Spinning the ‘golden thread’ that can sew your PhD together

When I was doing my PhD, someone at some stage asked me (probably in response to my ramblings about what my PhD was about): ‘what is your “golden thread”?’ This stumped me. My what? I hadn’t really heard that term before, although my supervisor has talked about it since, as have other colleagues who all supervise students – it seems to be a fairly common notion then, this notion of a ‘golden thread’ with which you can ‘sew’ your PhD thesis together. But what, indeed, is a golden thread, where do you get one, and how do you work out how to sew your PhD together?

To begin with what it is: the golden thread is, for want of a better explanation, the central argument that pulls through your whole thesis, and creates coherence across the literature review, the research questions, the theoretical and conceptual framework, the methodology, and finally the analysis and organisation of the data and the conclusions you are able to draw (on the basis of that argument you set out to make). It sounds quite straightforward when it is put like this, but in my experience (and in the experience of many other PhD students) it is really difficult to find and hold onto over the long course of researching and writing a PhD thesis. Another way of thinking about it would be to keep reminding yourself about what the point of your PhD is. What is it actually about – what are you trying to say here? A friend of mine types her main research question into the header of each page she works on in each of her chapters, so that she is not tempted to go off track in her writing and thinking; another friend wrote a haiku about the main point her PhD was making, and stuck it in a place she could see it when she was writing; another wrote her research questions on several sticky notes and put them above her desk at work and her desk at home, so that she had them in front of her whenever she was working on the thesis. I kept a fairly faithful research journal, and re-read it often, to remind myself what I was actually making my argument about.

So, how do you get one? Sadly, you cannot go to PhDarguments.com and order one; you have to make or build one, and this takes time and is really challenging. I think of it a bit like Rumpelstiltskin turning all the straw into golden thread (except without all the creepiness). What you have when you start a PhD is straw – ideas, concepts, theory, methods, questions, literature you have read – and you have to pull the right pieces of straw together to make a strong, shiny length of golden thread that you can then use to sew a beautifully coherent and persuasive PhD thesis. Like theoretical frameworks, analytical frameworks, literature reviews, an argument is built part by part and always in relation to the main question it is being made to answer. There are key parts of the thesis that you need to put into place as you go to help you create strong and coherent sub-arguments that build towards the overall, central argument your PhD will make.

You need to scope your field well, and find a gap into which your research could fit – this helps you to start asking more refined questions, which can turn into research questions. You need to move from this reading into tougher theoretical and conceptual territory – you need to find your theoryology, and with it, further refinement and focus of your research questions. You need then to consider how you will answer these questions: what data will you need? How will you find it? What will you do with it in order to make sense out of it, and select what is relevant to analyse in relation to your research questions? Then you need to further consider the research questions you are trying to answer as you connect the theory with the data in the process of analysing it, and using it to tell the story that answers your questions, and explains why both the questions and the answers are important to your readers, and your research community or field. Following a logical and coherent process, and pulling each part of the process through with you into the subsequent stage or part of the process, really helps. In other words, don’t leave all your theory and research questions behind when you plan out your methodology and generate your data. Don’t forget the scoping of the field you have done, the research questions you are asking, and your theoretical framework and conceptual tools when you organise and begin to analyse that data in order to build your strong, shiny argument.

Image from uklpf.co.uk

Image from uklpf.co.uk

The argument, in the end, is the thing with the PhD. You cannot have your readers get to the end of it wondering: ‘So what? Why did I just read all of that? What was the point?’ The golden thread is just that: the answer to the ‘so what’ question; the point of the research; the central argument you have made on the basis of the research you have done. Without it you don’t have a PhD thesis; you have parts of a whole that has not been realised or pulled together. In order to sew those parts into something that represents what Trafford and Leshem have termed ‘doctorateness’, you need to channel Rumpelstiltskin, and start turning all your straw into your own golden thread, so that you can sew the parts of your research into a coherent, persuasive, strong PhD thesis.

‘Retrofitting’ your PhD: when you get your data before your theory

I gave a workshop recently to two different groups of students at the same university on building a theoretical framework for a PhD. The two groups of students comprised scholars at very different points in their PhDs, some just starting to think about theory, some sitting with data and trying to get the theory to talk to the data, and others trying to rethink the theory after having analysed their data. One interesting question emerged: what if you have your data before you really have a theoretical framework in place? How do you build a theoretical framework in that case?

I started my PhD with theory, and spent a year working out what my ‘gaze’ was. I believed, and was told, that this was the best way to go about it: to get my gaze and then get my data. In my field, and with my study, this really seemed like the only way to progress. All I had starting out was my own anecdotal issues, problems and questions I wanted answers to, and I needed to try and understand not just what the rest of my field had already done to try and find answers, but what I could do to find my own answers. I needed to have a sense of what kinds of research were possible and what these might entail. I had no idea what data to generate or what to do with it, and could not have started there with my PhD. So I moved from reading the field, to reading the theory, to building an internal language of description, to generating data, to organising and analysing it using the theory to guide me, to reaching conclusions that spoke back to the theory and the field – a closed circle if you will. This seems, to me certainly, the most logical way to do a PhD.

But, I have colleagues and friends who haven’t necessarily followed this path. In their line of work, they have had opportunities to amass small mountains of data: interview transcripts, documents, observation field notes, student essays, exam transcripts and so forth. They have gathered and collected all of these data, and have then tried to find a PhD in the midst of all of it. They are, in other words, trying to ‘retrofit’ a PhD by looking to the data to suggest a question or questions and through these, a path towards a theoryology.

Many people start their doctoral study in my field – education studies – to find answers to very practical or practice-based questions. Like: ‘What kinds of teaching practice would better enable students to learn cumulatively?’ (a version of my own research question) Or: ‘What kinds of feedback practices better enable students to grow as writers in the Sciences?’ And so on. If you are working as a lecturer, facilitator, tutor, writing-respondent, staff advisor or similar, you may have many opportunities to generate or gather data: workshop inputs, feedback questionnaires, your own field notes and reports, student essays and exam submissions, and so on. After a while, you may look at this mountain of data and wonder: ‘Could there be a thesis in all of this? Maybe I need to start thinking about making some order and sense out of all of this’. You may then register for a PhD, searching for and finding a research question in your data, and then begin the process of retrofitting your PhD with substantive theory and a theoryology to help you work back again towards the data so as to tell its story in a coherent way that adds something to your field’s understanding or knowledge of the issues you are concerned with.

The question that emerged in these workshops was: ‘Can you create a theoretical framework if you have worked so far like this, and if so, how?’ I think the answer must be ‘yes’, but the how is the challenging thing. How do you ask your data the right kinds of questions? A good starting point might be to map out your data in some kind of order. Create mind-maps or visual pictures of what data you have and what interests you in that data. Do a basic thematic analysis – what keeps coming up or emerging for you that is a ‘conceptual itch’ or something you really feel you want or need to answer or explore further? Follow this ‘itch’ – can you formulate a question that could be honed into a research question? Once you have a basic research question, you can then move towards reading: what research is being or has been done on this one issue that you have pulled from your data? What methodologies and what theory are the authors doing this research using? What tools have they found helpful? Then, much as you would in a more ‘traditional’ way, you can begin to move from more substantive research and theory towards an ontological or more meta-theoretical level that will enable you to build a holding structure and fit lenses to your theory glasses, such that you have a way of looking at your data and questions that will enable you to see possible answers.

Then you can go back to your data, with a fresh pair of eyes using their theory glasses and re-look at your data, finding perhaps things you expect to see, but also hopefully being surprised and seeing new things that you missed or overlooked before you had the additional dimension or gaze offered by your theoretical or conceptual framing. But working in this ‘retrofitted’ way is potentially tricky: if you have been looking and looking at this data without a firm(ish) theoretically-informed or shaped gaze, can you be surprised by it? Can you approach your research with the curious, tentative ‘I don’t know the answers, but let’s explore this issue to find out’ kind of attitude that a PhD requires? I think, if you do decide to do or are doing a PhD in what I would regard as a middle-to-front sort of way, with data at the middle, then you need to be aware of your own already-established ideas of what is or isn’t ‘real’ or ‘true’, and your own biases informed by your own experience and immersion in your field and your data. You may need to work harder at pulling yourself back, so that you can look at your data afresh, and consider things you may be been blind to, or overlooked before; so that you can create a useful and illuminating conversation between your data and your theory that contributes something to your field.

Retrofitting a PhD is not impossible – there is usually more than one path to take in reaching a goal (especially if you are a social scientist!) – but I would posit that this way has challenges that need to be carefully considered, not least in terms of the extra time the PhD may take, and the additional need to create critical distance from data and ‘findings’ you may already be very attached to.

Finding your way back into your research

I had a long conversation with a dear friend of mine recently about her PhD, with which she is struggling at present. In truth, she has been struggling for a while, and one of the main reasons for this is that she has fallen out of and with it. She is no longer interested in her research topic, and while she has generated rich and interesting data that give her several viable PhD questions to answer, she is battling to find one that will help her find her way back in so that she can press on and complete her doctorate. How can she find her way back in, given that she has been outside of her PhD for a while, and feels an enmity towards it, rather than a feeling of kinship with or interest in it? How can any of us find our way back in to research or projects or papers when we have fallen out with or of them and can’t seem to locate a door or a window to climb back through?

I have, myself, been on the outs with my writing recently. I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a while, not for a lack of ideas, but more because of a kind of ‘Meh’ that has settled over me. I want to be enthusiastic about it, about the paper I have to write before 1 June, about the conference paper due mid-June, about the book proposal I want to write, about the book I am editing with a colleague as we speak, but I am just not. I am on the outs with all of the thinking and writing I have to do. Why, you ask? Well, therein lies the rub: I don’t know exactly. All of these projects are ones I have chosen to take on, and are interesting. They will stimulate and challenge me, and they will all look very impressive on future job applications as well as on the application to renew my postdoc for another year. I not only need to do them, I do want to. In theory. This is a lot like being on the outs with a PhD. My friend, me, you, others – we have chosen to do a PhD, either because we need to or want to or both. But, just because we choose something doesn’t mean that we are always going to be interested in it, or stimulated by it, or excited about doing it.

So, I am asking myself why I have fallen out with all these chosen projects. Am I tired? Perhaps, although given that I no longer have a majorly demanding full-time job which requires me to dress up and leave my house everyday to drive 45 minutes each way, I feel a bit silly being tired. Am I bored? Maybe. I don’t think so. I am still pretty interested in my research, although I could certainly do with some more updated data (all sitting on a flashdrive waiting to be captured and coded). I’m not bored enough to give it all up. Am I just not up to it? No. I am. Really. I think. No, I am. So, what, then? Why am I struggling to find my way back into all of these postdoc projects, just as my friend (and many like her) are struggling to find their way back into their PhDs? Are we tired, bored, not good enough? Have we chosen the wrong project for the right reasons, or the right project for the wrong reasons?

I don’t know the answers to these questions for anyone other than me. But I think finding them and then taking action might be a step towards finding my way back in. If I am tired, then I need to create some space to allow myself a break here and there, so that I do actually feel like I am getting a break from the demands of the writing and thinking. Perhaps, if you are tired, this is something you could do. Not necessarily a physical trip, but maybe more of a mental break, where you can give your brain a rest from obsessing about the PhD or the project you are working on. Mental vacations, where you read slightly (or very) trashy fiction for a week, or pig out on a box set of your favourite series instead of slogging away at your desk every evening, can be just what you need to give your brain a break.

If I am bored, then I need to look at what is boring me and see if I can change or eliminate it. It’s easier to abandon a boring paper than a PhD thesis, but perhaps I could approach it from a new angle, or bring in different data or a slightly modified theoretical framework, or new literature to give the paper new life, and engage my brain differently. Perhaps, if you are bored as my lovely friend is, you could map out as she has done what you have done and what you do know about your topic, and possible trajectories to follow in terms of following all the ideas through. Some may not be as viable as they seem, and some may be much more interesting or possible given your logistical constraints than others. A creative process of elimination and critical reflection with a friend, peer or supervisor (or all three) may be enough to help you work out what you are bored with, and work out how to either make changes or eliminate the boredom from your project so you can get back in and move forward.

If I am not good enough? Well, I don’t know what to do about that. I think I am. I think most people doing a PhD or a postdoc are, but often it’s not enough for others to think this. I have to, you have to, believe it too. Here, I think my solution is to just do the work, small bit by small bit (like this post), telling myself over and over that I am up to it, and that all I have to do is start. As a poster I read recently says: ‘Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try’. So, if you are on the outs with your PhD in whole or part, or with a writing project that is just stuck, ask yourself what it is that is creating the falling out, and see if you can’t at least try to make some changes that will get you moving again in a more positive and productive direction.