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’. 🙂

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PhDgirl goes to graduation

PhDgirl

This is PhDgirl – I introduced you to her last year in a post about PhD fantasies. Last week she went to her graduation. This is a post about celebrating yourself – your mind, your perseverance, your drive and your overall fabulousness.

Graduation is, I think, something PhD students daydream about a great deal while they are going through the struggle of researching and writing their dissertations. Graduation is the end-point of this particular journey – the peak of the mountain where you stake your flag and claim your new title. Graduation is where you get to finally celebrate and be nothing but happy, and relieved and damn proud of yourself for what you have achieved through your own hard work, determination and perseverance. It’s a good day.

My university is wonderful because they do graduation with all the pomp and circumstance you could hope for. It was a grand graduation event, with official photographs beforehand, alumni packs handed out (where I got to fill in my first form as Dr NameandSurname), so many people to see and congratulate and be congratulated by. At the ceremony itself the Dean read out a citation about my research as I stood before the audience in my scarlet gown and new LBD, feeling like I was floating and praying I wouldn’t fall into the Chancellor’s lap when I knelt before him. Then the Chancellor – a really lovely man – conferred my degree and congratulated me as he shook my hand (I managed not to pitch into him, thankfully!). Finally, the Registrar invested me by placing my hood over my head and telling me ‘Well done, you can put on your bonnet now’. Then my part was over. Bonnet balanced precariously on my head, I took the wrong route back to my seat, forgetting to collect my parchment, and when I got the official pictures, I discovered that I had done all the things I was not supposed to do, like let my hair fall in front of my face and look down at my hood as it was being put onto me. But it was, nonetheless, a glorious and too-brief moment and I wished later on that I could do it all over again.

Of course there were other glorious moments – the Vice-Chancellor’s luncheon for PhD graduates and their partners and supervisors, where I found a placecard with my name preceded by Dr – the first official printed incarnation (I have kept it, of course); the garden party for all the graduates and their families, on a gorgeous warm afternoon where my children got to see me in my finery (they were not allowed to come to the ceremony) and eat cupcakes in the sunshine. It was a long, well-deserved and joyous celebration of all of us – myself and my peers – and this achievement we are so proud of. As a friend and fellow graduate said, ‘This [event] is all about being happy. Happy, happy, happy’. She was so very right.

I hope your graduation celebrations, when you get there, will be everything you have daydreamed about and so much more. Mine certainly were.

 

 

Corrections

I finished my corrections, finally, last Friday and submitted the most revised and final version of my PhD dissertation that there will ever be. It was a very anti-climactic moment, actually. No beautiful hardcover leather bound version with gold lettering being ceremoniously handed to a librarian. No pomp or circumstance. Just an email, with a PDF attachment to be downloaded onto a USB stick and handed to the library for their digital repository and a loose-leaf copy for an archive. I will have my own beautiful hardbound version made, of course, but this was not how I imagined this process ending. I imagined… more. More relief, more triumph, more pomp, I guess.

I think, looking back, the biggest triumph was handing in the first full draft. That was when I really believed I would finish my dissertation. It was such a struggle to get it finished, and it represented so much work and thinking and writing and just hours and days of my life. I felt like I had climbed a mountain with no sherpas or surfed a 6ft wave with a barrel! Handing in the version for examination was also a triumph, but a smaller one somehow, and this most final version has been smaller again. I have been busy thinking about and doing my corrections for the last week or so, and I wonder if perhaps that, combined with my present illness and exhaustion which has crashed down on me now that this process is finally at an end and I will be graduating this week, has dampened the triumphant feelings I was expecting to feel at this final hand-in.

Corrections are a bit of a pain. I received three reports –  in most PhD examinations there seem to be at least three examiners, whether they examine you in person in a Viva Voce or on paper as with most South African universities. So three different people, with three different sets of specialisation (although all specialists in your field in some way) read and judge your thesis. You hope they do this on its own merits, but this doesn’t always happen. In  South Africa, examiners are asked to choose from one of four options: to reject the thesis, to recommend extensive revisions and resubmission; to accept with minor corrections completed to supervisor’s satisfaction; and to accept as is.

My examiners were all very warm and complimentary about the work I did. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, and although they made recommendations and suggestions for corrections and revisions that went beyond the thesis (very useful but also quite daunting) most of their suggestions were aimed at making my present thesis stronger and better. However, they ranged quite a bit in terms of their sense of how much work I still needed to do. One thought it was fine as is (which was nice but I wondered if she didn’t miss things); one thought it should be subjected to minor corrections (my favourite report); and one thought it needed some re-analysis and rethinking of quite a bit of the data (hmph!). The overall decision was ‘accept pending corrections to be done to the supervisor’s satisfaction’. So, this was good. A bit confusing and quite overwhelming, but good.

It was confusing because I needed to read all the reports, and mostly on my own – although my supervisor did offer advice and guidance (it has never been her way to tell me what to do :-)) – I had to decide which corrections to make, which to respond to but not make and which to leave, and then explain to her what I did and why. So, I asked myself: Do I do everything? Can I do everything? Should I do everything that the examiners recommended? This last question became the key one. In commenting on the thesis itself, and also commenting beyond the thesis on things I need to think about and stretch myself to, they offered both a set of corrections for now and a set of recommendations and suggestions for later. I needed to work out which was which. Even if I could have done every correction recommended, it was not clear that I really needed to. Some of the suggestions would have resulted in additions and corrections that may have confused rather than clarified certain parts of my thesis, and may have made some of my arguments or explanations unnecessarily dense and obscure, rather than clear and easier to follow. So, part of the work I had to do was separating the ‘must do – this will make it better’  from the ‘could do – might improve it’ and the ‘not for now – this is beyond what I was trying to do’.

This took a few days of reading and re-reading the reports, muttering to myself, and mulling things over before I was ready to make myself sit down and do the necessary work. This is what I have learned, thus far, about doing corrections:

1. Read, re-read (or listen very carefully) to the feedback: examiners are supposed to (and do) evaluate your thesis on it’s own merits but they also have their own take on methods, theory and data analysis. Read carefully for what they have written about your thesis and what you could do to make it better, and read very carefully for where they are asking you to work on a different thesis, or worse, their thesis. There is an important distinction between suggestions that will improve what you have written, and suggestions that will take you into new territory and possible undo what you have written in some way.

2. Take time to think, mutter and scribble. Talk to your supervisor, especially if they are the ones that need to be satisfied or if your thesis has to go back for re-examination. You need their advice and guidance, but at the end of the day it is your work. Your heart and soul. Take enough time to take in the comments, think about them, think about your own aims and goals in writing the thesis, and then work out what you need to do to take the thesis to its final library-copy version. Don’t rush to do everything. Try not to rush at all.

3. Take a day or two off work to do the corrections. It’s better not to try and do them at work when you have so many other competing demands on your time, and noise and interruptions. I took a day off, had a quiet house with kids at school, and I managed to get them all in done in one day (not counting the thinking time). This quiet and space for tea breaks and a walk with the dog to do some more mulling really helped me to get the corrections done and to feel they were carefully done and not rushed. It was also nice to write in my PJs again – thesis and me back together for the last time in this form.

If you are working on corrections, all the best. You are so very nearly there, and I wish you all the pomp and circumstance your heart desires!

 

 

The PhD and illness

I have been umming and aahing about writing this post because it may come across as a whinge of some kind but it really isn’t meant to be. I think it’s about an issue that needs to be talked about; one related to the kinds of physical stress that come with working for several years on a PhD. We talk a great deal about mental stress, and even the emotional toll that a PhD process can take on students, but I have not yet seen very much written about the physical toll except in a couple of main areas. Perhaps I am not reading widely enough, but most of what seems to be written about in this regard is by and about people working on their PhDs while managing a mental or chronic illness that already demands a lot of their physical, mental and emotional energy. I would imagine that this must be incredibly difficult. But I want to add to these conversations here  by reflecting on the more run-of-the-mill physical illnesses like flu, colds and similar that may become more common for you during your PhD and may not immediately be associated with the stress of undertaking PhD research.

I have been ill quite a bit more than usual for the past two years, and I am not a person who gets colds and flu much at all. I tend to use my sick days for my kids’ illnesses rather than my own. But in the last two years I have had to take sick leave and actually stay at home, on the couch, and not just go to work and solider on. I have felt physically run down – just generally tired and worn out, and I have to say it has taken me a long time to associate much of this with the stress attached to my PhD. I am not offering empirical proof here, but I think many PhD students could probably understand this. I have had several sinus infections. I have allergies, but I have hardly ever had these turn into actual sinus and chest infections that have really had me down and out. I have been thinking it’s just because I’m really bad at remembering to take my vitamins, or because I eat the wrong things, or because of changes in the weather. But since the beginning of this year, and last year finishing my thesis, I have felt really worn out most of the time, and today I went to the doctor for the 6th time since January. This is not normal, and definitely not for me. At the moment I have no voice at all, mild vertigo and sinusitis and I finished my corrections on my thesis the day before yesterday.

I’m starting to think there’s a real connection here. I have been very anxious waiting for my reports from my examiners. It has weighed on me, the waiting and wondering. After the high of getting my reports back I felt really down again, and found doing the corrections mentally tough (more on this next week). I had a couple of really bad sinus days trying to work on them. I handed in my thesis at the end of last year but really battled to unwind and relax for the three and half weeks I had between handing in and starting work again because I was wondering about the examination process and how it would go. It was handed in, but the thesis was not finished and so I could not just shake it off and forget about it. I worried and wondered and the stress stayed with me. And so, it seems, did the fatigue and the illness. I don’t think I am alone in finding myself more physically run down during and just after a PhD, but struggling to make obvious connections between the PhD process and my feelings of fatigue, and not really feeling completely well (and sometimes being quite sick too).

Apart from multivitamins and having people around who are instructed to force you to take mini-breaks, and even take you away when it all gets too much, I think it is important for PhD students to try and get enough rest and eat well, although this can be hard on the bad days when you want to mainline sugar and chocolate, and on the many nights when you lie awake between 3 and 5 am rewriting your theory chapter in your head, eventually getting up to write down your ideas because you know you won’t remember them in the morning. It’s especially hard if you are a student and working and a parent, and you cannot remember the last time you were at the top of your own list of priorities. As a mum, having an inability to put myself and my needs first feels like something that comes with the job.

But I think what I have learned, am still learning, is that you have to say NO to the things that really don’t matter so much, and say YES to focusing on what you need to do your best work in every area of your life, like what you need to get through your PhD in as healthy and sane a state as possible. I am not fully sure that this is possible, though. When I told my supervisor, coming off 6 months of suspended studies to finally work on my proposal, that I wanted to try and be a  mum and do well at work and write a great PhD and stay sane, her response was that I could certainly do that but that I might have to let go of the sanity. I think, if you also include great physical well-being, that she was probably spot-on. But as always, I (we) can solider on and get better all the time, hopefully, at focusing more on what matters to me (us), and not always so much on what matters to everyone else.

Responding to examiners’ feedback

I finally got my three examiners’ reports on my thesis this week, after just over 3 long months of waiting. I have been joking that I have been through something like the 5 stages of grief waiting an extra 5 weeks because examiner 3 was late with her report. At first there was a kind of denial (this can’t actually be happening – the report can’t really be taking so long. Maybe this is all some sort of weird email mix-up). Then there was anger (how could she do this to me? Doesn’t she know how hard I have worked?). After a couple of weeks of being really cross, I moved quite quickly through bargaining (if it comes this week, I will do all my corrections, I won’t procrastinate, I’ll be nice to everyone and walk the dog every day), to depression (I’m not going to graduate. The report will not come in time), and finally to acceptance (well, it will come in time for me to graduate or it won’t, but ranting won’t make it happen faster).

I think,  in hindsight, that the additional few weeks of waiting for the last report was a good thing although it drove me crazy at the time. I think it was a good thing because of the way it influenced my attitude towards my 3 reports when they did finally arrive. I was just so grateful to get them and to finally know, good or bad, what the examiners thought of my work and what additional work I needed to do in order to graduate that I think I took the critique better than I might otherwise have done.

Kate Chanock has these 7 stages of resentment about getting feedback on your work from reviewers, which can be adapted for how a PhD student might respond to examiners, whether the reports are written or oral in the form of a Viva (although I am aware that an oral exam in quite different to receiving written reports).

I think I can revise this list, personally, thus:

1. Relief – thank god the feedback is here

2. Anxiety and nerves – but what do the examiners say? What if it’s bad news?

3. Suck it up and read – you’ve been waiting for ages!

4. Wow – what lovely comments 🙂

5. What!? That’s not fair – I covered that in my discussion! I explained why I did that/left that out/showed that data and not the rest. Didn’t they read it carefully?

6. Hm, okay, fair point. I could probably make that a bit clearer. I suppose. Maybe.

7. Well, these are really good reports. I think they mostly got what I was trying to do. Phew! And actually, the corrections they want could make the thesis much better. Time to get going on them!

At first I read the reports, and called my husband and read bits to him, and told my mum, and my best friends and my Facebook people – they were all thrilled, as was my uber-supervisor – and I just basked in all of that for a day. Then I had a conversation with my supervisor about the corrections I will need to make (the final recommendation was that I make corrections to my supervisor’s satisfaction), and the reality started to set in. It’s not quite finished yet, and the corrections are not just typos. They require rethinking, reflection, rewriting, adding, clarifying, refining. It’s more than an afternoon with the ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ functions, or fiddling with formatting. I wandered back into post-submission blues territory, and I’m still there, being a bit petulant and procrastinating because I just don’t really want to rethink and rewrite and revise. I just want to be finished now.

But, and there is always a but isn’t there, I really do have to engage with these reports and the comments and suggestions for changes precisely because they are not small, take-or-leave-them changes. In beginning with examiner 1’s report, I can see that a lot of what she is commenting on is vagueness in some of my definitions, explanations and discussion – partly because the literature itself is vague, and partly because I did not make my writing and thinking as clear as I could have. Examiner 2 has concerns about my analysis – he thinks I have made things a little to easy for myself – is he right? If so, what do I do to respond to his thoughtful and also probably somewhat accurate critique? Examiner 3 doesn’t think I need to make any changes, but she poses a couple of questions about my methodology I think I should respond to.

I do not have to do all of the corrections and follow-up on all the suggestions. I can decide which changes need to be made now to improve on my thesis, and which comments and suggestions need rather to be taken into account later, when I am writing up parts of my argument for publication. Examiners should and do go beyond the thesis to comment on other things you can think about and do post-PhD; they comment on the theory and how your have used it, on methodology more generally and on how you have realised yours, on the strength of your analysis and on things you could have done differently, and might want to do differently in future studies. A student’s work, then, in reading or taking in their critique is to work out what is for now and what can be for later (although not all students have a choice).

Hopefully, examiners will judge your thesis on its own merits, whether they agree with you or not, and will not make suggestions that have you writing their thesis into your corrections and revisions rather than your own. If you do have a choice, think very carefully about what they have said – they are experts in your field, and if you can open yourself up to the critique as well as the praise, I think you will find much food for thought. I certainly have. Of course, now I just have to work out what to do with all of it…