What if my thesis is not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written?

I’m starting this post with a confession: I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but I wanted to. I got things wrong in my thesis, and I didn’t really push myself as hard as I could have in the analysis of my data. While I am proud of what I achieved, and (mostly) believe the positive praise I received from my three expert examiners, I am mostly convinced that I took it a little too easy on myself and could have produced an even better piece of work had I taken more time, or read more, or written more drafts or tried harder.

I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever. And I really wanted to. I wanted it to be the best thesis my examiners had ever read. I wanted them to tell me it should be a book, and that they had sent it to a colleague at Oxford University Press, who would be in touch to fall all over me with heaps of praise and a book contract. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, is I graduated. On a sunny, happy day in April with my mum, husband, kids and friends watching me and cheering me on. I received well-deserved praise from my examiners, and I made my supervisor proud.  I earned a title I finally feel comfortable with. I gained a great deal from the whole process. But, I have no book contract, no ‘this is the best thing I have ever read’ comments, no awards and accolades.

Image from lexisnexis.com

Image from lexisnexis.com

When I started out, I told everyone that I would be happy to get minor revisions and mostly complimentary comments, and that the aim was really to do the work, earn the degree, and progress in my academic career, rather than to write The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. It was kind of true. But what was also true, and something I kept to myself, was that I really did want to write the other thesis – the Most Awesome one. I really wanted to be the very best. I was a top student at school, winning academic prizes and striving to get top marks. This drive was tempered in my undergraduate years and during my early postgraduate study, when I realised I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. It was hard to be good but not the best, but I got used to it for the most part. Between my MA and PhD I took a 5-year break, so starting my PhD in 2010 I felt a little older and wiser than I had been but, oddly, this must-be-top-in-class-or-nothing-counts-for-anything drive returned.

This drive worked for and against me in certain ways. Doing a PhD part-time when you have a full-time life and job is really difficult, and most days reading, writing and thinking about the doctorate just feels like a bridge too far when your kids have school stuff on, your partner wants time with you, and there are work deadlines looming. Having the ‘I must be the best or I will be nothing’ drive can push you on when you feel you just can’t push yourself. That drive did keep me going when things got tough and I wanted to just stop and have a really long nap.

But, on the flipside having the ‘best or bust’ mentality made it hard for me to celebrate positive feedback because I focused on all the negatives and things I had missed or gotten wrong. This mentality makes it hard for me to celebrate small successes and see these as big gains, because I want all my writing and work to be the Best Ever. I don’t really want to just be okay, or even good. I want to be awesome, and I want other people to think I am too. So, I can get really bogged down in feeling like ‘my work is crap, actually, and so why should I even bother because no one will even read this paper, much less cite it?’

Is this silly? Perhaps. Am I alone here? Nope. I think anyone who has been really good at something in some part of their lives has come to like the recognition and validation that comes with being really good, or even the best. Not being really good or the best becomes harder to live with, because it means perhaps less recognition, less validation from those external people and sources. It means having to find more of that within yourself, and that self-belief is not always easy to offer yourself on a sustained basis. It helps to have others telling you that you are actually awesome, and good, and more than okay, right? But it also helps if you know that they are speaking the truth (or some version of truth) and not just being nice to you. In order to take on the recognition and validation and use it to drive you forward, you need to believe that you are actually smart, and capable, because then the praise makes sense. If you have people praising you but you really believe everything you write is crap, the praise falls on deaf ears.

Underneath all the focus on the criticism instead of the praise, and the writing paralysis that I struggle against, I do really think my work is at the very least okay, and some of it is good. Some of it might even be better than that. My thesis is good. It’s not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but the colleagues who have read it liked it, and found it helpful. That’s pretty awesome. I have a PhD, achieved through my own hard work. That’s also pretty cool. I am writing papers, and when they have been revised and polished, they will be published. Again, a win.

Image from egosquared.com.au

Image from egosquared.com.au

Being the best ever, I have realised, is a) not possible, and b) not actually a very good thing, because it’s too much pressure in the end. I’d rather work my way, paper by paper, towards better writing and more refined thinking, rather than start out with the best thing ever and then decline from there while killing myself to maintain that unrealistic standard. This is how I look at it anyway.

The PhD is a part of the foundation on which you build your scholarly career; it’s not the career in a nutshell. If you try to turn it into everything about you as a scholar that is good and worthy of validation, you may never actually be able to write it. You’ll paralyse yourself with the fear that it won’t be The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. But chances are it’ll be a good thesis. I think the thing is to really try to realise and remember that good in the world of doctoral study is actually enough, and that the goal is to lay a strong foundation for further work, rather than to encapsulate your whole academic self and career in one PhD thesis.

Advertisements

Finding what you need to read: Is it really elementary, my dear Sherlock?

One of the most unpleasant surprises, getting into writing papers based on or even largely out of my thesis, has been how much reading I still have to be doing, in spite of having done a great deal already for the actual PhD. I feel I should not be as surprised as I have been: what else is research about but reading, writing, thinking, doing, more reading, more writing, more thinking, more doing, and so on? Another surprise was also how much I still have to learn about doing useful and productive literature searches. The Thesis Whisperer has written a very helpful post about literature searching; I’m adding here to these kinds of posts with some of the tricks I am learning to master to turn myself into a literature searching ninja.

There are a couple of reasons why there is still a fair bit of reading to do when you start writing papers out of or directly based on your PhD thesis. The first is that we cannot copy and paste papers from a PhD thesis. There is a significant difference between the thesis kind of argument, and an article kind of argument. I have heard people tell fantastical tales of just ‘turning my three chapters into three papers’; now, perhaps I am just not going about it the right way, but I can’t work out how to do this and end up with three good articles I want other people to read. I am finding, with the kind of ‘big book’ monograph-type thesis I wrote, that I need to recraft parts of my larger argument into smaller, article-length arguments, largely by asking myself: ‘What is the significance or use of these findings, and who are they significant or useful to?’ Starting there, I have found my way to possible papers, all using data I generated in my PhD research, but all making arguments I kind of made in the thesis, but that were really more sub-claims or sub-arguments to the main overall argument I made. So, in order to make these smaller, sub-arguments well I now need to read a little more into research territory I have covered more broadly in the thesis, fine-tuning my reading and thinking.

This is where I use trick one (hardly new, but worth mentioning again): a ‘detective work’ search using reference lists from papers that are really spot on as clues to new searches. I recently read a fantastic new paper by a UK colleague to understand an issue I have been very fuzzy on in my writing. In it he references two further articles I then tracked down via Google Scholar and my library database. They were both incredibly helpful, and their respective reference lists have led me to further, fine-tuning reading. You do have to be a bit careful not to get endlessly lost in this detective work – there is a lot out there to potentially read on just about every subject you can think of, especially in the social sciences. Keeping your aim in the reading and searching in mind – ‘I need to map the field on issue X’, or ‘I need to understand better the connection, in my writing, between X and Y’ – can help to keep you from falling into a reading Alice in Wonderland type-rabbit hole that takes you in all sorts of new and fantastic directions that may (or may not) help your writing along. Using reference lists ‘forensically’ is a great way to join the conversation, and fine-tune your own reading.

A second reason that you are not done reading the literature in order to write PhD-based papers is that your field may have shifted and changed between the thesis reading and writing, and the paper writing. In my case, I am working with theory and conceptual frameworks that are fairly new, and there was less written about the conceptual stuff itself, and about the ways in which it has been used in research, when I was mapping this field during my PhD. Since I completed my thesis, a great deal of research drawing on the same kinds of methodological and theoretical frameworks has been published, and I need to delve into this literature in order to reference the relevant work in my own writing, and to keep abreast of developments so that I don’t repeat other research in what could be seen as plagiaristic or derivative ways. I’d like to add to the field in useful and hopefully new ways, not copy what has already been written about.

This is where I use trick two: finding out where the research in my field is mainly published and signing up for alerts or new issues of journals. In my field, there really are only about 8 major journals (at the moment) where the most relevant and useful research in relation to my own is currently being published. Of course there are many more, but these are what I would regard, based on my prior reading and searching, as peripheral journals because they either publish studies that are not necessarily relevant to my research, or because they publish this relevant research fairly infrequently. Not only does creating a ‘centre and periphery’ journal list, and then signing up for alerts or mailing lists on the ‘centre list’ help me to see when new research is published and what to be reading next, it also helps me to work out where I should be trying to publish my own articles. Most journal publishers, like Springer and Taylor & Francis, for example, have mailing lists you can join. Seeing the new research in your field as it is published can help you thus: you’ll be reading the latest research in your field; you can select articles to look up, download and read more strategically (less time going round and round on Google Scholar); you can see where this research is being published, which can lead you to the journals directly and to useful articles in their back issues perhaps; and you can work out which networks to publish in and which journals to seek out for your own writing.

Being your own Sherlock Holmes when it comes to creative literature searching, finding the right kinds of things to read, and knowing when to continue, stop or shift tacks, is an ongoing process part and parcel of being a scholar. I’m learning, as Inger Mewburn says in the post referenced above, that it is not all ‘elementary’ and these skills and practices can be taught, learned and honed over time. Making a note of what has helped other scholars, as well as your own detective tricks, can really help to turn your forays into online and library searches into more exciting and productive ventures.

Why are revisions so difficult? or Why is this *@#$ paper not finished!

It may seem, from the title of this post, that this will be an angry post, ranting about revisions and papers that are not done even though you want to be done with them. That is only partly true. There will also be insightful musings on why revisions are just so damn hard to do, and why so many of us put them off, sometimes for too long. I am writing this as pre-revisions therapy of sorts, and my hope is that it will spur me forward (and help some of you to do the same).

I have been talking, for a while now, about a paper I wrote and sent off to a journal at the beginning of the year. After four long months of waiting, the reports came in, and although one was very kind and advised only ‘minor revisions’ the other two had more serious concerns, and asked for much more substantial revisions. I was encouraged to send it back, in a much-changed form. There were some mean and snarky comments in-amongst the helpful and thoughtful advice and suggestions, and these really hurt my feelings. Quite a lot, actually. I am still smarting a little (but then I do tend to take feedback, even the good kind, way too personally). So, the first obstacle to my actually doing the revisions is what Kate Chanock has called emotional static; my hurt feelings and the emotional exhaustion I am anticipating in going back into this paper are interfering with my ability to think more rationally and intellectually about how much stronger the paper will be once I have worked through the more useful and thoughtful comments. I have always battled with this, especially the emotional exhaustion bit. During my PhD when I would get feedback from my supervisor, which was always helpful and never mean, I would open the email, download the file, and then ignore it, too fearful of the further work they would require of me. This is my emotional static, and it really gets in the way of progress in my writing at times.

But, I would eventually get over it enough to open the file, read the feedback, and realise that: a) it actually wasn’t as bad as it had become in my head; and b) the comments were mostly pointing me towards refined thinking and writing that would make the chapter that much more coherent, persuasive and clear. There certainly is some pleasure to be found in refining a piece of work to the point that you do feel more confident sending it out into the wide world for readers to (hopefully) enjoy and be interested in. But, this is also the second obstacle in my revision ‘process’ or procrastinatory mess, more accurately. I don’t feel very confident about these ideas. I believe, mostly, in what I research and write about, but I know that there is opposition to these ideas, and the theory I use, within some of the research and practice communities I am part of. So, I anticipate vociferous criticism and critique, and objections to my claims that I am not sure I will be able to defend. And then I feel squashed and doubtful, and overly anxious, and I haven’t even finished the paper or sent it out to a journal yet! It seems really silly when I write it out like this. But, I suspect I am not alone in this. My challenge, in overcoming this obstacle, is to take my own advice: I need to encourage myself, and believe that I do have something of value to offer through my research. My ideas may well be challenged, but I can actually defend them if I understand that I am not trying to ‘draw a map as big as the country’* but am rather just trying to make connected, smaller arguments that will contribute to thinking about one part of a very complex puzzle in education research. This is useful advice, I think, especially during a PhD when you know you have to just make one argument in the thesis but you really feel like 3 or 4 would be safer, just to cover all your bases and in case someone else gets in there first. One paper/one thesis: one major claim or argument (although obviously a thesis will make this argument in a much more detailed and complex way, given the word limit and purpose differences.)

Finally, my third obstacle is fear. I am afraid that, even after I do all this work (and these revisions will likely be a lot of work) the journal will still reject the paper, and this is quite a high-stakes paper for me as I need to have it accepted to count towards renewing my fellowship for 2016. I really, really don’t want to have to go back to a full-time ‘deskjob’ yet, and so the fear that they will still reject it and I will have to start again and won’t be able to count this and so won’t have my fellowship renewed is proving to be a deceptively big obstacle. I tell myself I really need to just get it done, but then I fill all my time with a hundred other things I just have to do right now or else. I did this during my PhD with chapter and draft thesis revisions too. And deadlines loom and I still carry on creating a procrastinating mess, rather than progress. I honestly cannot tell you why I do this, or how I eventually shame, goad or encourage myself into sitting down and just doing what needs to be done until it’s done. But I do – I have to, I suppose. This is, after all, the career I have chosen, and I totally get that the only person who can get this done is actually me. (No elves coming to help me in the night, sadly).

Part of the point of writing this post before I do these revisions is to get this all out there, for myself, and reflect on what is standing in my way at the moment. And part of the point is also to push myself over these obstacles, even if I feel like I am faking the confidence and lack of fear for the moment. If you are stuck in a similar spot, something like this might help you too – your obstacles may be different, but working out what they are and what resources you have to hurdle them and keep going may give you the encouraging push you need.

*with thanks to Karl Maton for this phrase, and advice.