How can I get PhD if I still don’t understand the theory?

So I am revising chapter two, the ‘theory’ chapter, where I explain to my readers what ‘lenses’ I will be casting on my data are and why I need them. So, yesterday I got to the last section of the chapter which is too short and not detailed enough because it’s using conceptual tools that I need but that were only written about in draft form when I wrote the chapter last year. I decided I needed to do some more reading before I could finish it, and the drafts I was reading then have been updated and published in a book, and other papers applying these concepts have also been recently published, which is great. This morning I read two of the chapters. The first chapter I read was helpful – I have been misusing a concept slightly but can see how I can correct it quite simply. So, useful. The next chapter, introducing the next conceptual tool, induced a freak-out of large proportions. I don’t understand what the author is talking about in this chapter beyond explaining the concept I am using. There are so many big words and complex terms that it made me feel a bit dizzy. I actually stopped reading halfway through, put the book down and went to fold the laundry. I told lovely husband rather petulantly and with not a small amount of panic that this PhD is never going to be finished and I am giving up now because I cannot possibly be awarded this degree when I don’t even understand the theory.

Of course, now that lovely husband has very patiently talked me off the ledge, and worked through my misunderstandings and panic with me, I can see that I do understand the theory I am actually using and need, and that the bits that are freaking me out may not be necessary at this late stage of the game. Just because the theory is there does not mean I have to use it all. But I have to confess I am a bit lost in this chapter. I need to add these missing details and pieces that I can now read about, but I feel like I have way too much ‘theory’ and I worry that I actually don’t really understand it all; that my examiners and readers will see that and I will be found out as someone who only sort of knows what she is talking about. I would like to actually know what I am talking about at the end of all this hard work.

The theory was clearer in my head before I gathered and analysed the data. It was lovely and abstract and it made sense. Then I gathered data. I organised it and coded it and reorganised it and analysed it and started writing about it. And I could ‘see’ the theory but the data has also changed it. It’s not just abstract anymore, it’s applied now. The data is speaking back to the theory, challenging it and changing it. This is great, because it means I can actually make a contribution to knowledge in my field. I can add to the research others are doing and I can say something of value. But man, it’s hard work. Hard thinking work. Hard writing work. Looking at the two data chapters again makes me feel like I don’t understand the theory the way I thought I did. It makes me doubt myself, and I feel again that anxiety that I am getting this all wrong and that my examiners will be scathing in their critique and I will have so much more work to do when their reports come back next year. It’s a horrible, and sadly familiar feeling. On the good days when the writing goes well and the ideas seem strong and linked to the theory, I feel this will indeed be a good thesis and it will be finished by December. Today was not one of these days. I feel like I have lost the theory, lost my grip on it, and it does not make full sense to me. I don’t want to read anymore, but I also don’t want to have an incomplete chapter, or write a thesis that looks good on the surface but is theoretically or analytically shallow and weak.

But I need some perspective so I am not going to read anymore tonight. I will start again tomorrow with the published papers that report on have empirical research because these are easier to make sense of. I will finish these revisions, so that I can move onto the next set of revisions. I will remember that this is not my life’s work. It is a project, a thesis, a very big exam, and I am using this project to show my examiners that I can do the things that will mark me as having met the requirements set for me, mark me as being a researcher and scholar of a more experienced and more able kind. I will keep breathing, and writing and thinking and remind myself that I do understand the theory, really. Today was just a tough day.


  1. This, my dear, is the very essence of a dissertation. This process about which you just wrote. The journey from abstract theory to applied analysis, to confusion because the theory doesn’t fit the data, to questioning everything, to realizing how this leads to a modification of the theory, to a way through, up and out. It’s messy, challenging, maddening, enlightening, transformative in the end. And never, ever, an easy process if you do it right. This is what separates a PhD from a Master’s, and a PhD from an ABD. You’ve got this, now you understand!

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