What if my thesis is not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written?

I’m starting this post with a confession: I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but I wanted to. I got things wrong in my thesis, and I didn’t really push myself as hard as I could have in the analysis of my data. While I am proud of what I achieved, and (mostly) believe the positive praise I received from my three expert examiners, I am mostly convinced that I took it a little too easy on myself and could have produced an even better piece of work had I taken more time, or read more, or written more drafts or tried harder.

I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever. And I really wanted to. I wanted it to be the best thesis my examiners had ever read. I wanted them to tell me it should be a book, and that they had sent it to a colleague at Oxford University Press, who would be in touch to fall all over me with heaps of praise and a book contract. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, is I graduated. On a sunny, happy day in April with my mum, husband, kids and friends watching me and cheering me on. I received well-deserved praise from my examiners, and I made my supervisor proud.  I earned a title I finally feel comfortable with. I gained a great deal from the whole process. But, I have no book contract, no ‘this is the best thing I have ever read’ comments, no awards and accolades.

Image from lexisnexis.com

Image from lexisnexis.com

When I started out, I told everyone that I would be happy to get minor revisions and mostly complimentary comments, and that the aim was really to do the work, earn the degree, and progress in my academic career, rather than to write The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. It was kind of true. But what was also true, and something I kept to myself, was that I really did want to write the other thesis – the Most Awesome one. I really wanted to be the very best. I was a top student at school, winning academic prizes and striving to get top marks. This drive was tempered in my undergraduate years and during my early postgraduate study, when I realised I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. It was hard to be good but not the best, but I got used to it for the most part. Between my MA and PhD I took a 5-year break, so starting my PhD in 2010 I felt a little older and wiser than I had been but, oddly, this must-be-top-in-class-or-nothing-counts-for-anything drive returned.

This drive worked for and against me in certain ways. Doing a PhD part-time when you have a full-time life and job is really difficult, and most days reading, writing and thinking about the doctorate just feels like a bridge too far when your kids have school stuff on, your partner wants time with you, and there are work deadlines looming. Having the ‘I must be the best or I will be nothing’ drive can push you on when you feel you just can’t push yourself. That drive did keep me going when things got tough and I wanted to just stop and have a really long nap.

But, on the flipside having the ‘best or bust’ mentality made it hard for me to celebrate positive feedback because I focused on all the negatives and things I had missed or gotten wrong. This mentality makes it hard for me to celebrate small successes and see these as big gains, because I want all my writing and work to be the Best Ever. I don’t really want to just be okay, or even good. I want to be awesome, and I want other people to think I am too. So, I can get really bogged down in feeling like ‘my work is crap, actually, and so why should I even bother because no one will even read this paper, much less cite it?’

Is this silly? Perhaps. Am I alone here? Nope. I think anyone who has been really good at something in some part of their lives has come to like the recognition and validation that comes with being really good, or even the best. Not being really good or the best becomes harder to live with, because it means perhaps less recognition, less validation from those external people and sources. It means having to find more of that within yourself, and that self-belief is not always easy to offer yourself on a sustained basis. It helps to have others telling you that you are actually awesome, and good, and more than okay, right? But it also helps if you know that they are speaking the truth (or some version of truth) and not just being nice to you. In order to take on the recognition and validation and use it to drive you forward, you need to believe that you are actually smart, and capable, because then the praise makes sense. If you have people praising you but you really believe everything you write is crap, the praise falls on deaf ears.

Underneath all the focus on the criticism instead of the praise, and the writing paralysis that I struggle against, I do really think my work is at the very least okay, and some of it is good. Some of it might even be better than that. My thesis is good. It’s not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but the colleagues who have read it liked it, and found it helpful. That’s pretty awesome. I have a PhD, achieved through my own hard work. That’s also pretty cool. I am writing papers, and when they have been revised and polished, they will be published. Again, a win.

Image from egosquared.com.au

Image from egosquared.com.au

Being the best ever, I have realised, is a) not possible, and b) not actually a very good thing, because it’s too much pressure in the end. I’d rather work my way, paper by paper, towards better writing and more refined thinking, rather than start out with the best thing ever and then decline from there while killing myself to maintain that unrealistic standard. This is how I look at it anyway.

The PhD is a part of the foundation on which you build your scholarly career; it’s not the career in a nutshell. If you try to turn it into everything about you as a scholar that is good and worthy of validation, you may never actually be able to write it. You’ll paralyse yourself with the fear that it won’t be The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. But chances are it’ll be a good thesis. I think the thing is to really try to realise and remember that good in the world of doctoral study is actually enough, and that the goal is to lay a strong foundation for further work, rather than to encapsulate your whole academic self and career in one PhD thesis.

Working with feedback: on criticism and critique

Hands up: who actually likes critique and criticism of their writing? So few hands? How strange :). I think we all know that critique on our writing is something we have to expect: if we are writing for an audience, especially one expected to be critical such as PhD examiners or peer reviewers, the critique will come whether we want it or not. Often, though, critique is something we fear (even if we also know that good critique is good for our thinking and writing). I don’t know a single writer – student or otherwise – who has not seen an email from an editor or supervisor that contains feedback and immediately said ‘Yay! Critique!’ Most students I know, myself included, have seen those emails and first had a swooping sort of sensation of anxiety or apprehension in the belly before deciding whether to open now, or later; read now, or later. How do you deal with criticism and critique of your writing? How do you take on what helps, leave what doesn’t, and move forward with your writing and thinking?

Perhaps a good starting point would be to differentiate between criticism and critique. Learning about the differences can shape our responses as writers in helpful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two definitions, helpfully provided by Google, are a useful starting point. You can see that criticism is defined as fault-finding or censure in the first instance, even though in the second it is defined as analysis, evaluation and judgement. This overlaps with the definition of critique which is defined as assessment and analysis done in a ‘detailed and analytical way’. A further definition you can source goes on to argue that critique is understood thus:

I like this more fleshed out understanding of critique as a ‘method of disciplined…analysis’ that is not only negative, but finds merit as well, and is concerned with ‘doubt’. I think this speaks rather well to what we do when we read the work of others – we are not ‘sure’ that the writer is right or wrong, or that we are right or wrong in our assessment; rather we read with a measure of doubt so that we can, analytically and evaluatively, assess the argument being made and the evidence being presented in support of that argument on its merits, and in relation to the field of research (and often to the research we are doing). We do this when we read the literature that helps us scope the field and find a space for our project; we do this when we read as critical peers to offer feedback (whether formally or informally); and we should be mindful of this as the way readers will (hopefully) approach what we write.

Notwithstanding that examiners and peer reviewers can sometimes be rather nit-picky, petty and unhelpful in their feedback, I believe many academics who will be tasked with commenting on my writing will understanding this definition of critique, and will assess my work with a view to pointing out both the merits and faults. They will hopefully be peers who have the interests of the field of research and practice at heart, rather than their own narrow stakes in that field, and as such will offer feedback that will help me improve my writing, develop my thinking, and make a more valuable, critical and thoughtful contribution to that field. I have had both mean and helpful feedback on my writing so far, and to be honest, the helpful has far outweighed the mean. A brief inquiry to colleagues and friends has yielded a similar finding (although anecdotal) so if you have not yet been exposed to much external feedback on your writing, be warned that some reviewers are mean, but also be encouraged that most actually do have the interests of the field and you as a contributor to it at heart when they review your work.

So, when you get the critique (and sometime the first instance of criticism) what do you do? How do you respond? I am going to write in a follow-on post about formally responding to reviewers and examiners, so here I want to just touch on two thoughts:

– Firstly, you have to give your feelings – all of them – space to breathe and be felt. Any critique that point to errors, missteps and the need for more reading, thinking and revision will be hard to read or hear, and it’s very easy to focus only on what the reviewers/supervisors don’t like, rather than also looking at what they do like in your writing. You may well feel hurt, angry, confused, disheartened and rejected. You might feel stupid, or lost, or filled with self-doubt. This is all completely par for the course. No one likes the negative critique, even if (as some of my more experienced colleagues tell me) you get more used to it, and it hurts less, the more you publish. Feel the crappy feelings, but don’t over-indulge them to the point where you start sinking into a mire of despair and writing-abandonment.

– Secondly, you should have back-up: willing and supportive colleagues, fellow writers, friends who can help you to process the feedback in constructive ways. Choose people who have some knowledge of the kind of writing your are doing, and the purpose of it, and share your feedback with them. If you need to vent, vent, but then also use them as a sounding board for your initial and then more considered responses. What do the reviewers mean by this comment? Why am I being asked to do this? Do you think I can ignore that, and how should I defend myself to the editors and reviewers? How should I revise this chapter/section of the paper? And so on. Kamler and Thomson have written about the usefulness of having a ‘publication broker’ to help you work through reviews and revisions, and this is a good idea (especially if you are new to writing for publication or for external review).

I’ll stop here for now, and address responding to reviewers in the next post in more detail. But if I can sum up so far: working with criticism, especially at an earlier stage in your career as a writer and academic, is bloody hard work. It’s emotional as well as intellectual work, and I think finding space to be emotional, but not let the feelings of hurt and inadequacy get in your way of the intellectual work and progress is essential in turning the criticism into critique, and the faults, errors and missteps into opportunities for learning and growth.

Reading your field: how much is enough?

I like reading. I am a complete bookworm – my family used to joke when I was growing up that if I didn’t have a book, I would read cereal boxes (I did, actually). When I was studying for my final school exams I would reward myself for an hour of maths with a chapter (or 4) of my current novel. (I still do this, although now it’s academic articles rather than maths, thank goodness). This post is the first of probably a few on reading for your PhD, and also for what comes after. This post asks the tough question: have I read enough, and how much, exactly, is that?

Academic reading happens at different levels according to purpose. When your purpose is simply to read a new paper or book to find out about a new piece of research or a new study in your field, with no immediate need to reference or use it in a specific way, it can be a fairly easy and enjoyable activity. No anxiety here; just learning and thinking in an undemanding way. When your purpose is to scope your field for a literature review section that gives you a ‘map’ of the part of your field you are researching into, what research and questions have been asked, and where the gaps are that your work is hoping to fill, there is some anxiety. Are you reading the right ‘names’? Are you reading enough articles? Have you missed out on important studies? Furthermore, when you are reading to build a theoretical framework for your study, and when what you have to read is tough theoretical and conceptual texts that you need to comprehend fully and mesh together into a coherent framework, there is indeed anxiety.

Managing anxiety around reading was a challenge for me during my PhD. I have written a little about meltdowns in relation to reading, and how I climbed off those particular ledges. The anxiety, for me, was different at the different stages of my PhD. At the beginning, when I was reading for my proposal, I had been told that I needed to have done 30% of the thinking by the time my proposal was ready for submission. Wow. 30% in the first 6 months? That seemed like a lot. A lot of reading and a lot of thinking. And writing, of course. Was I reading the right things? Was I reading enough? (Can you ever read enough?) This process was a challenging one, because I really didn’t know if I had read enough, or done enough thinking when I handed in my proposal, and I am not sure it’s that easy for a supervisor – a good one – to say ‘that’s enough reading, stop now’. They can and should advise you, point you towards useful reading that will help you, and help you stop when they sense you are reading the wrong kinds of things at different stages. But you have to, ultimately, work out for yourself whether what you are reading is helping you move forwards or not. Working out your own ideas, and what helps you to answer your questions, or doesn’t, is part of becoming a researcher who can move on, postdoc, to write, publish and work on new projects.

After the proposal went through, I then had to start firming up my ‘theoryology‘ and this meant reading the complex theoretical and conceptual stuff that makes me a little dizzy from time to time. This chapter was dense, and I really felt I needed to be clear on my ‘lens’ before I went out to generate data in the field. The reading, in relation, was very dense, and not always super-interesting. I worried a lot about whether I was reading enough of the texts, or whether I was actually reading deeply enough, or comprehensively enough. How would I tell if I wasn’t? Obviously my supervisor’s feedback was an important source of direction, but she hasn’t read everything in this field, either, and both of us were finding our way through my study through my reading, writing, and thinking. This was a daunting process for me, fraught with anxiety, but also a growing experience. I did feel like I grew slowly in confidence as my knowledge and understanding of my field developed. Perhaps looking at this process of reading, writing, and thinking from the perspective of what you are gaining as a researcher can help to manage the anxiety about how difficult and often meandering this period of time during the PhD can be.

I started with substantive theory, and then moved for a long while to more conceptual/framework-type theory, and came back to substantive theory in the end to finish writing my ‘literature review’. I can’t advocate one approach over others, but it does make sense to me to scope your field, find gaps and questions and then focus on one your study can ask and answer. Then move on to read what will help you build a framework or set of lenses with which to understand your field, your question, your data and your analysis of that data. Then, at the end, go back to the substantive theory and refine your literature review according to what your study evolved into. I think having a plan, like this one or one that makes sense for your particular study or field, really helps with the reading. Using a programme like Endnote to organise your reading, or using Nvivo or similar to make notes as you read, can help with a reading strategy and keeping track of your ideas and notes as you move through different parts of your study.

The thing is (and this is why answering the question this post posed is so tough), you can read too little, and find your examiners questioning your knowledge and understanding of your field, and the basis for your claims. But you can also read too much, and end up with so many references and so much information that it becomes difficult to find your voice and your ideas amidst all the others you are citing. It can also obstruct the focus of your study and make it difficult to choose just the one PhD to work on. It’s a bit like the Goldilocks Syndrome – not enough, too much, or just right? I am not sure what counts as ‘just right’, to be honest. There always seems to be more reading to do, and there are many journals and books in every field that can be potential sources of information for you. Draw on feedback and direction from your supervisor, and from peers in your field. Do your ideas make sense? Do you have sufficient evidence for what you are claiming? Do they believe your argument, and is it coherent? If the answers from your critical friends let you know that you are indeed making coherent, substantiated sense, you’re probably closer to ‘just right’ than you might think you are.

Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…