Writer, know thyself

Lao Tzu said to know others is wisdom, to know yourself is enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight, awareness, understanding; to be enlightened is to have a deeper ability to see and understand yourself, and why you behave, think, and act the way you do. It is a significant goal of humanity, to achieve an enlightened state within oneself. I am going to argue in this post that enlightenment should also be a significant goal for writers: to gain greater insight into their writerly selves, behaviour and choices.

In my writing courses, when we do catch-up plenaries at the start of the sessions a month and then two months after the first session, I ask writers to think about not just what they have (and have not yet) achieved, but what enabled or constrained their progress. My thinking is that if you can look deeper, to see what helps and hinders you as a writer, and reflect on that with other writers, you can become more enlightened about your writerly self. And, ideally, if you can see more critically how you help yourself, and how you sabotage or hinder your writing, you can try to move the obstacles out of the way.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This is a lesson I am constantly learning, as a writer and also as a writing teacher, with my students. And, while I certainly feel more enlightened than I did when I started out on my scholarly path, I have a ways to go. The overarching lesson I am learning, with smaller sound-bite lessons along the way, is that I need to know myself – my energy, my concentration span, my levels of interest in different tasks – and, crucially important, accept myself as I am. This is not to say I cannot and will not change as I learn and grow – of course I will – but if I go into any writing, or life, task already admonishing myself for not being more focused, more energised, further along in the task, etc., it’s not going to be a rousing success. And even if I get it done, all that negative self-talk is only going to breed resentment for the writing (and life) tasks down time. And that’s not good for me.

So self-acceptance and positive self-talk is super-important, alongside figuring out your own writerly habits, preferences and energies. A big learning for me since I turned 40 last year is that my energy levels have changed. I can’t write and write every day for 2 or more hours and have enough in the tank for all the other work I have to do. My work life has changed in the last few years as I have physically gotten older, and alongside having less energy generally, I also have to spend significantly more time reading other writers’ work, offering them my energies through feedback and advice. So, the lesson here seems to be this: work with, not against, your energy levels.

It sounds super-simple, like ‘duh’, right? But I struggle to accept that my energy for writing has changed, and I keep trying to make myself be more energised. This only serves to make me feel bad, and then shamed that I can’t be more pepped up, and then I’m just a bit paralysed about everything I have to read and write. So, very consciously, I am trying to keep track of the times of the day I most feel like I want to, and can, write. It’s not first thing in the morning, although that would be most convenient. It’s really more like mid-morning to early afternoon. That’s my peak focus time. What I need to do then, to really take advantage of that focus, is rearrange my day so that I have 2-3 hours for my own writing between 10 and 1. The rest of the day can be for other people’s writing and for email and admin. Yesterday and today I am managing this, and I feel so much better. It’s unlikely I will keep it going indefinitely, but I have figured it out, and that’s a big step in the right direction. Forcing myself to sit down at 7am and be erudite and focused is not going to work. I have to accept this about myself and work with it – for the time being, anyway.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The other lesson I am learning has to do with my reduced concentration span. I am sure social media has something to do with this – flitting from one post to the next – but I think it’s also probably got to do with how interested I am in what I am reading or writing, and what else is going on in my life and in my head. It would be brilliant if we could just turn off the rest of our lives when we write – the kids being sick and keeping us up half the night, unwell family members, stress about the declining state of the country we live in, annoying issues at work, etc – and just focus only on the writing. I hear rumours about people who can do this, but I am not one of them. Life and writing happen together, and sometimes the former completely messes up plans for the latter, for days on end.

I used to tell myself I could not write at all unless I had a big block of time, like a whole morning or day, and complete silence and calm. I can hear you chuckling. It’s cool, I can see my error now. Advisors would tell me to take what time I could carve out, even just 30 minutes, and dive in. It took me a long time to learn how to do that usefully, but now, even one good pomodoro a day can push a paper or chapter forward measurably, if I can use my reduced concentration span cleverly for that 25 minutes. Rather than making myself feel bad for not being able to focus for hours on end, I use what time I can create, in small bursts, and I praise myself for writing instead of curling up in a metaphorical ball until a whole chunk of time magically presents itself to me, with no distractions or stress or life to get in my head and in my way.

Underneath learning how to know myself as a writer is self-acceptance, and self-love. To know yourself is to be enlightened – to have understanding, awareness, insight. But using that insight to berate yourself for not being more – more like others, more focused, more energised, more clever, more anything other than what and who you are – can be an obstacle to your writing progress, rather than a push forwards. Like I said earlier, we can and should be open to change and growth: I am not the writer now that I was 5 or 10 years ago, and I have worked hard to change some bad writing habits. What I am saying here is that trying to make yourself a morning person when you just are not is not productive or helpful. Trying to make yourself like a colleague who can write in the middle of the night, or on a train, or super-fast, when these things don’t work for you, is not helpful.

You need to track your own energy and focus patterns, and make adjustments to your day so that you work with, rather than against, yourself; you need to look at what is taking up your time for writing, and work out where to put those things on your priority list so that writing comes out much higher up. And you need to be kind to yourself, and encouraging – as kind and encouraging as you would be to a peer or student struggling with their own writing. Learning about your writerly self is a powerful step towards becoming a happier writer, and happy writers are generally more successful writers too*.

*This insight is borrowed from Helen Sword’s book: Air and Light and Time and Space. How Successful Academics Write. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

Photo by Abel Tan Jun Yang from Pexels

Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.

Becoming, being, and change: reflecting on early career (and what comes next)

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and I can’t quite get what is in my head onto this page in quite the right way. What I want to do is something a little indulgent, and reflect on my experiences, over the last 5 years, of becoming and being an ‘early career researcher’. I am a couple of weeks away from no longer officially being one, according to my country’s National Research Foundation, and some of the literature out there*, and I am pondering what is next, and whether I am quite ready.

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

If you take 5 years as the ECR period – the guideline I am using – then my time is almost up. On the 10th of April, it will be five years since I graduated with my doctorate. This is giving me pause.

There is a certain amount of mental and emotional ‘space’ that comes with early career. People expect you to publish, but not to churn out top quality papers that make a huge impact in your field. You are joining, rather than steering, the conversations in your field. You’re learning how to publish, and conference, and engage as a peer in your field. People expect you to teach, and consciously grow as a scholar, but if you are not yet settled, it’s not really a big problem – yet. ‘Early career’ seems to offer a bit of space to hang back, and observe, and then choose your doing with help from mentors – perhaps a supervisor, or more senior academic peer – alongside you. And the doing can be halting, and uncertain at first and no one will get too het-up about it.

As I move towards the next phase – I assume ‘mid-career’ – I am starting to supervise my own students, and I am starting to apply for grants to run my own research projects. Thus far, I have been supervised and mentored, and joined projects others have won funding for. Moving from being mentored to being a mentor to others is one significant change from early to mid-career. I am now asked to be responsible for parts of others’ research journeys, and this is daunting. It means you have to know stuff – what to read, what networks to join, which are the good conferences to attend, what areas of study are novel – and be able to do stuff – offer feedback and advice on writing and thinking work, co-write grant applications, co-publish with students and peers more often. There are more things, I am sure, but these are the ones I can think of now (that are pressing on me, anyway). Less time to observe, and hang back, and see what happens.

Moving into a more ‘mid’ phase of my career now, I feel like the biggest shift is the one from becoming, to being (and a new trajectory of becoming). I have become a researcher, and now I have to really be one. I have become a doctor, and now I have to help others to achieve the same goal through being a supervisor. I have become a decent writer, and now I have to really be a published author. And this is what I signed up for, and actually I enjoy all of the work, but what is making an impression on me is that time is taking on a different dimension. My career is starting to really grow now, and things feel like they’re speeding up a bit. Citations are becoming a thing, and making my research more visible. There is pressure to publish a few papers a year, and I am writing a book. I feel I need to be thinking about other avenues for sharing my research with wider audiences, such as in newspapers or The Conversation. I need to really start thinking about wider forms of service to my scholarly community, such as serving on editorial boards, reviewing papers, examining dissertations and so on. I now have enough distance and time from my own doctorate to be able to offer these services, and do a relatively good job.

Photo by Ankush Rathi from Pexels

I am struggling to sum this all up – probably because the becoming is ongoing really. I am still becoming a scholar, and mentor, and supervisor, and researcher, and critical peer, yet many of these roles are offered now because I am seen as being further along the path in terms of knowledge, experience and ability. I have climbed a few key staircases or ladders, and have the capacity to keep climbing, choosing which staircases to climb, and who to bring with me. I have different choices ahead of me: new research projects and related networks, different kinds of writing, teaching and travel opportunities, different ways of being an ‘academic scholar’ and playing this particular game.

Although there is less time for hanging back, there are new kinds of freedom: I have seen more of how the ‘game’ of academia works, and with that knowledge, I can make better choices about how I want to play it in this next career phase. I can see better some of the push and pull factors that I was blind to 5 or more years ago. Although I’d like a bit more time to be ‘early career’, especially to indulge in the mental allowances I have given myself to hang back at times, and be a participant guided by others but not a leader and guide, I can’t stay here forever.

I will, of course, always have mentors of different kinds as I go, and leaders are also participants, and time can be manipulated to suit your own life, and personality and pace. The becoming never becomes a static form of being – being is a just a landing on a much longer staircase of becoming. So, I suppose I am on a new landing, looking up at a new set of stairs, familiar and also strange. Now, I just have to find the strength, and courage, to start the climb.

*Literature from Australia and the UK defines early career as five year post-the end of a PhD degree. In the US, early career is a little longer, perhaps 7 years and tends to incorporate the end of the PhD process. In Africa, early career often includes all or part of the PhD, and therefore can extend to a period of 7-10 years. So, there are different time-periods and also definitions of what needs to fill up this time to move a researcher from early into mid-career.

Making the jump from M to (Ph)D: supervision and literacy development

Although this blog is primarily focused on writing a PhD thesis, and more latterly on writing for publication, I have become aware fairly recently that I have several readers who are Masters students. This post considers the move from masters to doctoral study, and the supervision needs to scaffold further development in (Ph)D students’ literacy practices, building on the M(A).

Perhaps a good place to begin is with a generalised sense of what an MA thesis is, compared to a PhD thesis. A colleague recently commented that, if you want to be an academic working in some form of higher education institution these days, the Masters is the new school leaving qualification and the PhD is the degree. This signalled to me that, certainly in academia, the PhD is the basic standard if you want to be taken seriously, and in all cases I know of you need an M degree of some kind (MA, MSc, MPhil, MFA etc) to apply for and be accepted into a PhD. A Masters degree by coursework, involves a good deal of reading, writing shorter and longer papers on aspects of your reading, both assigned and self-selected, and culminates in the researching and writing of a thesis of around 30,000-40,000 words; an MA by research only involves choosing a research focus, designing an appropriate study, and researching and writing a thesis of around 60,000 words.

Giuseppe Momo's spiral staircase at the Vatican (thetimes.co.uk)

Giuseppe Momo’s spiral staircase at the Vatican
(thetimes.co.uk)

The point about an MA being a prerequisite for PhD study implies that completing a Masters degree would act as a form of preparation for PhD study, and that if you succeed, you will be well able to make the step up from MA to (Ph)D study. I have to say, in my own case, I did not find this to be quite true. My own MA degree, a mixture of rigorous coursework and writing shorter papers with a longer research paper (during which I was not well supervised), did a rather poor job of preparing me for my own PhD, which I started five years after finishing my MA. I did well in my MA – it felt mostly familiar to me as it was structured similarly to my previous Honours degree. The literacy demands were greater, especially around the reading and seminar preparation, but on the whole it felt manageable. My first year of PhD study was a shock to the system.

The main reason for this shock, on reflection, was that I really had no clear idea of what a PhD actually was or what researching and writing a thesis entailed, and working on my own, on one (huge) research project just felt like far too much, too soon. It was not really like my MA at all.

PhD thinking capA key difference between the (Ph)D and the M(A) is the demand for an original contribution to your field. The M degree generally does not require originality; rather, the requirement, generally, is that you show that you are able to design and conduct a research study, and create a well-written account of it in the form of a thesis. If you do make an original contribution that is a bonus, but you won’t be failed or held back from graduating with your MA if you do not. With a PhD, however, treading solely over previously trodden ground and making no new contribution to your field is considered to be a failure to meet one of the basic requirements, and may well result in you having to make significant revisions, or even being failed by some examiners. This, I think now, was behind the shock to the system: how was I going to up my game as a reader, thinker and writer to make this original contribution to my field? What previous literacy practices and skills could I draw on?

This points me to an issue that does not seem to be as readily realised in academia as it should be: that at each level of study, from first year to final year of an undergraduate degree, and in each different postgraduate degree, as well as beyond postgraduate study, the literacy demands made of students and writers change. Yet, the support offered to students post-first year seems to fall away at varying rates, based (it seems) on the assumption that the literacy practices they have been taught and expected to master (!) early on will carry them through the rest of undergraduate study. Postgraduate supervisors often seem to assume that the literacy practices and skills mastered in undergraduate study will carry through to and adequately support postgraduate reading, thinking and writing, and supervision does not often seem to involve helping students with developing their PhD-level literacy.

Without turning to the research on this, I think anyone who has been a student or taught students at both under and postgraduate level can see the problem here. Literacy demands change, and writers have to change to meet them, but without relevant support, teaching, feedback and guidance at each level to make the demands and shifts clear to writers, there will be repeated shocks to the system as writers progress through their levels of study. Believing yourself to be a good writer, based on your success at school, and then finding that you are not doing the right kinds of writing expected at university can knock your confidence enormously; by the same token, doing well in an MA and then finding yourself completely at sea starting a PhD can have the same effect. And knocks to confidence lead to other kinds of issues, like slow progress, self-doubt, strangled writing and misery.

Jorge Cham phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham (phdcomics.com)

Thus, I suggest (as a start) that we need to think far more carefully about the ways in which MA and PhD study connect, especially in terms of the literacy demands (taking into account the differences between writing and researching an MA versus a PhD in different contexts). We need to critically examine the connections (and gaps) between the literacy practices involved in completing an MA and those in completing a PhD, and finding clearer ways to supervise and guide students at PhD level that can scaffold them up from MA to PhD level. This is not a task for students to work out alone and without clear guidance – that way dropping out lies. Rather, this is a task for students to work on with strong supervision that not only focuses on the knowledge that students are writing about, but also how they are writing about it, and what they need to be doing with their writing to move up a level in terms of their ability to read, think and write more independently, more critically, and with a view to finding a strong voice capable of making an original or novel contribution – even in a small way – to their field of research and practice.

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.