The challenges of writing papers out of your PhD

You have finished your thesis, handed it in, been examined and passed – well done! You are now a Dr. You can take a deep breath and relax now after all these years of hard work, right? Wrong. Quite wrong it seems. Now the work really starts – the work of Building Your Career. You have the magic pass that has swiped you into the hallowed inner circles of the academy, but resting on your laurels won’t keep you there or earn you the respect of your peers in the long term. You have to publish. You have to tell people, in very formal, recognisable ways, about your work and why it is noteworthy and important. You have to conference and write and network and write and have papers accepted by good journals and write some more. It’s all a bit exhausting to be honest, and right now I’m just thinking about it all rather than doing it all just yet!

I put in an abstract for a higher education conference earlier in the year and it was accepted. The full paper, in pretty good draft form, is due at the end of the month and the conference is a few weeks after that. I am paralysed. I cannot write this thing. So, instead, I am planning another paper about the challenge of writing a thesis. I have no data for this paper, no framework, just some brilliant and witty subheadings I dreamed up while writing my thesis and a few readings and notes under my belt. I have a LOT of work to do to get that paper written. By contrast, the paper I have to write for the conference has a full checklist because it’s a paper that is coming straight out of my thesis. Theory (check), methodology (check), data gathered, organised and analysed (check check check) – it’s all there and all I really have to do is select the relevant pieces of the chapter and hone them into a paper than makes one argument clearly and coherently. But, as mentioned, I am paralysed.

Why? This should not be so hard. Everything I need, I have. Even time. I have pretty much cleared my desk to give myself both headspace and physical hours in which to write and think about this paper. So why I am so stuck, so unable to get going on even a draft? Pat Thomson, who has been such a big source of help for me through her own writing, wrote a post on her blog, Patter, a while back about the challenges of getting out of the ‘big book thesis’ and into papers that are much smaller and more discrete things. A paper can only make one small argument – most journals will only give you 6,000 words in which to say what you have to say. So you have to be really focused. A big book thesis by contrast gives you between 80,000 and 100,000 words to make your argument – you can bring in a lot of explanation, discussion, data etc. You don’t have to be that brief. You can be a bit verbose and be forgiven for that. So there’s that – having to be that brief and focused just seems really difficult and too much hard work right now. You may say that I am not quite ready to do the hard work of selecting and whittling and murdering ‘my darlings’*.

This is connected to another potential stumbling block Pat mentions in getting out of the big book and into papers – choosing your focus and leaving out all the extra detail. She says, and this really makes sense to me at the moment, that during and right after your PhD you are all about the big book (if this is the kind of thesis you are writing), with the emphasis on ‘big’ – lots of space to show your readers this, and also this and also these other things so that they can really appreciate the length and breadth and depth of the work you have done. So in planning this paper (and possible others), I find myself struggling to select only a few parts of the theory, because don’t I also need to explain  why I chose this theory and not another, and where it comes from and why it’s so useful and also my own background for doing this research, and, and, and…? All of this is so necessary, so vital. If I leave these pieces out you may not think I have done enough work – you may not believe my claims.

I think coming out of a PhD thesis, where you have been tying so many strands together for such a long period of time, this is a common issue. What to leave out and what to include in a paper that is less than half the length of one chapter is a tricky thing to work out. Slicing your big argument up into smaller arguments you can make is not easy. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. I think it does take time to get enough distance from your PhD to start to see the different smaller arguments you could make, and also how to carve up and rework parts of your big book to make these smaller papers clear and coherent. Is 6 months enough time? It feels like it should be. I think my work is important and I do want people in my field to read about it and challenge me and agree with and, dare I hope for it, cite me. So, I’d better get over my paralysis and start writing. But for today, maybe just this blogpost; tomorrow I’ll start the paper.

*With thanks to Stephen King for this phrase.

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