Spinning the ‘golden thread’ that can sew your PhD together

When I was doing my PhD, someone at some stage asked me (probably in response to my ramblings about what my PhD was about): ‘what is your “golden thread”?’ This stumped me. My what? I hadn’t really heard that term before, although my supervisor has talked about it since, as have other colleagues who all supervise students – it seems to be a fairly common notion then, this notion of a ‘golden thread’ with which you can ‘sew’ your PhD thesis together. But what, indeed, is a golden thread, where do you get one, and how do you work out how to sew your PhD together?

To begin with what it is: the golden thread is, for want of a better explanation, the central argument that pulls through your whole thesis, and creates coherence across the literature review, the research questions, the theoretical and conceptual framework, the methodology, and finally the analysis and organisation of the data and the conclusions you are able to draw (on the basis of that argument you set out to make). It sounds quite straightforward when it is put like this, but in my experience (and in the experience of many other PhD students) it is really difficult to find and hold onto over the long course of researching and writing a PhD thesis. Another way of thinking about it would be to keep reminding yourself about what the point of your PhD is. What is it actually about – what are you trying to say here? A friend of mine types her main research question into the header of each page she works on in each of her chapters, so that she is not tempted to go off track in her writing and thinking; another friend wrote a haiku about the main point her PhD was making, and stuck it in a place she could see it when she was writing; another wrote her research questions on several sticky notes and put them above her desk at work and her desk at home, so that she had them in front of her whenever she was working on the thesis. I kept a fairly faithful research journal, and re-read it often, to remind myself what I was actually making my argument about.

So, how do you get one? Sadly, you cannot go to PhDarguments.com and order one; you have to make or build one, and this takes time and is really challenging. I think of it a bit like Rumpelstiltskin turning all the straw into golden thread (except without all the creepiness). What you have when you start a PhD is straw – ideas, concepts, theory, methods, questions, literature you have read – and you have to pull the right pieces of straw together to make a strong, shiny length of golden thread that you can then use to sew a beautifully coherent and persuasive PhD thesis. Like theoretical frameworks, analytical frameworks, literature reviews, an argument is built part by part and always in relation to the main question it is being made to answer. There are key parts of the thesis that you need to put into place as you go to help you create strong and coherent sub-arguments that build towards the overall, central argument your PhD will make.

You need to scope your field well, and find a gap into which your research could fit – this helps you to start asking more refined questions, which can turn into research questions. You need to move from this reading into tougher theoretical and conceptual territory – you need to find your theoryology, and with it, further refinement and focus of your research questions. You need then to consider how you will answer these questions: what data will you need? How will you find it? What will you do with it in order to make sense out of it, and select what is relevant to analyse in relation to your research questions? Then you need to further consider the research questions you are trying to answer as you connect the theory with the data in the process of analysing it, and using it to tell the story that answers your questions, and explains why both the questions and the answers are important to your readers, and your research community or field. Following a logical and coherent process, and pulling each part of the process through with you into the subsequent stage or part of the process, really helps. In other words, don’t leave all your theory and research questions behind when you plan out your methodology and generate your data. Don’t forget the scoping of the field you have done, the research questions you are asking, and your theoretical framework and conceptual tools when you organise and begin to analyse that data in order to build your strong, shiny argument.

Image from uklpf.co.uk

Image from uklpf.co.uk

The argument, in the end, is the thing with the PhD. You cannot have your readers get to the end of it wondering: ‘So what? Why did I just read all of that? What was the point?’ The golden thread is just that: the answer to the ‘so what’ question; the point of the research; the central argument you have made on the basis of the research you have done. Without it you don’t have a PhD thesis; you have parts of a whole that has not been realised or pulled together. In order to sew those parts into something that represents what Trafford and Leshem have termed ‘doctorateness’, you need to channel Rumpelstiltskin, and start turning all your straw into your own golden thread, so that you can sew the parts of your research into a coherent, persuasive, strong PhD thesis.

Scary -ologies

I think all PhD students – all academics – have been there: to the place where they are confronted with an -ology and asked to explain it only to find that while it makes sense (sort of) in their heads, it doesn’t make any sense in actual words. I’ve been there, so many times. I’m still there with some of these -ologies. I call them my ‘scary -ologies’.

There are the big ones – ‘epistemology’; ‘ontology’ – I still can’t really explain these in small, clear soundbites (or even longer, less clear phrases) without confusing myself and others. This is frustrating because in the quietness of my mind I do feel like I sort of know what they mean. But please don’t ask me to use them is a sentence. I can tell you, probably not completely correctly, that epistemology has to do with knowledge and knowing, and ontology has to do with being. But that’s not very helpful if you are new to these terms or trying to get a handle on them yourself. Sorry. I could cite some online dictionary definitions (some of which are actually quite helpful) but the best way to get to grips with any -ology or tough concept is to find examples you can use to explain them, or ways to break them down into simpler, easier terms. I thought I’d share my examples and self-explanations on these two bigger and more scary -ologies.

Epistemology, at its most simple, is the study of knowledge – its scope and also its limits and validity. It is also defined as a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the origins, nature and so forth of knowledge – it is often called a ‘theory of knowledge’.  I think this is where I usually come unstuck in my own understanding of what it is and how to explain it to myself in less dictionaried terms. I’ll come back to this though. Ontology is defined, generally, as a ‘theory of being’, or or theory about the nature of being and what kinds of things exist and why.  I tend to get stuck when people start referring to these things as ‘theories’ about other things. [Theoryology is another scary -ology for me (so scary I made it into an ology).]

I have tried, then, not to be put off my the word ‘theory’ which in my mind signals other notions like ‘grand’, ‘impenetrable’, ‘will take months of reading to work out’ and so on. I have tried to look rather at what these ‘ologies’ are about. Epistemology is about knowledge, and what we can know and how we can know it and what the limits of that knowledge and knowing are or could be. As an example: we can ask whether something we know, like the world being roughly spherical in shape,  is justified. We can say ‘yes, it is justified to know that’. We can also ask how or why that knowledge is justified or true, and in response we could posit evidence drawn from physics, geography, astronomy and so on. You can ask these questions about the nature of many different kinds of knowledge, and that for me (right now anyway) is epistemology – this kind of inquiry and thinking process around what I think I know and why I think I can know it or not.

Ontology is about being and this -ology is more tricky for me to get my head around. I try to understand it in relation to my work or my research. For example, I research pedagogy and what lecturers and students do in relationship in classrooms in order to teach and learn and come to know and so on. A big part of teaching and learning is a process of becoming – you need to become, for example, a lecturer or teacher; it’s not something you just are. It’s a process. In the same way, students need to become lawyers or accountants or physicists – these are ontological as well as epistemological processes because they involve not just knowledge and knowing but also personal and metaphysical traits as well. So, ontology, then, would involve questioning these processes, and the nature of them and what is happening and what that means. I’m not sure I’m right about this – -ologies can make even the most sure-footed researcher doubtful (and I’m not all that sure-footed anyway). But I am very willing to be corrected.

There are other scary -ologies I will get to in my next post – tune in next week – but for now my advice would be to work on the concepts that scare you by finding simple examples or stories to try and contextualise and explain them, all the better if you can do so in the context of your own research. Turning them into stories and examples takes some of their power to scare you and render you speechless in the face of ‘Do you know what X means?’-type questions. And half the battle with concepts and -ologies is getting them under our control rather than being too much under theirs :-).


Notes: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online has a very useful entry on epistemology.