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’.

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Why, again, am I doing a PhD?

Sometimes doing a PhD can feel like a form of madness when you are working and mothering small needy people full time, not to mention trying to be happily married the the small people’s father.  Why on earth would you take on such a huge time and soul and brain consuming project when you already have quite a few demands on your time, soul and brain already?

Well, in my case two major reasons: the first is that I need one so that I can progress in my academic career and be taken seriously by colleagues, and not just seen as ‘that young woman who thinks she knows what she’s talking about’ (a colleague told me a while back that someone did actually say this about me, and not in any kind of nice way).  I need to prove myself to be capable and worthy, and while it grates me that I should have to get another degree to do that when the years of work and time I have put in already and experience I have gained could speak for me, I accept that this is the way it is in academia, and that this is the field I have chosen to work in. The second is personal. I want one. I want to prove to myself that I am capable of a project of this magnitude, and I want to push myself to grow as a researcher in my field. I have questions I want the answers to, and I want to know how to find them. I want to take myself more seriously.

So this is why I am doing this huge project now, when my job is getting bigger and more demanding every year, and when my children are still young enough to need me to be very present a lot of the time. They were 3 and 7 when I started, and they are 7 and 11 now so it is tough a lot of the time. Now, when I am nearing the end and have been writing almost every day and am very obsessed (there is no more accurate word) with my work, I feel I am not present enough mentally and emotionally for anyone. I am short on time and temper and sleep, and I don’t feel like I am being a very good mom or colleague. I am not really very present at work, because my mind is almost always on my PhD and what I have written and need to write and also on what comes next – papers and conferences and publication. But if I ignore my work and focus all of myself on being very present at home and at work, my PhD will slide, and I won’t get finished on time. And I need to finish now. The normal working mom juggling act is hard enough for me without all the added pressure of this PhD.

I have to say, though, that it is not all tough, and not all the time. Bits of it I like a lot – I like the way my mind is being stretched. I am becoming a better writer, a more critical thinker, a more capable reader. I am learning about the PhD process in ways that will help me, hopefully, to be a good supervisor myself one day. I have found new colleagues and made some wonderful new friends through the PhD programme I am part of. I am becoming more connected to other researchers in my field and I am really enjoying finding a place within this research community.  I am making a contribution to knowledge and that feels good, worthwhile, exciting. But when I am busy, and my kids are sick and work deadlines are looming and there are just not enough hours in the day I do wonder why I am doing this PhD, and whether there is a way for me to just pause it all so that I can catch up. I feel often that I have bitten off more than I can chew and have no choice but to swallow and finish this meal as politely and graciously as I can. I know I am not alone in feeling like this. But I also know that the struggles and the tough times are making me stronger in all sorts of ways. This journey, for all its ups and downs, is one I chose, for good reasons, and I just need to remind myself of these and keep going. As politely and graciously as I can.

How can I get PhD if I still don’t understand the theory?

So I am revising chapter two, the ‘theory’ chapter, where I explain to my readers what ‘lenses’ I will be casting on my data are and why I need them. So, yesterday I got to the last section of the chapter which is too short and not detailed enough because it’s using conceptual tools that I need but that were only written about in draft form when I wrote the chapter last year. I decided I needed to do some more reading before I could finish it, and the drafts I was reading then have been updated and published in a book, and other papers applying these concepts have also been recently published, which is great. This morning I read two of the chapters. The first chapter I read was helpful – I have been misusing a concept slightly but can see how I can correct it quite simply. So, useful. The next chapter, introducing the next conceptual tool, induced a freak-out of large proportions. I don’t understand what the author is talking about in this chapter beyond explaining the concept I am using. There are so many big words and complex terms that it made me feel a bit dizzy. I actually stopped reading halfway through, put the book down and went to fold the laundry. I told lovely husband rather petulantly and with not a small amount of panic that this PhD is never going to be finished and I am giving up now because I cannot possibly be awarded this degree when I don’t even understand the theory.

Of course, now that lovely husband has very patiently talked me off the ledge, and worked through my misunderstandings and panic with me, I can see that I do understand the theory I am actually using and need, and that the bits that are freaking me out may not be necessary at this late stage of the game. Just because the theory is there does not mean I have to use it all. But I have to confess I am a bit lost in this chapter. I need to add these missing details and pieces that I can now read about, but I feel like I have way too much ‘theory’ and I worry that I actually don’t really understand it all; that my examiners and readers will see that and I will be found out as someone who only sort of knows what she is talking about. I would like to actually know what I am talking about at the end of all this hard work.

The theory was clearer in my head before I gathered and analysed the data. It was lovely and abstract and it made sense. Then I gathered data. I organised it and coded it and reorganised it and analysed it and started writing about it. And I could ‘see’ the theory but the data has also changed it. It’s not just abstract anymore, it’s applied now. The data is speaking back to the theory, challenging it and changing it. This is great, because it means I can actually make a contribution to knowledge in my field. I can add to the research others are doing and I can say something of value. But man, it’s hard work. Hard thinking work. Hard writing work. Looking at the two data chapters again makes me feel like I don’t understand the theory the way I thought I did. It makes me doubt myself, and I feel again that anxiety that I am getting this all wrong and that my examiners will be scathing in their critique and I will have so much more work to do when their reports come back next year. It’s a horrible, and sadly familiar feeling. On the good days when the writing goes well and the ideas seem strong and linked to the theory, I feel this will indeed be a good thesis and it will be finished by December. Today was not one of these days. I feel like I have lost the theory, lost my grip on it, and it does not make full sense to me. I don’t want to read anymore, but I also don’t want to have an incomplete chapter, or write a thesis that looks good on the surface but is theoretically or analytically shallow and weak.

But I need some perspective so I am not going to read anymore tonight. I will start again tomorrow with the published papers that report on have empirical research because these are easier to make sense of. I will finish these revisions, so that I can move onto the next set of revisions. I will remember that this is not my life’s work. It is a project, a thesis, a very big exam, and I am using this project to show my examiners that I can do the things that will mark me as having met the requirements set for me, mark me as being a researcher and scholar of a more experienced and more able kind. I will keep breathing, and writing and thinking and remind myself that I do understand the theory, really. Today was just a tough day.

The value of writing just for yourself

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Writing Centre@UWC here.

I am currently working on the full draft of my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.

My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.

I found my way to a website called 750words.com, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically for the most part but quite faithfully as my ‘formal’ writing has picked up in pace. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do’ list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour or so and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, using it now when I need to do some freewriting to unblock my brain, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And I have been moving forwards, even if what I was writing about in May and June on the website has not all found its way into the Thesis. I am still moving forwards – and I have indeed learned that the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.

As so many PhD students who are studying part-time and working (and some of them parenting) full-time find, time is at a premium, and if we are going to make time to work on the PhD we want that time to be as productive and useful as possible. We want to read only books and articles that we will cite, and write only words that can go into chapters. We try to make the process as linear and straightforward as we can so that we can fit it into our lives and manage it along with everything else. But too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open our own eyes to the process that is writing, and see beyond just the ‘product’ that we are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my draft in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.

Revisions suck

Revisions suck. They really do. Seriously. I hate them. I am so tired now. Why can’t this draft just be done? I wish I was like the cobbler in ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ who would wake up in the morning and find that sweet little shoemaker elves had come and helped him to finish all his work because they saw how tired he was and how much he needed to get the work done. But there are no sweet little PhD-writing elves to help me. I wake up every morning and my ‘to-do’ list for the revisions I have to do seems longer rather than shorter. So, yes, right now revisions suck.

But, they are also necessary and have to be done. And, there is a real sense of achievement in finishing a set of revisions, like a chapter or a big section of one. I finished the revisions of chapter 3 yesterday and it felt great. But it is the easiest chapter to revise because it’s the methodology and there weren’t a lot of missing references to chase down or large additions or cuts to be made. So this, I think, might be my first piece of advice for anyone else who hates revisions or at least feels daunted by them: start with the less daunting chapter. Ask yourself what makes you feel the least like banging your head on your desk repeatedly and then do that. For me, this was initially fiddling with the prelims, like making a page for my figures and tables, formatting section breaks and page numbers and  making sure all my headings look the same. Small, fiddly stuff that people can tell you is procrastination, but which is actually also important. It didn’t take too long to do this though, so I had to find the next thing to do that felt do-able, and that was chapter 3. It took longer than I though it would – revisions always seem to take longer than you plan for – but it’s now done (until, of course, I have to do the final revisions).

Now, I have to revise chapter 2. This is the big one, for me. The theory chapter. And now that I have written my ‘data’ chapters where I have analysed the data and told the relevant stories in each of my case studies, I can see what theory and concepts I really need and what are extraneous and need to be cut. So it should be fairly easy, in theory, but I am finding it hard to ‘murder my darlings’ – all my lovely words and turns of phrase that took me the better part of a year to write. And I am tired, and a lot of thinking is required to make this chapter sharp and focused. I would really rather be napping, or reading a novel.  I am actually writing this post. So it’s procrastination, but it’s not completely pointless. It’s a kind of PhD-related task. It’s a sort of trick I am playing on myself to get myself into the kind of headspace I need to be in to press on and get this chapter done so I can move onto the other 3 chapters that still need to be revised, and in the case of the introduction, partly written as well. Oh, and did I also mention that I still have to write the conclusion, from scratch? I think I should probably get to work.

I am realising that, while some days (like today) I really wish the elves were real, I actually would feel a bit cheated if someone did this bit for me, even though it sucks. So much of this PhD-writing is more about the journey and the learning along the way than it is about the destination.