To keep, to break or to make the ‘rules’… that is a question

What are the ‘rules’ of dissertation writing? They almost certainly differ between fields. In the visual arts, for example, a dissertation would almost certainly include text as well as images, textiles, design elements of a certain shape and form. In Mathematics, a dissertation would have to include mathematical ‘language’ and forms as well as more conventional text, as arguments are made in equations as well as in other forms of writing. In the social sciences in general the ‘rules’ seem to be fairly general. But it seems broadly agreed that there should be around 80-100,000 words or text, and that there must be an introduction, a literature review, a methodology and methods chapter, findings and discussion of these, and a conclusion that could include recommendations. These were certainly the ‘rules’ as I understood them when I started out with my own PhD process. By rules, I mean ‘the agreed upon (usually quite tacit) format, style and content of a dissertation within a particular field or discipline’.

A big question for me, throughout my own doctoral journey, was about these rules, and whether I was breaking them, keeping them or making new ones as I went. There are risks associated with breaking rules – you could be misunderstood, or make your argument more convoluted and confusing through trying to create a new way of producing a dissertation, or find yourself having to do many corrections. But, I think there are also risks associated with keeping a set of rules, especially if you don’t have a clear understanding of what the rules are and why they are there. In this case you could end up producing a thesis that conforms but underneath the surface may be ‘thin’ or unsatisfying, and this lack of understanding of what you are writing and why could make it harder for you to move successfully into a research and writing career post-PhD. Further, making new rules is tough, and doesn’t often happen (not for scholars just starting out anyway). You may make small little dents in a structure you disagree with or think could be improved, but it’ll take a number of you to really start making people question whether a specific rule, process or outcome perhaps needs to be changed or updated.

I feel like I bent, rather than broke, some of the rules of dissertation writing, and the experience was mostly an anxious one, even though the creativity it allowed me to bring to my writing was exciting, and satisfying. I think visually, and my research journal is full of pictures and scribbles as well as more conventional forms of text. I like metaphors, and I use these a lot in my writing and my teaching. I had a metaphor for the argument I was making, and I was using this to think through my ‘theory chapter’, until a friend, Carol, listened to my idea and suggested that it might be a useful metaphor for the whole dissertation. The metaphor was that of an archaeological dig, and it structured the way I organised my chapters, the headings I gave to them, and what I included in them. I really loved it, but I worried that it was too creative for a PhD in Education, and that it would somehow detract from the seriousness of my argument, or be seen as flippant by my examiners. I think this is one of the more common fears, perhaps, about using a visual and creative tool like metaphor in a field that is not conventionally visual, like the fine or creative arts. In the end, none of my examiners commented on it (which was disappointing) so I needn’t have worried so much. But I still think what I did was important, for me, even if it was not noted by the people who were ultimately responsible for passing or failing my work.

We write, when we do, for others – for our readers and colleagues – but more importantly, we write for ourselves, for our own personal, emotional and intellectual growth and edification. I think when you’re doing a PhD and you’re focused so much on what your supervisor/s think and what your examiners will think and what parts you’ll be able to publish in journals and what the wider academic community in your field will think, we forget to ask ourselves what we think about what we are writing. The questions about making, breaking (bending) or keeping within the rules becomes a question then about balance – to what extent do we consider our own desires and aims as creators of our own work, and how to we balance these with what we are asked to produce for our external audience? What kinds of risks do we accept and grapple with when we choose to bend and break generally accepted rules of thesis or article writing? What if what we are doing feeds our own souls, but falls on deaf ears in terms of examiners and peer reviewers? Is that too much of a risk, and do we then tone down our creativity in order to create something more conventional and less risky? For me, this is a risk: I’ll be able to get my article published (please editors) but I may not be really happy with what I have put out these connected with my name.

Perhaps we need to make these kinds of conversations a more recognised and conscious part of PhD supervision, and academic writing for publication. Why do the ‘rules’ as we tend to know them exist and who do they serve? Can they be bent, broken and remade? Who carries the risks here, and what indeed are these risks? I don’t yet have any clear answers**, but I think these are important questions to be asking, talking about, and finding answers to as scholarly communities of practice and as PhD students and supervisors.

 

**A new edited collection takes on the notion of risk in doctoral writing from a range of perspectives: Thesen, L. and Cooper, L. 2013. Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, Their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Using metaphors for thinking and writing your PhD

I read a really interesting article recently by Frances Kelly on using metaphors in thesis writing, and she highlighted to kinds of metaphors: structural and conceptual. As I understand her, a structural metaphor can help you to use an image or an idea to organise and shape your thesis – to lend it an underlying narrative of sorts. A conceptual metaphor can be used as a way of thinking about what your argument and data actually mean, or the shape your methods and methodology are taking. She mentions a common PhD-related metaphor that could possibly be used both structurally and conceptually: the journey. I am sure many of you have heard this metaphor and even used it for your own thinking about your PhD process and what kind of journey is has been or is for you.

I am using a metaphor in my PhD, a structural metaphor that came to me quite early on as I was trying to work coherently with all the layers of theory and conceptualisation that are now mostly contained in chapters 2 and 3. It is the image of an archaeological dig of sorts. I have outlined 6 stages, steps or layers in the process of doing a ‘dig’ and each chapter now aligns with these. I was just using this image and idea in my theory chapter to unpack and fit the parts of theory into a whole, but a friend suggested I try using it for the whole thesis and it has worked well. This metaphor or image has, importantly, helped me to think about what I am doing and need to do at each stage in telling the story of my study, and how the parts fit together to make a whole.

Image from NBC News

Image from NBC News

In my use of this metaphor, I move from choosing the dig site and giving my reasons for the choices, to finding and setting out the right tools for the kind of dig I am doing, and to help me find the things I need to find. I then move on to do the dig with the tools, describing and reflecting on my process of digging, explaining why I did not do certain things and did do others. Then, in my two ‘analysis’ chapters, I go on to show you what I have found in the dig and what I think these artefacts mean in relation to my reasons for doing the study and my chosen framework. I conclude as I explain the significance of the findings within the area in which I chose to dig, and within the field in which I am working. I like this metaphor – I have found that it has helped me to focus and also given me a space to play and be creative while still producing a fairly normal, regulation PhD thesis. 

Like all metaphors, though, there are things it does not do and ways in which it could all fall apart and confuse people who may interpret it differently. So, if you want to try and use either a conceptual or structural metaphor in your own thesis, these would be my top tips:

1. Choose an image or idea that has resonance with your study – either with the field of study, the research questions, the methods you are using or the conceptual framework. It should not just be creative frippery, it should work on a deeper level and tie in clearly with what your study aims to achieve or say.

2. Work out very carefully how you are using the metaphor and for what end. You will need to explain its use very carefully to your reader-examiners so that they cannot misinterpret it, or tell you it makes so sense and to take it out. Try it out on your supervisor or a critical friend and see what they think.

3. Choose something that excites you or makes you feel creative – think about adding images as well as just words to describe the metaphor. A friend of mine used Alice in Wonderland’s journey down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her thesis with beautiful illustrations and it worked really well. Take your readers on your creative journey by pulling the metaphor very clearly into the places it belongs and showing your readers why they need to take it as seriously as you do.

Happy thinking, scribbling and writing, everyone!

Reference:

Kelly, F. 2011. ‘Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(4): 429-438.

PhD fantasies and why you should have them

PhDgirl2014

I want to introduce you to someone: this little gal in the handdrawn picture is PhDgirl. She is my alter-ego, my superhero other. She can write and think and come up with ideas and connections and put it all together like a pro. See the LBD she is wearing, and the cute shoes? The swinging red gown and the funny red hat? She is at her PhD graduation. It’s April 2014. She is thinner and more toned than I am now, having taken up Pilates and stopped eating so much chocolate. She is fabulous and clever and accomplished. She is Dr Clarence. She is the main character in my PhD fantasies.

This post is about PhD fantasies and why they can be useful, and good to nurture. They give you a goal, an endpoint in what can sometimes seem like an endless process. They give you something to focus on and push towards; a positive beacon. Maybe your fantasy is that the next time someone says ‘Is that Mrs or Miss?’ and you are a Ms, you can say “Actually, it’s Dr’. And then smile a slightly smug smile (you have earned that small bit of smugness, really). Maybe it’s being addressed as ‘Dr’ by a colleague in front of others who perhaps have not yet given you the credit you deserve and have earned. Maybe it’s that graduation ceremony, and hearing your name called out and having a lovely, and hopefully flattering, paragraph read out about your research and the contribution it has made to your field; being handed the scroll and having it framed and hanging on your wall. Maybe it’s a change in your email signature. Maybe it’s a fantasy about getting really great reports from examiners full of praise, and, if there must be corrections, constructive and helpful feedback. Maybe it’s an improbable but oh-so-fabulous verdict from examiners of ‘pass with no corrections’.

I have had all of these PhD fantasies from time to time. They can be distracting, as most fantasising can be if you let it be, and if you think about these things too much rather than actually working on the PhD that will make your fantasies a reality. But they encourage me and push me on, especially on the days when I really just want to nap instead of writing or thinking or reading. I recommend nurturing a few of your own. Keep them for rainy, gloomy days when you need a point in the future to focus on, to keep you plodding on. I also highly recommend a superhero alter-ego – he or she is there inside you anyway. Give him or her a name and channel all those super-powers when you need to push on and keep going in the face of work and tiredness and family and all of the stuff that life throws your way. Have fun with your fantasies. And don’t feel guilty about the inevitable procrastination that they will bring about – everyone needs a wander into fantasy-land every now and then.

PhDgirl over and out :-).