Knowledge: claims, contributions and confidence

Going through my blog stats recently (one of my many procrastinations last week), I noticed that my post on what a contribution to knowledge is has garnered many hits in the last 2 years especially. That a doctoral study has to make a novel contribution to the researcher-author’s field is one of the main things that sets a PhD apart from other postgraduate qualifications, but it’s not something I have written much about, other than that one post. I have been thinking about different contributions to knowledge in relation to my book-in-progress, and paper writing for journals, and student development, and have a few more thoughts to add to my earlier ones on this topic.

In South Africa, all our qualifications are set out in government policy, and the purpose and main goal of the doctoral degree is there defined thus: “The defining characteristic of this qualification is that the candidate is required to demonstrate high level research capability and to make a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of a discipline or field” (HEQSF 2013: 36, emphasis added). This contribution is judged as significant and original by your supervisor(s), examiners, reviewers all chosen because they have expertise in the knowledge of your field, and where your research fits in this field.

This is pretty full-on – significant AND original, at a high level of capacity and ability (seen through the writing, argument, data and so on), and subject to critical evaluation by more senior researchers/scholars/knowers in your field. Yikes.

This idea of ‘contributing to knowledge’ in a novel, interesting, important way freaks out many doctoral scholars and researchers writing papers for journals, and writing books. But let’s break it down, because it’s not as hard, or as scary, as it sounds.

Research, which is behind pretty much all the formal writing we do at postgraduate and career level in academia, is fundamentally about curiosity, and questions. Why? How? When? To what extent? And so on. We read the field, and engage with peers, and see potential gaps, places where our questions could fit, and lead to answers that could fill that gap, and add new understandings, data, knowledge, practice and so on to our field. You could ask: If you are not going to say something the pushes your field forward, why do research in the first place? Research is active, it involves agency, and choices, and drive on the part of the researchers to find those answers that they really want or need.

This curiosity about possible gaps in knowledge starts us off on a research process, and this is why the first step is always readingimmersing yourself, through published literature, in the existing questions and answers in your field. You will have a sense, after spending a significant amount of time in the reading, what kinds of research is being done and what has been done, what kinds of theories have been used and useful, what methodologies have been employed by other researchers, and what questions remain un(der)-answered. This is a vital part of making your own contribution that is both significant and original.

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Another part of this immersion in the current questions and answers, as part of finding a way to your own original research question, is talking to peers and colleagues about your emerging thinking. This should include other PhD students in your field and department, your supervisors, other academic researchers in your field. I have had students reach out to international scholars via email and Twitter, to ask questions about papers they have read and ideas they have, and joining a writing circle within your university, with writers working across different fields, is always a good idea. This all gives you opportunities to try out your own ideas, and hear them out loud, as well as to test the potential contribution with its future audience: is this idea new enough for the field, focused enough for one PhD, interesting/valuable/useful to those working in this field alongside you?

If you are undertaking PhD research because you are training for an academic career, research will be part of your life from here on. Reading, writing, talking to others about your work, getting critical feedback, being told your arguments are not new enough and pointed in the direction of more critical thinking – this will all be part of your life from here on. The PhD starts this off proper: saying something to your field that has not quite been said yet is important, because it enables the research we do to add to knowledge about the world around us, and because it enables you to find and claim a researcher identity and voice. This is a precondition for working as an academic researcher, scholar and future supervisor.

I suppose, what I am thinking now, is that a contribution to knowledge is not one kind of thing – in papers, dissertations and books, it takes different forms and can be a different ‘size’ depending on the length and purpose of the research, and the written (or visual) text. But, regardless of whether you are doing this in a book, or book chapter, or paper, or thesis, the common point, to me, seems to be that you have an argument that has a place of significance in your field, recognisable to those in your field as such. In essence, you have something to say to peers in your field, in relation to the research that has already been done, that takes it a step further – whether through critique of existing work; new data from a new site that adds information to existing studies; new methodology or theory used to cast a different light on an existing problem; or identification of a whole new problem we need to be solving. There are many different forms this contribution can take.

If you are struggling to find, or see, your contribution and hear your voice, consider a few practical steps. Perhaps you need to do some more reading, and writing in your reading and research journals, and talking with peers and your supervisor. Odds are the idea is there, but we can often struggle with mean voices and Imposter Syndrome, and the fear that we have nothing to say. This can all very much get in the way of your progress, and confidence. You have the agency to claim this though. Rather than letting the fears and doubts paralyse you, get writing, and reading, and talking. Confidence grows as you actively out yourself out there, and discover that you do have a voice, and that people want to hear what you have to say. Claim your space, research it well, and the contribution will be there.

Publishing and thesis-ing: finding the courage of your convictions

Lovely husband and I have been talking lately about a group of new research students he is working with. He observed yesterday that part of their struggle with writing up their research projects is that they lack confidence in their claims. This got me thinking about making arguments in academic writing, and putting ideas out into the world. A great deal of the advice out there has to do with how to do this, and why we do this – craft persuasive, well-written, well-substantiated arguments. But, in this little post, I want to reflect a bit on a less written-about aspect of publishing writing, whether in paper or thesis form: finding the ‘courage of your convictions’, and being confident enough to stand by these. 

A friend and colleague who works with postgraduate students has a lovely saying: she says that a big part of writing at postgraduate level and beyond is being brave enough to ‘put your hands on your hips’ and make your claims with that level of conviction. This is a lot easier than it sounds. With a group of writers I worked with late last year – postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars writing journal articles for the first time – the issue of confidence came up in one of our sessions on argumentation. One of the scholars commented that it’s hard to know if you are saying the right kinds of things, and if people will agree with you. He added that writing at this level feels risky, and scary. I am sure this feeling of fear, and trepidation, is familiar to any of you who have had to write for a supervisor, or peer reviewer, or lecturer who will judge your work. You know that, pretty much always, some aspect of your work will need revision, further work. You(r writing) will be found wanting, to a greater or lesser degree.

I try to see this as just my writing that needs work, but the truth is, my writing is always personal. And critique of my writing is personal, and it feels like it is me who has not measured up. After all, those papers contain my thoughts, my convictions, my take on what is interesting and important to my field. And when a reviewer says ‘nope, not quite there yet’ – even nicely with constructive suggestions for improvement – it hits my confidence. I lose some of the courage of my convictions, my hands slide off my hips and I wonder: ‘how did I get this wrong’?

My initial reaction, because I am me, is always to go to the extreme: they hated it, it was a terrible paper, no one likes my ideas, I should not be an academic. Then after a day or two I calm down. I moderate this mean voice in my head, and see that, actually, the reviewers did not hate the paper, and they don’t think my ideas are rubbish. Mainly, the reviews I have received thus far, even the most negative ones, have pointed out positive aspects of my work, and have given me food for thought and revision.

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But getting back up again takes a while, especially when the reviews seem mean, and ask for a lot of extra work in getting the paper on track. It’s hard to keep those hands on my hips, and believe that my argument is valid, and interesting to others, and necessary to have in print. It’s too easy to just give up, shelve the paper, and wallow in the sense that my ideas are boring (and, of course, that I am too).

I think, therefore, that a significant part of writing for publication, or writing a thesis at postgraduate level, has to include confidence-building. Supervisors and reviewers need to be aware of this in their feedback, and focus on phrasing feedback in ways that indicates clearly the need for revision and further work without breaking the writer’s confidence so much that any further work feels impossible. Writing courses need to include discussions that recognise, openly, how difficult writing at this level can be: not just technically, but emotionally and psychologically.

Putting yourself on paper – which is what every argument is – and putting that part of yourself out into the world for others to read, critique and argue with takes courage. If you are new to publishing, or have a shaky supervision situation where you don’t get useful or encouraging feedback very often, it is even harder to be brave. And more than that, to believe that you have something worthwhile to say, that other researchers and readers in your field will want to know about.

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BUT: you do have something worthwhile to say. You(r efforts) are valuable. Finding, and holding, the courage of your convictions is not always easy. But, it is worth the effort.