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.

On celebrating achievements and marking milestones

It was this blog’s 3rd birthday on Monday. I planned to put up this post then, but the day got away from me, and then my son became ill and yesterday was a write-off. So, I am trying to get this out today. All this busy-ness, and missing this milestone has had me thinking about why and when and how we should mark milestones during a PhD or similar process, and celebrate our achievements, both big and small.

happy-birthday-blogMilestones 

There are a few particular milestones during a PhD (or MA) that should be celebrated. There is getting into the programme of your choice – big box tick there. There is having your proposal approved – definitely cause for champagne or a celebratory beverage of choice. Or cake :-). Then there is the uber-milestone of handing in the first full draft and then the copy for examination and then the final meisterwerk to be lodged in the library ahead of graduation.

But there are also smaller milestones along the way that may not be celebrated, or seen as cause for celebration in quite so obvious a way. Here, I am thinking of completing chapter drafts, even before your supervisor tells you this draft is finished for now and you can move on to the next step. I am thinking of writing 500 words in a week where you have a thousand other things to do and time is at a premium and your brain is tired. I am thinking of getting a lovely comment of praise on your writing from a supervisor, or even a critical friend. These are, I would argue, also milestones or significant steps forward in your research journey or process, and thus deserve a form of recognition and celebration as well.

Rewards (and punishment)

When you make time to recognise these steps forward, even if they seem small in comparison to big leaps like proposal approval and finishing a full draft or final thesis, you are saying that you have done something of value. You have written 500 words you are happy with, or you have battled through a difficult patch of life and work and still created a draft of a chapter that you are proud of. Whether or not external recognition from supervisors is forthcoming, you need to be able to see, and reward, your progress. 

greatjobRewards can be big or small, but they need to be meaningful to you. They need to create the impetus for you to push forward to the next reward. My rewards were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, or going out for a coffee and a slice of cake, or giving myself permission to binge on a favourite show for a weekend. These things were small, but they made me feel supported and encouraged. They were my way of saying ‘well done!’ to myself.

I didn’t reward myself during my PhD as much as I think I could have, though. I think, far more, I berated myself for not making enough progress, or writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 words. Instead of consciously rewarding myself, I tended towards punishment. As in ‘you haven’t written enough this week, so no weekend for you!’ This was, as you might imagine, counter-productive, as the more I punished myself, the worse I felt about my PhD and the more I felt resentful of its intrusion into my down time.

So, to celebrate…

I thus want to argue, here, that you need to be celebrating yourself, your writing and your achievements, big and small, throughout your PhD. You need to be your own biggest cheerleader, recognising what to others may seem like a very little step – ONLY 500 words? – as a pretty big step in a slow week full of meetings and sick kids and school events and so on. You need to be celebrating these small but significant milestones (or yardstones if you prefer), rather than punishing yourself for not doing more. If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, the small steps are big, and they keep you pressing on (as long as they are close enough together to create momentum and motivation. minions-celebrating

I now reward myself regularly for what I regard as my writing achievements. But, I have to make the reward the same size as the achievement. If I have finished a paper and sent it to a journal, I can have several episodes of favourite show and cake. If I wrote the introduction of the paper, I can have an evening off and time with my novel. If I make the reward too big, especially if it includes time away from writing and reading, then I tend to struggle to get back into it, and the reward works against me continuing on with the momentum. So, you need to be realistic, and measured, and have your eye on your goals, your timeframes and your levels of energy and motivation as you plan your down time, your rewards and your celebrations. But, celebrate yourself you must! To steal a line from L’Oreal: ‘You’re worth it!’ 

Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…

Self-belief: essential PhD armour

John Mayer wrote a song a while back called ‘Belief’, and one line in this song stayed with me: ‘Belief is a beautiful armour’. I have been thinking about this notion of armour and belief in one’s self and research as an important piece of PhD (and post-PhD) armour a lot recently. This thinking is related to my last post on why I can’t seem to write the papers that need to be written. I need to go back a step or two to explain.

I spent quite a lot of time during my PhD feeling inadequate. I wondered, a lot, whether my research was important or worthwhile enough to entice others to read it. I believed (still do) in my research – I would be unable to keep doing it if I did not believe in what I was doing; but I when I listened to what my PhD colleagues were researching, and compared my research to theirs, I often found it wanting. My questions all felt smaller, less significant, less worthy of attention. This lack of self-belief was not constant. When things were going well and the ideas were flowing, I believed very strongly in the validity and importance of my research, and in myself as a writer. But not always.

I think that one of the reasons I am struggling to write now is that, even though I now have my degree, I still lack more constant self-belief – more specifically, I lack consistent belief in the importance, necessity or readability of my research. I seriously do wonder, sometimes, why anyone would want to read what I am thinking about, and I do fear the negative critique and rejection that in darker moments I feel sure will come when I put my work out there and send it to journals. I also seriously wonder if my research is important, or interesting to anyone other than me and a small group of people who have heard me speak about it and seem interested in it too. I’m not finding a cure for cancer or changing policy or developing a system for agrarian development that will change the way poor people access land, for example. I went to graduation last week and heard the citations for PhD candidates that were focused on research they had done that has the ability to change government policy, and to make a real difference in the lives of children, the poor and the politically disenfranchised. I felt inadequate all over again. I feel like my research is so small in comparison. And this lack of self-belief is now standing in my way and making it hard for me to write these papers and send them to journals for consideration.

I am sure I am not alone. I think self-doubt, worry, feelings of inadequacy and all the inner turmoil of that are part of a PhD journey. During my PhD and now, I find that some of what I read bolsters me and connects so well with my research that I know what I am writing will find an interested audience and contribute to my field; but some of what I read fills me with doubt – has what I am saying not already been said? Have I anything to add? Very few of us in the social sciences get to coin new concepts, or find a rare beetle we can name after ourselves. We are often extending, critiquing or updating the work and arguments of others. This is important research work, though, and it’s important to keep sight of that. Writing for publication is about conversations – connecting our research with the research of others, adding new perspectives, different data, alternative theoretical and analytical frameworks to extend, challenge and change the way we think about the fields in which we work. I tell myself this – what I am doing is joining the conversation, and my voice is strong, and should be heard. But I have to believe that.

We need armour when we take on big projects like a PhD – projects that will change us and challenge us; that are personal as well as professional. Our ideas will be questioned – this is an essential part of the process – and often we will have to reject some of our earlier thoughts, rethink things, make serious revisions. This writing and revising process can challenge our belief in ourselves and our ability to write. We need belief in ourselves and in our research and writing – this is essential armour for any PhD student. This self-belief is not always easy to come by; it can elude us when we most need it. I am not sure I can tell myself all the time that my research is valuable, and that my writing is good, and believe it. But I can try. I can work on being the positive voice in my head that tells myself to keep going and keep writing; I can seek out writing friends who will read my work and give me feedback that encourages me and also improves my writing; I can cover myself in self-belief as armour against the doubt and the worry, and write. Write on and know that, eventually, the words will come and the papers will be written.