My PhD is… How do you represent your PhD to yourself and others?

I follow ‘Shit Academics Say’ on Facebook, and the inspiration for this post comes from a post on their feed (similar to the image below).

PhD students have such a range of experiences of, and feelings about, doing their PhDs. A basic sense of human psychology tells us that repressing emotions and feelings, positive or negative, can lead to people feeling alone, odd, alienated, stuck, and depressed. As Meg Ryan said to Kevin Kline in ‘French Kiss’: ‘Express, not repress!’ So, these PhD experiences and emotions need to be expressed, preferably to those who will listen and be able to offer support, and even guidance or useful help. But, in giving voice to these feelings and experiences, it is worth thinking about what we do say to ourselves about our PhDs and how we represent them to ourselves and to others. If our words can speak things into being – feelings or experiences – then our words about our research can be powerful tools that either pull us down or lift us up.

A quick glance into the world of what people are telling Google Search about their PhDs yields this result:

Screenshot 2015-03-17 15.08.01

Other than the rather fun suggestion about a PhD in dance, the three options Google chooses to autocomplete this sentence with are negative: ‘worthless’, ‘boring’, ‘killing me’. The options Google selected are based (if I understand how this works accurately) on how many times people have typed these words into Google to search for resources or help. Why are so many PhD experiences (if this snapshot is any kind of indication) so negative? Why is the PhD more often than not framed as a long, arduous, lonely trudge, as opposed to a challenging, stimulating and ultimately empowering thing? Why is there not, in the more popular discourses around PhD study, more of an emphasis on what the PhD offers a scholar; the ups rather than the downs? People have done research that answers some of these questions, and I’d like to use this post to offer some of my thoughts on why this might be.

I represented my own PhD in different ways at different points. Early on it was a millstone, a source of great anxiety and stress. Around the proposal stage I felt quite excited as my plans took shape and I could see what lay ahead, even though I was still anxious about whether I could actually do what I was proposing. Writing the theoryology was mostly tough, and I said lots of unrepeatable things about the theory, my PhD and academia in general. I was mostly anxious, with small bits of delight in writing a section that looked and sounded really ‘Dr-ish’. Generating data and transcribing it was mainly tedious, although the analysis and writing of the ‘findings’ chapters was actually enjoyable, because it brought all the theory to life. This is a small snapshot of my representation of my PhD. There was constant anxiety, really (I am an anxious person generally), but over and above this there was exhaustion, stress, uncertainty on the ‘minus’ side, and delight, enjoyment, learning and satisfaction on the ‘plus’ side.

A PhD can’t be all plus or all minus, I don’t think. It takes too long to just be one or the other. Although some of my colleagues have loved their PhDs overall, they experienced tough, lonely and frustrating patches. And those who have had a hard time overall have also had moments, even small, where they have felt enlightened, stimulated and elated, even (think of that call to say the proposal was accepted, or being told a chapter draft is done for now because it’s good enough and you can move on to the next one). But the minuses, and Inger Mewburn has made this point in her writing, are often easier to talk about with others than the plusses – perhaps because of the more general discourses around PhDs that highlight the struggles over the enjoyment.

In some ways, it felt to me at times that I needed to make my PhD more of an enemy than I generally felt it was in order to be ‘in’ with colleagues who were struggling. I did not feel I could sit with them and say, ‘Oh, I love my PhD. I am really enjoying it right now. The writing is going so well!’ when they were saying versions of ‘My supervisor is so distant. I have no support at work. I can’t do this anymore’. I could complain about being tired, frustrated, confused, and discouraged at various points, and I certainly did. But I felt hesitance at representing my PhD in more positive terms in front of certain audiences, especially other students who were having a tough time. I am sure I was not alone in feeling this hesitance and, at times, even talking my PhD down rather than up so as not to alienate myself.

We all represent, and misrepresent, our PhDs in different ways and for different reasons: to fit in, to gain a sense of solidarity, to find empathy and care, to work through what we are feeling and try to move past especially negative feelings and experiences. The issue for me is this: if you feel like you spend more of your time talking your PhD and by extension yourself down, you are almost certainly putting up obstacles to completing your research successfully, and you are probably increasing your anxiety and misery. I am not advocating that you start lying to yourself and others and saying your PhD is fabulous when it really is not. If you struggling, and you need help, care and support, you need to be able to ask for it. But, I think I am saying that (hopefully) it’s not all doom and gloom all the time. There are reasons you took this on, and motivations you have, and these could be framed more positively to focus you on your ‘ups’, for example the learning and intellectual growth you experience, the connections with communities of scholars, either face-to-face or virtually, and the personal sense of achievement in taking on and succeeding at such a challenging undertaking.

If you are battling to see the light, consider starting a research journal: write to yourself not just when you are down and your PhD is boring or killing you, but also when you are up: have had a good meeting with your supervisor, or a supportive coffee with fellow PhD students, or a productive writing day. Talking your PhD up more often, to yourself and others, may help to mitigate against the downs, and may contribute to you feeling less burdened by the PhD, and more engaged by, and in, it on the whole.


Can you quit your PhD?

I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago about her PhD, which is floundering a little at the moment and is a source of great stress and anxiety right now. Rather than something she looks forward to working on, her PhD is a millstone around her neck, and she is seriously wondering if she can or should carry on with it in its present form. Earlier this week I logged in to Facebook to hear that another friend has deregistered from her PhD studies for the time being, taking a break of indefinite length. So, I have been wondering: can you quit your PhD, and if you do, how do you make that decision okay for yourself?

I wrote last year about my own struggles early on in my PhD with finding a balance between it and my life and work, and how I suspended my studies before eventually coming back to them. I think that, as a PhD student who has already invested your self, time, money and also often your family’s/friend’s time (and either their or a funder’s money) in your studies, the decision to stop and walk away is never one you can make impulsively or lightly. There are several things you may have to consider, over and above your own feelings, desires and struggles. This post is a tough one to write, because I would never want to discourage a PhD scholar who is already feeling discouraged. But I think that we don’t really talk about this issue very much; rather the dominant discourses focus on saying some version of ‘Just get it done, it’s just a PhD. Just finish it, and everything will be fine. Hang in there, come on, you can do this!’ It’s great to give and get this kind of encouragement, but sometimes, it’s not helpful when a PhD student can’t ‘just do it’ and really needs to at least consider, for a range of reasons, deregistering and moving on to other things.

So what do you do if you, or a friend/colleague/PhD supervisee, is sitting on this fence, and wondering: ‘Can I quit my PhD? Should I quit? Will I be okay if I do?’ Perhaps a useful place to start is with all of the things you/your person needs to consider. For example, are you paying for your PhD yourself, or do you have funding? If you have funding, are there stipulations in the fine print about reimbursing the funder if you do not complete your PhD? These are big considerations if you are paying a lot of money for your PhD, and if you have funding that comes with expectations of completion in a certain period of time. If you or a family member are paying for your studies, this is perhaps an easier call because the financial obligations can be more flexible. However, if you do need to take time off, or even walk away from your PhD completely, consider approaching your funder and negotiating as far as possible with them. Perhaps there is a plan to be made.

Another big consideration (one that really troubled me when I considered quitting my PhD) was the investment I had already made in the PhD – my identity, my self, my time. But I had not done this alone. I had asked my husband, children and family to invest with me: in encouraging me, supporting me, making compromises and sacrifices on my behalf to enable me to have time to work on my PhD. They believed in me. How could I walk away and let them all down? How could I let myself down? My feelings of shame and failure were also compounded by my own perfectionism, and the sometimes stupidly high standards to which I hold myself. I needed, in making my decision to suspend and walk away temporarily, to separate my own needs and investments from theirs, and tell myself that, while they were undoubtedly in this with me, they were not actually doing the PhD. That was all on me, so I needed to make this decision for me, and not for them. I reasoned that if I was okay with my decision, they would eventually be okay too. If I was miserable, they would certainly have suffered with me.

A third consideration is the reasons for which you are doing the PhD. Is it for primarily professional reasons: you need a PhD in order to be recognised formally, awarded research funding, promotions and status? Is for primarily personal reasons: having one or not will not make an enormous difference in your working life, but you are personally driven by a desire to complete a PhD, and gain from the experience in terms of your own development as a scholar and a thinker? In my experience thus far, working with colleagues who are doing PhDs as well as with postgraduate student-writers, it’s always a bit of both, although one set of reasons is usually a bit more prominent than the other. I do think, as someone who did the PhD to get ahead professionally, but also because I really wanted to do it for myself, that focusing on my personal, intrinsic motivations and reasons helped me to find my way back to my PhD, and helped me to sustain my motivation to complete it through the ups and downs that followed my re-registration. Focusing on the extrinsic pressures made me feel resentful, pressured and sulky. I felt I was being forced into something that did not completely fit into my life as a working mother. I felt cross that I should even need a PhD to be taken seriously, when I had other valuable experience and input to offer. I am not sure I would have had the PhD journey I did if the external reasons for the PhD were my sole focus. I think coming back would have been harder, and I would have taken longer to complete my thesis.

The point of this post is not to tell any students that they should, or should not, quit their PhD. A PhD is a big, all-consuming, intense thing to take on, and the amount of yourself that a thoroughly researched and well-written PhD demands is huge. But, if you are on this fence, feeling stuck and wondering if quitting will free you or make things harder in the long run, perhaps working through these considerations will be a helpful starting place in making your own decision about how to carry on from here. I would like to say, though, that if you do quit your PhD, you will be okay. A PhD is, in the end, a qualification (as someone on Twitter said recently); it’s not an identity itself, it’s not you, and it’s not what makes you worthy of recognition.

Building a theoretical framework for your study

I am presenting a seminar tomorrow to PhD students on how I developed my PhD’s theoretical framework. When I agreed to do this workshop last year, I thought this would be fairly easy to do. However, I am finding it difficult to articulate the differences between substantive theory and what I think of as ‘framework theory’, and how to use both in different ways to contextualise your study and build a framework for it. This was, for me, the first and biggest ‘threshold’ (to use Meyer and Land’s term) that I crossed in my own PhD, and it’s a very important one.

There are two main places you tend to use theory in a social sciences PhD (I’d be really interested to hear about the differences between these and PhDs in the natural sciences): in your literature review where you contextualise your study and the rationale for it, and in your theoryology, as I call it, which works at a more ‘meta’ level to discuss how you understand the questions you are researching, how you plan to approach the research, and how you will move from theory to methodology and methods, and on to analysis. You come back to the theory in your conclusion, connecting it to your findings, but it needs to be laid out ahead of this in the earlier chapters.

I have written about writing a literature review, and using the research in the field in a more substantive way to build the context and rationale for your own study, and situate it within your field, so I won’t focus too much on that in this post. Here, I would rather focus on the more difficult-to-articulate issue: the theoretical framework. The reading PhD students almost always start with is the substantive ‘theory’ and research. You need to know what research has been done in your field, what the key issues and questions are, where the field is heading, and where you, coming into that field, can place your own research. But you may well find, if you spend long enough reading the substantive theory and research, that you start going in circles, confirming what you have already found out and slowly getting stuck. This is when you need to take a break. If you know what the lie of the land is, and you have a grasp of the trends, issues and research problems that are being or have been researched, and where the gaps you, you now need to find your question, your project. You should find the topic you want to research, and the focus, from your substantive reading, but you need to hone this to turn it into a lightning rod for all the other research and reading you will do to cling to. In my (albeit limited) experience, moving on to the ‘meta’ stuff at this point helped me to do this.

What do I mean by ‘meta’ stuff? The Free Dictionary defines metatheory as ‘a formal system that describes the structure of some other system, and ‘a theory devised to analyse theoretical systems’. Slightly obscure definitions on their own – theories that can analyse theories sounds like more going round in circles. But I’m going to concentrate on the words ‘formal system’, ‘structure’, and ‘analyse’ because this, for me, is what a theoryology hinges on. What comes after you  have focused on one research question your study can explore and answer? You need to design a methodology, and then use appropriate research methods to generate data, and then employ an analytical framework to organise that data. Thereafter, you need tools of analysis to make sense of the data in relation to the theoretical structure you have put together, and the field in which your research is located. All of this is nigh on impossible to do in any coherent, structured and organised way without an organising structure that can hold the project in place and on course. You need, then, a formal system, a structure, that can inform the methods you use, your data generation plans and strategies, and the ways in which you then organise and analyse the data to answer your research question. This formal system is your theoretical or conceptual framework (your theoryology).

But how do you build one? What kind of theory is theoryology-worthy? Theory is a weird word here, and it is often misused. I am sure I misuse it all the time. Often, when we say ‘theory’ we mean ‘other research that has been done in the field that informs how I think about my own research and/or practice’. By metatheory is meant something that, while derived from empirical research and data, is raised a bit further above the empirical to create a more generalised or abstract set of principles that can be applied as a formal organising or structural system in a range of studies. Theoretical frameworks are built out of this kind of theory. You need an abstract, generalised set of principles that you can adapt and apply to your own study, and that will inform what data you choose to generate, and how you then can organise that data and decide on methods of analysis. A helpful way of finding your way to this kind of theory that might be right for your study is to look at what kinds of frameworks or conceptual tools other researchers are using in your field or allied fields.

Finding a framework for your study is essential in the social sciences, certainly. Without an overarching metatheory to organise and analyse your project you may end up generating a mountain of data that you just get lost in because you’re not sure what is important or what is not; you may end up with the wrong kinds of data; or you may write a ‘findings’ chapter that describes rather than analyses the data in relation to the field itself, and the question your are answering, which would leave you in a precarious position, given the pressure on PhDs to make new contributions to knowledge. Don’t be too worried if this process of developing your own framework takes time (I spent most of my second year on mine). In my experience, if you have a solid framework that is chosen well and clear to you, what follows is generally more organised and less fraught on the whole*.

*Of course, all sorts of things can and do go wrong in a PhD, and this is just my experience, but colleagues who have followed this route have found similarly that the data generation and analysis process has been less stressful if they have a clearer sense of what they are looking for, why, and how to look at it.

Reading your way into your field: tips for navigation

My last post on reading your PhD field received more attention that my last few posts have received, so I feel I have touched a chord here; reading is tricky area of PhD study that doesn’t receive as much press as writing does. Actually, that’s true in academia more generally – there is a lot more research into helping students write more effectively than there is into helping students read more effectively. I think it is better understood that writing in different genres and fields is a challenge, and that novice writers and learners need help demystifying the particular genres they need to master. By contrast, reading academic texts seems to be less well covered in teaching and learning-type research. Students at all levels are expected to read critically, analytically, and proficiently, but this is often a struggle and while there seems to be a lot of help about when it comes to writing, the question still remains: what are we writing about if we are battling with what we are reading?

This post touches on the more nitty-gritty struggles of reading for a PhD: how to actually get into your field, and make sense of it, especially the ‘names’ or the big theory and ideas. To get into this post, I need to start with me, with my own PhD reading struggles. I have confessed already that I am a bookworm, and that I love reading. I do not, however, love everything that I have to read, and a lot of the reading I had to do for my PhD (and am going back to now to work on the postdoc writing) was tedious and tough and often just incomprehensible. To illustrate: I had to read Pierre Bourdieu’s work. For those who are fortunate enough to not have to do this to yourselves, Bourdieu is hard going (and I did a whole module on Foucault during my Masters). He uses about 25 words when other people use two, and much of his work is translated into English from the original French, so it tends towards being dense and challenging. I really battle to translate him into my own words and my own understanding. I don’t actually really understand him in his own words; I can only make sense of his writing when I have read other people translating him into more accessible terms.

This then brings me to the first strategy I learned when I started my PhD, at a workshop where we talked about disciplines being like ‘tribes’ and PhD students as being noviciates into the tribe, and needing to learn about who the tribespeople are and how to find a place among them. You need to know who the ‘chiefs’ are, and who the more ordinary tribespeople are, and how they relate to each other in terms of their ideas, arguments etc. Then you can locate yourself within that ‘field of inquiry’ more clearly and with greater confidence (because you know how to avoid stepping on toes, or repeating someone else’s idea and taking it as your own, inadvertently). You cannot, in my field, quote Bourdieu (a chief, for sure) in the work of another scholar, even if they are a sub-chief or working at a higher level to you. This is true of all fields: you have to cite the chiefs at their source. And to avoid including ‘cheat’ citations (although we all do this from time to time) where you include a text you know references your idea but that you have not fully read or understood, you need to make sense of what the source texts are actually saying. Ergo, I had to read Bourdieu. But (and here’s the tip), don’t start with the writings of the chiefs. It’s often too difficult, and you can quickly end up confused, lost, demotivated and feeling like you are not supposed to be a PhD student.

Start with the tribespeople who have gone before you, and have bravely read, deciphered and translated the work of the chief into more accessible terms. See how they have used his or her ideas and theory in their own work; look at the methods they have used and the kinds of arguments they have made using the work of the chief. Read a few of these papers and books, until you have a sense of what the source text and the theory-in-the-original is saying. Then, get the source texts, and read the theory, the ideas etc in the original. It is almost always easier if you do it like this, because it feels at least a little familiar, and not quite as scary and obscure. It’s still work to make sense of the source texts in relation to your argument and your PhD, but it can be less daunting a task when tackled like this. Also, reading like this gives you a greater sense of the field you are working in, and who you are working in relation to.

Connected to this is another tip I learned, but did not always practice myself. Often, part of the practice of reading our way into a field is learning to critique the other members of our tribe as part of finding our own academic feet and voice, and claiming our own space within the field of research and learning. One thing many examiners look for in a completed thesis is a sense that you know where the weaknesses of your field/theory/methods etc are, not just the strengths. Can you show them that you see and understand key claims against your chosen chiefs, and your defence against the critique in relation to your own arguments? This is hard to do though, because PhD students often want certainty and clarity: the chief must be right about this, and that’s that. It’s too difficult to also be trying to see how he or she could be only partially right, or blind to certain things, etc. But, this is an important part of becoming a member of your ‘tribe’ and it’s a necessary part of the reading and thinking work. One tip, to help you claim this critical-reader space, is to write to the authors you are reading when you write a reading journal entry.

‘Dear Pierre, I struggled to make sense of this paper, and I wonder about the veracity of claim X in particular. If you did this research in a different context, you would not be able to make this claim in the same way. For example, in my research context, ….  etc, etc, etc.’

Write to the chief as if you are able to have a conversation with them, and ask them about the things that puzzle you or seem unclear. Make suggestions as to why this might be, and suggest possible alternatives or improvements. Connect their work with your own research. If you do this kind of journal entry consistently, you may well find your confidence in your own ideas growing, and your ability to be more critical and analytical in reading developing over time.

They say that the more you read, the better you get at it, and the easier it becomes. This is true of some academic reading, I find, but not all. The tough theoretical stuff will, I think, always be a bit tough, whereas the more substantive theory may get easier, especially if you read the same kinds of research over and over and overlaps  as well as differences become clearer. However, it is certainly true that you are never going to become a more confident PhD reader by reading less. So, get stuck in and may the force be with you all!