A letter to my dissertation, after the break up

Dear PhD dissertation,

It’s been just over 2 months since you left my life. Two long months. I have been filling up the time with holidays and family and more recently work again. I’ve been busy but it’s a different sort of busy to the busy I was when you and I were still together. I find that, although I was relieved when I said goodbye to you, I miss you. But more than that, I think I miss the me I was when we were together.

Allow me to explain. Choosing to get involved with you was a big step for me.  I had to make a choice between a new field of higher education studies in which I was working and my previous field of research in women’s studies and politics. It was not an easy choice to make, but as I began to immerse myself in the theory of this new field, and in its practice, I found myself really enjoying the intellectual growth, the new colleagues and connections I found and I realised I had to find my way to you, and to the qualification you would earn me as well as the recognition and career opportunities you would bring me to. You represent the choice that I made.

Initially getting involved with you was difficult. You were so demanding – you wanted so much of my time, my headspace – I didn’t know how to give enough to you and to my work and to my husband and children. I felt frantic all the time, and after a year of getting nowhere fast I decided we needed to take a break from each other. I needed to find some kind of balance and I couldn’t stay attached to you and do that. The break lasted about 6 months. I just focused on work, and on my life at home. At first it was glorious – all the space in my head and in my diary, no pressure all the time to be reading and thinking and writing and Making Progress. But then I started to wonder if I had given up too soon. I slowly started reading and writing again, but on a new topic, a different focus to what I started with. I found myself writing a proposal, and enjoying it. I still felt a bit overwhelmed and frantic, but it was clear that, for the present anyway, we belonged together and I needed to get us back on track.

I realised that what I was finally starting to feel was the beginnings of a scholarly identity or sense of myself. I felt like a researcher, albeit a fledgling one. And that felt good. I wanted to know more, think more, write more – I wanted to grow intellectually, professionally, personally and I knew you and the people you brought me to would help me to achieve that goal. Grow I did. I am not the same person now, professionally or personally, that I was in 2010 starting out or drowning in 2011. In doing a PhD I found my way to sense of self and a scholarly identity that I quite like. I was part of a scholarly community of fellow PhD students and travellers who understood what I was going through both personally and intellectually, and I really enjoyed being ‘in’ with them. I enjoyed the status that came with the statement ‘I’m working on my PhD’. I got recognition and also some sympathy, and a bit of a free pass on some things at work. ‘We can’t ask S now, she’s doing her PhD. Let’s ask her to do X or Y next year rather’. It was pretty great on the whole, even though it came with all the tough stuff too.

And now, PhD dissertation, you are gone and so is all of that it seems. I feel relieved and bereft at the same time. I have all this time to do things now, yet I’m drifting, aimless. I send endless emails and reorganise my desk and file papers and go to meetings and talk to students and complete the more mundane tasks. Some of my work is not mundane at all but it feels mundane compared to the enormity and importance of working on you. You made me feel important and scholarly and smart, and now I feel duller, less colourful, full of doubt. I don’t know how well you have been received yet by the examiners. I am terrified of turning you into papers for journals lest people find my work pedestrian or uncritical or worse. What do I do now? I feel so lost without you, and without the community you brought me into contact with. There is a PhD-shaped hole in my life and I don’t know what to fill it with yet.

No one told me it would be like this. People have told me about missing their PhDs, but now, in missing you I wonder if what they miss is really this part of themselves that they find in this process of taking on and shaping their own doctoral identity. I will gain so much by having had this time with you, but there is also loss. I can’t be a PhD student anymore, and I cannot continue to live as much as I have in that question-mark-space. I feel that I am being asked to claim a firmer identity now, that of a Dr, which still feels alien,  and that I am being asked to know things I am still not sure I know.  I will get there, of course,  in time. But breaking up with you is turning out to be hard to do.

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Post-PhD Drift

I have been wandering around for the last few weeks in a bit of a fug. I have been feelings all sorts of things – frustration, boredom, aimlessness, sadness, the Meh – and I have been a bit puzzled about this. Why do I feel this way? I show people my thesis in its beautiful ring-bound form – friends and colleagues who have been cheering me on – and they exclaim and hug me and I feel fabulous, and then I go back to my office or sit on my couch and feel all of these other things. After some deliberation I have diagnosed my problem and am working on a cure: I have Post-PhD Drift.

I started this year with a sense of relief – no more looming deadlines and panic and sleepless nights wondering about whether I am really doing a proper analysis of my data or something less than that. No more carrying this weight around with me everywhere, this thing that pulled me to my feet and off to my desk most of the times I sat down in front of the TV or with a book. But as my work year started – and bear in mind I am only about just over a month into it – the sense of relief started turning into something else. It turned into a new kind of anxiety. A ‘what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now?’ kind of anxiety.

Of course, I am still waiting for the reports from my examiners – I don’t have to do a Viva but I do have to engage with and respond to comments and requests for revisions from three examiners. This has compounded my anxiety enormously. But the anxiety will not necessarily disappear when the reports are in and the revisions or corrections are finished. It goes deeper than just waiting for feedback. I feel I have lost a piece of my self. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m not a Dr either. I feel I am in a strange sort of no-(wo)man’s-land. I know I have to move on and get going and write papers and submit abstracts for conferences but I just can’t seem to do that. My brain still feels a bit paralysed.

I think part of this paralysis is because I don’t know yet whether my work will be lauded or trashed. I don’t know if these examiners, all experts in my field, will applaud what I have done and suggest corrections that will make it even better or will hate it and ask me to revise it completely. So I can’t write papers yet because it is possible that my work is not good enough, that my thinking is not critical or analytical enough. (Yet.) Of course, I know my supervisor would never have let me submit if this was the case, but it is my fear all the same. I don’t really feel full ownership of these ideas yet. I feel hesitant and afraid to take the risk of telling people what I think in case they argue with me and I cannot argue back persuasively or knowledgeably. And I have written a whole thesis. 83246 words. I should be confident and persuasive and knowledgeable, at least about my own research. Yet, I am not quite there yet.

Part of this paralysis is also down to the Drift I have diagnosed. Working on, researching, writing a PhD dissertation is great for giving your life meaning and purpose. It’s a clear goal, and defined. There is a beginning and an end and usually the former is about three to five or so years before the latter. So, unless calamities and awfulness befall you, and I know this is true for many scholars, at some point you will finish. It’s not like that with a career, and that is what I am staring down the barrel of now. The rest of my career, whatever I may choose to make it. A career is longer, without a very clearly defined end, as many academics go on researching and publishing after retiring from formal academic life. Is this what I want my career to be? I know I can make changes as I go, and my interests will shift over time, but I have chosen academia. A life of the mind and research and also teaching. Some days I am not sure I’m really cut out for it.

I am not sure yet how to get over this drift. I went to a meeting with colleagues yesterday where we talked about a course we are designing, and I attended a book launch where colleagues talked eloquently about the research they had been doing. I felt, for the first time in a while, a renewed excitement about the research I am doing and what I can contribute into these intellectual spaces. Perhaps that is one way through this; to connect as much as I can with fellow scholars and researchers whose own research questions can spark off my own, and whose work can catalyse my own continued thinking and writing.

I will stop drifting, and my to-do lists will become more focused on my writing and less on emails and filling in forms in time. But for now, and perhaps until I graduate and am forced to confront and take on this new identity properly, I am likely to keep drifting, finding ways to keep my little boat at least pointing in the right sort of direction as I find my way in my new post-PhD career.

How should I propose?

I was skimming through my PhD proposal towards the end of last year, trying to see how close or far my final argument and question was from what I proposed it would be in 2011. It got me thinking about the proposal itself and the art of writing a proposal that is both vague enough to give the researcher wiggle room and specific enough to convince the faculty committee that you know enough to be getting on to the next step.

I went though several drafts of mine, and spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with individual words and sentences to get it just right. There was a lot I did not know – my methodology especially was terribly vague  – but I had to sound convincing and convinced of my own knowledge and ability. I think that an important part of proposal writing and presentation does have to do with being convinced yourself of your own ability to actually do the PhD you are proposing before convincing others.

I think proposal writing is an art as well as a bit of a science. It is an art because you have to be persuasive, using your words to show how your ideas, reading, and thinking are connected into the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework that will enable you to carry forward your study and answer your research questions. It has to be polished. It has to say that you are indeed, while just starting the process, a competent and capable student-researcher. It’s also a little bit of a science because there are technical issues to get right as well: there are word and page limits, so you need to choose very carefully what to include; there are specific referencing styles and there are also certain sections that need to be included and probably in a particular order too. There is no one format for a proposal, so understanding what your faculty wants and why and how to achieve that is, for me, both an art and a science – an exercise in both rhetorical and technical proficiency.

Proposals can be difficult to write because they are not flippant pieces of writing. It is true, I think, that it is not crime to change your focus slightly as your research starts in earnest and you find that your question is being rephrased and honed, or changed a little to something more appropriate or answerable or interesting. Changes are almost certainly going to be made and I think supervisors and higher degrees committees do understand this. Changes like adding certain substantive theory later as data requests it which you could not have foreseen in the proposal stage, or shifting focus a little, or further refining your frameworks to cut out some of the earlier thoughts are par for the course. But, while you can make small changes, you cannot really make major changes, like throwing out a big chunk of or your whole framework and starting again without re-proposing your research or at least going through some kind of formal process.  If you have to change big things, then perhaps (might reason a committee) you were not really ready to move onto the research proper in the first place. Thus, proposals have to be thought about carefully, and written as if they are indeed a road map for your research and your eventual thesis.

I was told by another supervisor in our group that about 30% of your overall thinking goes into PhD proposal – and that it acts as a pretty clear road map for the thesis you will write. It tells your readers what your study is about and why it should be done, and it outlines (in differing amounts of detail depending on your field) your frameworks for the study – theoretical and methodological. It also contains mandatory bits, like a statement about the ethics of your research, your initial research questions and a bibliography of what you have read thus far. So, to get to proposal stage you have to do a good deal of reading and thinking. You need to have what is, in brief form, the first draft of a literature review which lays out the pertinent debates/conversations you are joining, and indicates where you fit into them with your research. Why are your questions timely and important? What gap are you trying to fill? Why should it be filled and how? These are all questions the proposal needs to consider.

I am not sure that all proposals can be very clear on the methodology and the anticipated findings. Mine wasn’t, and I know several others who have battled with this. I could say that I was doing interviews and observations and that the research was qualitative and would use case studies. I could say that I would behave ethically and get consent and all that, and I could say that parts of the theoretical framework would be adapted to create a more practical analytical framework for working with the data and give a small indication of how. But that was about it. I really only worked out how this actually all worked when I got there and was actually gathering data and looking at it.

So what I took away from this process was a sense that I did not have to have it all worked out – that would be the thesis, wouldn’t it? What I did need, though, was a proposal that showed that I had done sufficient reading and thinking to allow me to move on to the next step, which was doing the actual research. Things will always change and shift – this is an essential part of the process of research. But if you spend enough time writing a clear and defined proposal/map you may well find at the end that you pretty much did what you set out to do, with a few changes here and there. And that is quite a satisfying feeling.

What exactly is a ‘contribution to knowledge’?

I have pondered on this particular question a great deal over the last few years. I don’t think I have an answer, to be honest, because I really don’t know what counts as a ‘contribution to knowledge’ in PhD work. I suspect it means different things in different fields of study. Perhaps for a scientist there is more pressure to say something original? Or is there less? Does your PhD thesis have to say something no one else is saying (or very few are)? Is that what counts, broadly, as a contribution to knowledge? And what body of knowledge are you contributing to? To what end?

I think that some of the answers to these questions begin to form when you decide on a research question and you start narrowing down the theoretical framework for your study that becomes the lens through which you see your (and lots of other peoples’) research. You begin to work out, at any rate, why you want or need to do this research and where it fits within the field in which you are working. What body of knowledge and why. And depending on the questions you want to answer and the theories and methods you choose to use, you could be potentially making a bigger or smaller contribution to that body of knowledge, if by contribution is meant ‘something original or not-oft said that sheds new light on these questions or the use of these theories or methods in research like this’.

That is what I have taken ‘contribution to knowledge’ to mean, and it’s a big ask. There are several things you have to do with a PhD in order to just get the thesis done, never mind impress the hell out of your examiners and prove yourself worthy of the degree. You need to be able to read with a goodly amount of skepticism and have the ability to critique, question, summarise and synthesise ideas and arguments; you need to be able to write not just well, but also persuasively and with flair, I think; you need to be able to create a research design that is guided by the theory (which you have had to understand and connect into a coherent framework that can carry you into the data gathering and analysis coherently), and you need to employ that design to gather data ethically and organise it logically; and then you need to analyse that data in stages, connecting back to your theoretical framework so as to find answers and create a language for your reader to use to interpret this data in the way you intend (and the theory guides you to) (see Bernstein 2000; Maton 2013); and finally you need to reach conclusions that show not just that you understand what you have written about but also, and here’s the kicker, how what you have done impacts on your field of study. So, the going is pretty tough just getting all the pieces in place and connected together before you have to tell your reader the ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ of your research.

I must say I really struggled with these two questions connected to this idea of contributing to knowledge: ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ So many times, especially towards the end I had to firmly shush the voice in my head saying ‘there is no point to your research. This has been done already. You are not saying anything new here. No one really wants to read this stuff’ (and things like that). I was really worried that the voice was right and that I was not actually saying anything that people would want to read; that my work was not in any way, even small, challenging or advancing knowledge or understanding in my field. I still wonder if the voice is right, sometimes.

I think I wonder because much is made of this contribution at PhD level. PhD work seems to matter so much more than MA work, even though many MAs probably do more exciting research than some PhDs. Perhaps it is the level of the qualification that they will confer on you if you succeed, or what it says about your ability to do the even more important post-doctoral research and work? I am not sure. What I have realised, though, is that originality in the social sciences is tough. I think the most that many PhD students can hope for is to choose an angle on a particular, probably well-known problem that only a few people are really looking at in-depth, and say something that provokes thinking and that shows that they have what it takes to do more interesting and sound research as they grow into their post-doc careers. A friend said to me that the PhD is an exercise, albeit a fairly sophisticated one, of applying theory to a problem using some form of data (empirical etc), and reaching a sound and hopefully interesting conclusion. This oversimplifies the PhD process, but it has helped me to keep things in perspective when the voice (see above) gets really loud. My PhD does not have to be the equivalent of E=mc² to be good enough.

I am making a contribution to knowledge by joining the conversation, claiming a voice and a stance, and being brave enough to argue for it. I am not saying things nobody has ever said or thought, and I am not inventing anything new. But I’m in the field now, and I have shown in my thesis (I hope) that I am capable of doing research at this level and of growing further. And perhaps that is good enough for now.