Finding and expressing your PhD ‘voice’

I’ve been thinking about this issue of voice a great deal lately, partly because I lost my physical voice when I handed in my final final copy and got it back a week later when I woke up on the morning of my graduation. My best friend suggested that it was symbolic – leaving my pre-doctoral voice behind and gaining my new doctoral voice. I like to think she’s right, but we’ll have to wait and see what this new voice sounds like – the symbolic doctoral one, I mean. It still feels a bit croaky to me…

The issue of ‘voice’ – finding one, expressing it, having it sound to others in your field like one that is authentic, authoritative, sufficiently knowledgeable and confident – is a complicated one. It is complicated, not least, because ‘voice’ is a rather vague concept for talking about understanding knowledge, conceptualising ideas, formulating evidence-based arguments on the basis of the knowledge and ideas and expressing these, in writing, in English (often) and in the right genre, tone and register. There’s a lot that goes into this concept of ‘voice’. So, this is justifiably a concept that puzzles and also worries many PhD students and writers. ‘How do I find my voice? How do I express it? How will I know whether it sounds right?’ These are questions I asked myself over and over (and still do).

To start with the first one, finding my voice, I thought about gaining some kind of confidence in ‘owning’ the concepts and theories I was trying to understand and use in my thesis, and taking confidence here to mean ‘voice’. When I started reading I had very little confidence in myself and in my ability to claim the concepts and theories, translate them through understanding them into my own words, and then begin to put them to work in building my theoretical framework. I read some very useful posts by Pat Thomson on literature reviews and working with texts and with the other, stronger voices of the researchers and theorists I was reading. I kept a reading journal and wrote to myself about what I was reading and what I was thinking about all that reading. Slowly, I started to piece together a few paragraphs, and then a larger chunk, and then two chunks joined together, and slowly I started to find a voice. A small one at first, saying ‘I think this might be useful’ and ‘Maybe this makes sense if we think about it like this’ and (very scary) ‘Maybe this theorist is not completely right and we could think about this issue differently’. It got stronger as I went on, but this is a process, and it takes time and is a bit more circular than linear – you may find and lose your voice over and over as you encounter new ideas and research that challenges you to rethink and rethink again.

Expressing your voice – your ideas and your thoughts and your organisation and summarising of the theories in relation to your own study – is also challenging. It ties in with the third question of how to make your voice come out ‘right’ in your writing so that those reading your work – your supervisor and peers and eventually examiners – will say ‘Ah yes, this is PhD level work’. In facilitating a writing workshop for 4th year students at an early point in writing my theory chapter, I taught myself a useful way of trying to express my own voice.

The students were writing literature reviews for a research project, and were battling to get to the point where they were directing and organising the research they had done in relation to their own projects rather than simply writing down everything they thought was important in the research and doing a summarise, synthesis, compare and contrast type of exercise. I was battling too, unable to see beyond the authors’ words to my own and therefore battling to get to a point of directing and guiding the writing and thinking process rather than being guided by it.

I used a trick I learnt from a colleague, who got it from the work of Toulmin, and it is summarised as P E E or Point, Evidence, Explanation. It’s a quite a simple one to use, and it can be adapted and played with as needed, and depending on the level of sophistication required of the writing. You start with the point of the paragraph (understanding that this point stands in relation to the other points you want to be making in this section/chapter and not on its own). This is your voice coming through – it should not be referenced or a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas but rather you, summarising a key idea you have because of what you have read, and that needs to be fully discussed and developed. It may be one sentence or a couple of linked sentences. Then you go into the evidence – why do you make that point or claim? Who supports you in this claim? What have they claimed or said that you can include to strengthen your point? (Here, of course, you reference the work of others). Then you close the paragraph with explanation that connects your point and the evidence in this paragraph to your research or your study, and that also (if you are in the beginning or middle of a section) links it to the next point or idea. This explanation, for the most part, is also you – your voice – coming through to tell us what this knowledge means in relation to the whole picture you are drawing, and what you make of it (and what you’d like us as the readers to make of it too).

You will find your voice as you go on, and it may be very different from the one you started out with, or quite similar. The starting point is important, as PhD students come into this process from very different places. Many of my peers on our programme have worked for years, and have full-time jobs, families and a lot of experience under their belts. Other PhD students I know are in their late 20s, unattached and still working on getting that experience. The point is not to compare your voice (or apparent lack thereof) with others, but to look to your trusted peers and supervisor for guidance in finding, expressing and finally claiming your own doctoral voice. As my supervisor said to me: ‘Trust the process’. 🙂

Lost and found and lost again: searching for your ‘question’

A mentor suggested last year that you know you are ready to hand in your thesis when you have found the question you are trying to answer. If that is so then sadly I am still not ready to hand in my final thesis, but I think I’m close. Last year, when I was trying to get my head around my theory/conceptual framework chapter, which just felt HUGE at the time, I drew this picture in my research journal: spiral image PhD

I was trying to think about how I wanted to structure the chapter so that I could take the reader logically from the starting point, through the various concepts and tools, to the point at which the next chapter needed to start. (I didn’t know what that chapter was going to say at this point so it was a slightly abstract exercise). This spiral was helpful, to a point, but it is actually more helpful to me now in terms of thinking about the process of trying to find the question I am asking and trying to answer.

The way I see it now is that the PhD is a version of being lost and found and then lost and then found, except that you get lost from and find yourself in progressively different places as you go. This is particularly so when it comes to the Research Question; that elusive little bugger that keeps slipping away from you just when you think you have finally managed to pin it down in a sentence (or eight). I can look back a bit from where I stand now and see that I have been moving in slowly decreasing spirals towards this elusive Question I am trying to answer. The more I write and think and scribble, the closer I get. It started as a very hesitant and not entirely crisp and clear thing in the proposal, and then disappeared for a while while I was busy getting lost in mountains of theory that took a while to make sense of. Then I found it again but it looked a little different – less vague and a little more grown up and also not exactly what I started out asking in the proposal. Then I started writing the theory chapter and by the end of that process the Question had wandered away again. When it came back, after I started drafting my methodology chapter and was busy collecting my data, it was even more grown up, dressed in sharper clothes, looking more confident. I managed to hold onto it for a longer period of time, but by the time I had finished transcribing all my notes and videos and organising all my data, it had left me again. It returned when I drafted the two chapters on my case studies, even more grown up and much more neatly groomed. I was profoundly happy to see it again, and to recognise it as an almost-there version of what my study is trying to answer.

Now I am revising all the chapters I have written thus far and am trying to find conclusions and an introduction in all of this. It’s gone, again. But I am a lot less panicked about this than I was when my Question first started wandering off without leaving a note as to where it had gone and when it would be back. I know it will be back, and probably soon. I hope soon. The spirals have gotten shorter and my focus has sharpened as I have gone round and round, and each time my Question wanders off and and comes back I am in a different place in this process, and I see things a little more clearly. I suppose if I could go back and give 2nd year PhD-me a hug and a piece of advice it would be to say this: don’t despair. Your Question will come back, and it will make more sense and be clearer when it does. You just have to be patient, and trust that this process will take you where you need to go. In an adaptation of the words said by the ghostly voice in Field of Dreams, ‘If you write it, it will come’.

Where to start?

Perhaps I should start by introducing myself and the reason behind the name of this blog. My name is Sherran, I live in Cape Town, and I am hopefully going to have the title Dr in front of my name by April next year. I am currently completing a PhD in Higher Education Studies and I am editing my first full draft at the moment, It’s an exciting stage to be at after what seems like months and months of work. This has been, is still, a journey full of ups and downs and highs and lows, and I have written about many of them in my own research journal, and in emails to friends and my supervisor, and I have talked my lovely husband’s ear off at almost every opportunity. This blog is partly his idea.

You see, I have read a few ‘guidebooks’ on writing a PhD, looking for magic tips and hints that will make this often-difficult and lonely journey suddenly easier and smoother. But I have yet to find one that really talks to me, a working mum, with a full-time job at a university that does not allow support staff to take research days or study leave. I have done this all, with the exception of 3 months earlier this year, part-time, managing and often failing at a constant balancing act between work, my children, my husband, my PhD and, last on the list, me (!). So, while I do acknowledge that there are many useful and helpful guidebooks out there – I am in no way trashing their contribution to the field of writing about writing a PhD thesis and some have helped me – I am also acknowledging my own personal sense of a gap in this field. A gap into which many part-time students who have to keep working and raising kids and being married or divorced or separated or, or, or… may fall. I think there are more and more part-time students with full-time lives doing PhDs now, as academia has shifted in the last perhaps ten years or more towards demanding that academic staff have PhD degrees or be in the process of getting one where a Masters degree used to be an acceptable entry-level qualification for a lecturing post. I think there is a need for writing on the PhD process or journey that acknowledges the struggle that the PhD often presents for these students.

This blog is part contribution to this field, and part personal project. I enjoy writing, and I seldom get to do so creatively anymore. This blog, somewhat selfishly, is a space for me to muse and scribble and reflect on aspects of my own PhD journey. But my hope is that those of you who read it will like doing so, and may even recognise parts of your own journey in my story. I hope you will find a fellow traveller here who can perhaps offer some advice, empathy or encouragement. Some of the posts will be about where I am currently and some retrospective, and there may even be a few guest posts along the way. I welcome comments and feedback. Happy reading! 🙂