The PhD student I am supervising sent the first draft of her methodology chapter yesterday with a series of questions and notes for me and the co-supervisor. One of them was about tense: she is writing everything in the present and future tense, but wondered if this was a mistake. It got me thinking (again) about tense in the PhD thesis, and the process of moving from future to past as the project progresses.
I have written here a little about the gap between the logic of discovery and the logic of display or dissemination in writing. As you are working, everything is either ‘I am doing this’ and ‘I will be doing that eventually’. This is pretty much the tense in which you write your proposal – proposals are forward looking. So, as you start you research, you will naturally be thinking now, and on to the next steps, and your writing will most likely reflect this in the tenses you choose. This is the logic of discovery. As you move along, you will make decisions, close some doors, open others, and your argument will unfold and form as you do so.
But not all parts of the PhD are written in this present/future tense, even as you are working out what your argument is. The literature review and conceptual framework sections, or whatever version of these you have, will likely be written in the continuous present, as most journal articles and academic books are. ‘Bernstein argues that xyz’, and ‘Research in the field shows us that these are the gaps in our knowledge about abc at present’, and so on. Then you come to the methodological and analytical framework, and you are perhaps not quite finished analysing your data, and you and certainly not finished with the PhD, so the tense changes: ‘I am analysing this set of data’ goes alongside ‘I generated these data in these ways over this time period’ alongside ‘I am going to be using this framework to organise the data (when I get there)’. It’s confusing, to be sure.
So what to do now, in the midst of your research and writing – can and should you anticipate being finished and therefore writing everything in the methodology in the past tense, or do you worry about that later? It does seem like more work to write in the voice of discovery while you are still discovering things, and then write again later in the voice of dissemination as you reorganise and display your thinking with the benefit of (some) hindsight. However, I would caution against trying to anticipate too much. A significant part of doing a PhD is the process of doing a piece of research, and learning through missteps, successes and issues like the one discussed here how doing and writing about research feels and looks and sounds. That way, you can go on to do further research, either on your own or with others post-PhD, and you can eventually supervise PhD students yourself.
Being in the midst of what can feel like confusion and chaos – ‘Do I write this in the past tense, or just write is as I am thinking it and then change it later? Is this right, or not? Do I even still have an argument or a research question?’ – and then finding your way out to greater clarity, or a more sophisticated argument, or a deeper knowledge of your field is what builds you researcher voice and capacity. As the saying goes: the only way through it, is through it. Trying to see the end when you are still in the middle is likely to create more confusion and frustration.
So my advice, if you are stuck in a similar spot to my PhD student is this: be where you are. Think and write your way through this patch, and write in whatever tense and voice feels most authentic to you at this point. The good news is that there will be time for rewriting, polishing and updating before you submit, and it’s quite a pleasant feeling to go back to this methodology chapter after the findings have been presented and analysed, and find that you can edit, sharpen and focus that section to create a tight, accurate and interesting narrative about the nuts and bolts of your PhD. As you do so, every time you do so, your researcher capacity and voice and ability to add to the conversation through the knowledge you are making grows, and that is what being an academic researcher is about.