construct, research and write about a project in a Masters or doctoral thesis, you have to start with reading – a lot of reading. You need to spend time immersed in the debates, arguments, history and developments of your part of the field, so you can understand where and how your study fits into the field. And, particularly at doctoral level, the contribution to knowledge your study can make.

All this reading leads to quite an impressive reference list in the thesis – pages of proof that you know your field, and who the ‘names’ are, and what arguments they have made, and so on. This idea of ‘proof’ of expertise is an interesting one at this level of study. I have worked with many students who want a number: “How many readings do I have to have in my reference list? How many papers and how many books?” I have wondered if what they are asking is less about a guideline to know how much work lies ahead, and more for a sense of what counts as a credible amount of reading, or a reference list that an examiner will see as “right” or “valid” as a basis for the claims to knowledge within the study.

There are two aspects around reading and the reference list that you need to establish in the thesis: credibility and currency.

Credibility is about connecting your study to the most pertinent, and relevant, author(itie)s in your field – the papers, arguments, voices speaking about the issues that your study is connected with. You work to position your study within the conversations in your field in a way that shows that you understand who the ‘main’ speakers are – those who are doing, or have done, influential, field-setting work – and who the other contributors are – writers and researchers making smaller, but notable, contributions to the field. And, crucially, where your study is in all of this. By indicating, usually in your Introductory and ‘Literature Review’ sections or chapters, the nature of the part of the field you are studying, and thus the knowledge gap(s) into which your study’s claim(s) will fit, you establish credibility for your study, and your claims to knowledge.

This brings us to currency, though, as a caveat to credibility. If you are citing older research, you need to be clear on why you are doing this. Is it because this is theoretical work, or foundational research that set up the current state of the field – like Durkheim in Sociology, or Bernstein in Education, or Foucault in Political Science? This is acceptable – these are field-setters, theorists and researchers whose work others draw on to make their own, smaller contributions to knowledge through applied or theoretical work of their own. But, if you are citing studies that make claims about ‘applied knowledge’ (like the ways in which government works, or the ways in which a writing centre functions in a university, or the ways in which civil society organisations engage with poorer communities), these should not be older, unless you are using the older studies with newer ones to track shifts in the field. If you are citing a study from 1992, or even 2002, and claiming on the basis of that study’s findings that government is X, or civil society works in these ways, you will erode your credibility. Examiners will wonder why you are not reading the most recent research in your field.

Current can mean different things in different fields: in History, you would obviously be citing archival texts and older work, but there would also be Historians in your field writing papers about the issues you are focused on, debating and discussing aspects of these. You need to be reading both the foundational, seminal papers and texts in your field – whatever these are – and also the most current debates and discussions as well. Otherwise, you risk making an argument, especially at doctoral level, that does not make a new contribution to the field. Your supervisor should be able to help you work out what to read that is both current and credible in your field.

Thus, in a reference list for a paper, which is a small slice of the M or D thesis, you need to select your references carefully. Start with the most recent or current research, and the most pertinent research related to the argument of the paper. This will establish both currency (where do the claims to knowledge fit into the current debates/conversations in the field?), and credibility (who is having these conversations, and how does your work speak to theirs?). There is no magic number, but unless you are doing a scoping review, a useful guideline is about 10% of your total word count. Some papers may go up to 15% and others may be less than 10%, depending on the field and nature of the argument being constructed. The point, really, is that you need to be focused on including and citing current, credible research that indicates the state of the field, the gaps, and thus where your argument makes its contribution to knowledge.

Not ‘that’ kind of doctor

On a flight home from a teaching block last week, there was a medical emergency on the plane. The crew, as they do in these situations, asked for a doctor to make himself or herself known (and then asked for any medical professional to come forward). A Swedish doctor sitting next to me stood up, and spent the rest of the flight with the passenger, until we landed and she was handed into the care of paramedics. This was my first such experience, and I fly often. I found myself, for a brief moment, thinking: ‘I wish right now I was ‘that’ kind of doctor – that I could help out here’.

But, I am not that kind of doctor. I call myself Dr. I have a right to that title. But, as a friend of mine said of his own similar title, after a similar experience on a flight last year, ‘It’s not the useful kind of Dr.’ I was talking to my son about this yesterday, and he asked: ‘well, what is the use then?’

This, of course, got me wondering: what kind of ‘doctor’ am I, and what can I help you with, in that role?

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Maybe a good place to start is thinking about what having a doctorate means. What can you do, or be, that you could not without one? The main aspect of the qualification, and the work involved in gaining this, is research capacity. Whether by ‘big book’ or publication, or art installation, the average PhD project is a research project. You are creating an argument in response to a research question, and that research question is asked because there is a knowledge gap in your field that needs to be filled. The main requirement of any PhD, at its core, is a contribution to knowledge in your (and perhaps even an allied) field of study and/or practice.

It follows then, that doing a doctorate enables you to expand your knowledge of a slice of the world – that related to your area of study, and your research problem and questions. But, to expand your own knowledge, and build on what is known to say something new, and valid, you need to do an awful lot of critical reading, writing, speaking and thinking. A doctorate, then, also enables you to gain, and develop, scholarly skills and practices. You learn to become a more efficient reader, and writer; you learn to make deeper connections between allied ideas and arguments, and critique those which seem incorrect or incomplete; you learn to articulate, in writing and speech, what you think and why you think it, and what it could mean in relation to other meanings. You learn to create a whole, and build that whole through creating and connecting parts – theory, literature, methods, data, and so on.

All of this work, then, over the 3 or 4 or 5 years it can take to research and write a doctoral thesis – in whichever mode you are writing yours in – offers you a sustained opportunity not just to actually do research and write about it, but also to reflect on the meta-level work involved. What forms of writing are more effective and persuasive than others? What kinds of verbs signal your intent in argumentation best? What kinds of structure work most effectively for different parts of the argument, to weave it all together? What does not work at all, and why? In other words, you have opportunities to work out not just what to write about or research, but also how and why to research it and write about it, following certain rules, or bending certain rules about doing and writing research in your field.

As a qualified ‘doctor’, then, you have the insight, learning and ability to offer other researchers, and postgraduate student writers, help with their own writing and research processes.

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You can do this as a formal supervisor, taking on the role of guide to your own postgraduate students, as your supervisor was a guide to you. You can do this as a writing coach or peer writing consultant, either in a writing centre, or in a more informal or private capacity. You can blog, as I and many others do, about research and writing, sharing what you have learned. There are different roles you can play, with a doctorate, to step up alongside a student who is struggling – experiencing some equivalent form of the medical emergency in my flight – and offer advice, an empathetic ear, guidance, and even direction where this is needed.

There is, then, quite a lot of usefulness in doing, and having, a doctorate. I may not be able to help you if you are having a heart attack, but I can help you create and carry through an argument in a paper; I can help you work out what you want to say in your paper or thesis, and follow a structured process that will enable you to say it more clearly and persuasively. I can offer broad-level advice, and fine-grained feedback. I can draw on my own learning, to walk alongside you as you work through similar learning, and hopefully help you learn from some of the missteps and mistakes I have learned from (even though I may have to let you make these too).

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In a higher education sector that, globally, seems to be marked increasingly by academics and scholars feeling isolated, overwhelmed, alone in their struggles, those who have the ability, and capacity to put their hand up and move forward when called on are increasingly needed, and valued. The more we are able to step alongside one another, as peers and as mentors, the less lonely and isolating the PhD journey will be – or any other research, writing and learning journey for that matter. I am not ‘that’ kind of doctor, then. But I can put my hand up, and I can help.

Book writing: how to really get going (and stay going)

I am writing a book. I have mentioned this before, in a few posts, but it is really happening now. A contract has been signed. A delivery date for the manuscript has been diarised. A book must now be written. Well. But, I am finding that proposing a book, and writing a book, are two different things. How, on earth, do I get properly going?

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I should say that I have actually started writing. I have written a full draft of one of the substantive chapters (i.e., not the Intro or Conclusion). I have more than half of a draft of a second chapter, and detailed holding texts on three more. There are seven chapters in total. So, I have started. But, I don’t really feel like I have gotten properly going and herein lies my current struggle. I have started writing this thing, and yet I am stuck at the moment in terms of moving forward.

I have worked out, for the moment, that what has happened is I have misplaced my overall argument. This is, sadly, not a new experience. It happens with many papers I work on, and I remember it happening during my PhD. I can’t see the thread, right now, as I delve into these chapters. It’s there, but I am struggling to trust it. I get into the chapter, and the chapter’s own argument, and then I tell someone about what I am writing, and they ask me questions, and I think: ‘Oh my god, everything I have is wrong and crap!’, and then I stress eat, and I am stuck.

Now, I have done enough writing, and had enough time with feedback, and revisions, to actually know that most of what I write is not all wrong and crap. It always needs revisions, of course, but I generally am able to make arguments that make sense. So, I can do this, right? [Yes]. But, what I can see from where I sit now, is that this sense of panic, and insecurity, and stuck-ness, is not something that actually goes away the more you write. I think you probably get much better at handling it all the more you write, but you are always going to have to deal with it. Because every argument you make is new, and demanding, and requires a great deal of drafting, and thinking, and reading, and rewriting, and being brave enough to ask for, and deal with, feedback.

Understanding this cognitively, though, and then actually confronting the panic, and fear, and lack of faith in my writing right now are two different things. I can totally rationalise my stuck-ness and slow momentum. But, I still wake up every day and work all day on everything except my book. I have no real insight into why I do this [this is part of the focus of a new research project I want to get going on soon]. But, I hope that acknowledging this struggle is a step towards pushing myself out of this funk and into writing. One pomodoro. Maybe two. Maybe a blocked out morning, with coffee and a sunny patch of my table, and some decent words written down. Setting a deadline with a critical friend that spurs me to have something to send him. These steps are all any of us can do, as writers, to get going, and keep going.

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I think we have to realise the writing – getting going and keeping going, especially on a big project like a thesis or a book – is work for the head and the body and heart. By this, I don’t mean only the physical strength you need to spend hours typing and reading without getting all sorts of aches and pains. I really mean the emotional strength you need to face your fears of not writing anything good, or of the negative feedback you feel sure will come if you hand any of your writing to someone to read, or of not actually even getting the thing finished and letting everyone down. These are all normal fears, for PhD students, researcher, authors of many kinds. We have to work to see them, acknowledge them, and then face them down as we just keep writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, until we can connect head and heart and know that, although it’s always hard work, our writing is okay. Better, even. And that there is an audience out there waiting to read it, who will see that there is an argument, and it makes sense, and is useful, critical, novel.

Back to work, then… More on book writing as I keep going :-).

Reading: pointing yourself in the right direction(s)

As a supervisor now, I am tasked with helping the students who are just starting out to find a way into their field, through reading (and keeping a reading journal). As a researcher and writer, I also have to work out, when I start a new paper or new project, where and how to start reading my way into the debates, problems, questions and so on. A key question I am often asked by students, and that I have to ask myself as a reader, is: ‘How do I maximise the use of my reading limited time?

The truth is, as much as we can say that as postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars we understand the demands of research, and how much time reading, thinking and writing takes at this level, we have busy lives. Most PhD students globally at part-time scholars, even if they are registered full-time, because they have jobs, and families, and other responsibilities that pull them away from their research. So, let’s be pragmatic. If you only have maybe 4-5 hours a week to really focus on your research, you want to make the best use of them. You don’t feel like you have time to spend two of these precious hours reading papers that ultimately are going on the ‘discard’ pile.

We can argue that no reading, or knowledge-gain, is a waste, but we also have to acknowledge that a PhD, or a research project, has a beginning, middle and end, and an end is expected in the form of a completed dissertation and papers (and in my case now, a book). So we need practical plans, to maximise this reading time in relation to the research project we are doing.

Last week I wrote about choosing 10 papers, and then 10 more and so on. But how do you know which 10 to start with, and then where to go after that? A PhD or Masters by research is not like a typical coursework assignment, where you have set questions that you need to respond to, and where you often have a reading list to get you started in the right directions (and can then just add to). At PhD level especially, and afterwards, you have to generate your own reading list, and your own questions. You need to choose the research problem, and read your way into the parts of the field that will help you refine this into a viable research question that you can research, thereby extending knowledge (and maybe also practice) in your field.

Big ask, right? Yep, it is. And it is daunting when you are new to this kind of research, thinking, writing and also researcher-independence. I have a few thoughts here that may help if you are starting a project, and are stuck in this very place: reading but struggling, and wondering if you are reading the right things, or not.

The first thought goes to the issue of research problems and questions. In your research journal, set yourself a 7 minute free-write task (where you literally just scribble whatever you are thinking of for 7 minutes). Make the topic: what I really want to research and why. Then write. See what you come up with. Say, for argument’s sake, you want to research the role of emotions and emotional ‘blocks’ in doctoral study. You think this is important because we don’t know a lot about this issue, but it seems to come up in many conversations you have had about and with PhD students and their studies. You want to know what students and supervisors think ’emotions’ look like in doctoral study, and what role they play in helping or hindering student progress and success.

So, there’s a basic research problem or topic. But, this is kind of all you know right now. Lots of suppositions and anecdotal sorts of evidence. You have to move beyond this to research-informed evidence, and knowledge. You have to read – a lot – to find your way into a deeper understanding of this problem, and also where the gaps are in the field that you can research. But what should your first 10 articles or papers focus on?

To get started, generate a few ‘research questions’ from your freewriting. In this case, maybe:

  1. What research has been done with the word ’emotion’ or some variation of that in the title, abstract or keywords?
  2. Based on this existing research, what are the key issues that are raised – maybe gender, or identity, or issues of retention and throughput?

This is enough to get started on some searching and journalling. The first question should yield at least 8-10 papers you can read and make notes on. Then, the second question can help you drill down further – widen your search to include studies on gender in doctoral study, and also identity. Look at papers that speak to these issues from supervisor and student perspectives. This should yield your next 10 papers, probably more.

Then you can start asking more refined and better questions, because you will now have a decent amount of knowledge about the basics of this field. You can start expanding your reading into more focused areas, or you may find yourself needing more knowledge on the wider context – you may find yourself asking: ‘Why are there so many PhD students out there? Why is there so much research on certain aspects of supervision practice, and not on others? Why is this research mostly coming out of contexts in the global North/South and not really elsewhere?’ These questions can point you towards more, and diverse reading that can help you start to build the layers of your study, from wider context, to more focused research problem area, to specific research questions and focus of your study.

A second thought goes to how to mitigate against getting stuck, and freaked out by all the reading. When you are starting out in a new research project, especially a high-stakes one such as a PhD or Masters project that will result in loss of status, time, money etc if you don’t complete or pass, self-doubt can be a significant stumbling block to watch out for. Even if you have been a successful student or academic so far, starting especially a PhD can create huge self-doubt – around whether your research is even original or interesting, around whether you can even write 80000 words about this topic, about whether you will please or disappoint your supervisor, about whether you are doing the right kinds of things at the right time, about whether you are working fast enough. So many things can create spaces for you to stumble in your self-belief.

One way, in reading, to help you manage this, is to start somewhere familiar. If you already know a bit about curriculum research, because of a workshop you attended, or a course you have taken, and this work is relevant to your research project, start there. Read your way in from a place of existing knowledge, moving towards new areas of learning. This will boost your self-confidence, and enable you to start writing as well, because you will have a bit of a background framework for this reading. Starting here can help you begin to ask the questions that will lead you into new reading on related aspects of the project. It will also lead you into reading on theory and methodology that will be useful to framing and designing your study and analysis. My advice: never start your reading with theory. It’s too difficult, and abstract on its own. You need to know what you want the theory for before you start reading theoretical texts. So start somewhere that feels known, and slowly branch out towards the not known. Same with methodology and research design texts.

Reading is the toughest part of any research project or activity, mainly because it is the part we never seem to make enough time for. I know I often feel indulgent spending time reading, even though my brain is saying: ‘But how are you ever going to write anything unless you do this?’ Writing has a tangible output – a text. Reading doesn’t have a direct output as such – although obviously the output in the end is your writing, and your more knowledgeable and confident contributions to your research or scholarly community. If you are battling to get started, or work out where to go next, I hope these two ideas here will help. Happy reading!