Plotting a paper out of the PhD

I am currently trying to write a second paper based on my PhD research. This is presenting me with two challenges: the first is that I don’t really want to write anything more about the PhD research, and the other is working out how to successfully slice one paper out of such a massive piece of thinking and writing.

To start with challenge one: being, by now, a bit ‘over’ the PhD. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how unproductive last year – post-PhD year 1 – was in terms of writing and sending off papers developed out of my PhD research. In the midst of the year full of work, kids, work, life and more work there seemed to be space to think, and scribble, but no space for the kind of sustained and focused thinking, reading and writing required to produce a solid journal article, or two. That is, I didn’t make any space, largely because that space was constrained in so many ways, and I just didn’t have emotional or mental reserves to draw on after a very intense three-year PhD period. So, the unproductiveness was a time and space thing, for sure. But now that I have time, and space, I am finding that part of the unproductiveness is that writing papers that slice up my big PhD argument into smaller pieces is somewhat unappealing to me. I have already written about all of that, in the thesis. I want to write about new things now – newer insights that have continued to emerge from that research, post-PhD. My supervisor said to me last year that I think I have actually told everyone about my research and its value, but I have not really done so because I have not written it up and sent it to journals, and that work is worth doing as a starting point for writing and thinking about the newer ideas, insights, research, and applications of the theory in my work. She is right about this. But it doesn’t make writing these papers feel more valuable, or more engaging. Do I just plod on and write the damn things, or do I choose a different path here?

This brings me to my second challenge: if I decide to plod on and write the damn things, what do I write about? There are sub-sets of data within the larger set that I can think about focusing in on, to make smaller, simpler arguments that can be made in 6000 words. The theory is now clear enough to me that I can see how to reshape it into just what I need to make one or two separate arguments with smaller sub-sets of data. I can see, basically, at least one or two more papers that I could write. But, in writing the first paper, which I did earlier this year, I found that while it started with my PhD data and theoretical framework, the argument I made was not one I made explicitly in my PhD. The argument was one I made in my feedback to one of the departments I worked with to generate the data – a smaller argument made to illustrate the usefulness of my approach to researching teaching and learning in relation to their departmental (and the university’s) teaching and learning priorities and goals. Thus, the paper was kind of drawn out of the PhD and kind of new. So, while I can see theory, data and even literature I drew on in the PhD as being helpful to me in writing papers, I can’t actually see myself slicing up my PhD argument as successfully: what feels more authentic and less forced is using the theory, methodology, data and some of the relevant literature to make re-tooled and updated arguments that more usefully illustrate to a wider audience the potential value of my research. Therefore, I plod on, but not to just write something, anything, from the PhD. I want to use it as a springboard to make different kinds of arguments that I couldn’t necessarily make in the PhD because, perhaps, they were too small and too focused in, and not ‘big’ enough.

Maybe I am not going about this the ‘right’ way if there even is a right way to publish out of your PhD thesis, particularly the ‘big-book’ kind I wrote. But I am finding that the logics that underpin writing a thesis, and the logics that underpin writing a journal article are quite different, particularly in terms of what counts as making an argument and why you do it. When we publish, we do so to share our research with our peers, to build on research already out there in our field, to challenge that research perhaps, and to offer new ideas, perspectives, methodologies and so on. The arguments we make need to be smaller and tend to develop over time, through several papers and research projects that may well be aligned or cumulative. When we write a PhD thesis we are not doing so with sharing the whole thesis with a large audience in mind. We are, really, writing a very big exam paper because the PhD thesis is something we write to gain a qualification, a title, different status in the academy. We write it to prove that we are capable of doing the kind of research we will then go on to write about in all the papers, chapters, books, articles and so on that we will write over the course of a fairly typical academic career. The argument we make is not big, but there is no sense that we will be writing more than one thesis, so the larger argument tends to be broader in nature than all the smaller sub-arguments that can be implied or subsumed within it. I am finding that it is these sub-arguments – some made in the thesis but several left unmade but hinted at – that I am more able to write about coming out of the PhD. They fit the logic of writing for publication more easily, and these papers, while still a slog not least because I have to add more reading to the already long PhD reading list, feel more authentic, less forced, and more like valuable contributions to my field.

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