On support for PhD and research writing

I have been reading several articles and blog posts recently about research writing, PhD writing, and the need for more focused and well-thought out pedagogies and support for research and doctoral writing (as opposed to what mostly happens, which is ad hoc, often managed by a ‘support unit’ like a writing or learning centre, or non-existent because it is assumed if you are a researcher/postgrad you should already know how to write research papers or dissertations). As a new supervisor, I have been thinking a great deal about how to work writing support and advice into the supervision conversations, rather than just leaving this all to my student to work out for herself or find elsewhere. This post reflects on the kind of work academic writing is, and my initial thoughts on how we need to change the way we approach writing development and support in academia.

As someone who used to manage a university writing centre, and ran many workshops with both postgraduate and undergraduate students, and as a researcher-writer myself, I can attest to the fact that not knowing how to write in a new or specific genre, like a research paper or thesis, is not a mark of failure or even necessarily of inability. Often, even the ‘best’ or brightest students battle to work out how to write, think and read effectively in new and unfamiliar genres, or when they move up to a more demanding level of study that requires a different kind of academic literacy practice. Research suggests that we cannot ‘frontload’ academic literacy support at undergraduate level, and then expect that at every stage after that students will automatically be able to work effectively, and learn what they need to without explicit guidance from their supervisors/lecturers/teachers. As the literacy demands change, so too do a student’s strategies and skill levels need to change and develop, and so the guidance, instruction and advice around writing that they are given needs to keep pace with these changes.

I have read, recently, about the need for more writing courses for doctoral students – optional and compulsory – and the need for more writing spaces on campuses that serve postgraduate students, and the need for a recognition that just because you got accepted into a postgraduate programme, doesn’t mean you will just know how to write effectively at this new level, and in these new forms. So much frustration, disenchantment, anxiety, and harm could be avoided if universities, postgraduate support divisions, and supervisors really realised that being bright and capable does not automatically equate to being an amazingly efficient and polished writer, and that supervision of a postgraduate student ideally needs to encompass explicit conversations about the writing itself, and how it is (or is not) progressing. If the thing that gets a PhD finished is actually writing it, then the management and doing of the writing itself has to be a more central and recognised focus in supervision.

Supervisors need to be supported, as well, as they work more closely with their students around the actual business of writing the thesis, as we can’t assume that all supervisors can simply be writing advisors. We all have our own struggles with writing, whether we are at the beginning of, or more advanced in, our academic careers. Perhaps, as supervisors/advisors who are often held up as ‘capable experts’, we need to be able to confess to our own struggles and writing blocks, and share these as a way of lessening the power divide between supervisor and student, and as a way of opening up conversations all academics could benefit from that expose this truth: writing is (damn) hard work. These conversations, between colleagues, and between students, could help us share strategies, tools, struggles, triumphs and steps forward more openly, and with less fear of being exposed as frauds. Rather than starting from the point of assuming that all postgraduate students and researchers are capable writers, why don’t we start from assuming that writing (especially when it needs to fit into the rest of our busy lives) is actually quite challenging, even if we love doing it, and that everyone at whatever level they are working at, can benefit from support, advice, constructive feedback, and useful resources to draw on?

If we start from this assumption, we start disrupting the notion that, if you have reached an advanced level of study, like a postgraduate degree or a post-doctoral career, you no longer need help with your writing, and that if you do then maybe you’re in the wrong career. That’s just nonsense. All writers need feedback, and all writers get stuck, and lost and feel like frauds at some point. All postgraduate students and academics can benefit from more open, constructive conversations that recognise that writing an extended piece of academic work like a thesis, or a journal article, is seldom as simple as just shutting up and writing it. When we can not only be kind to ourselves as we seek help, but also offer this kindness and help to others around us, we can start to create higher education spaces for postgraduate students and career academics that make writing a truly collaborative, engaging, creative and less awful and lonely thing to do for a living.


On my first proper post-doc year, and planning for the next

This was supposed to be my final post for 2015, but I decided to give my brain a longer rest that usual at the end of a hectic November, and then suddenly 2015 was over. Thus, it is my first post for 2016, instead.

I’ve been re-reading the last post I published in 2014 – reflections on my first proper post-doc year. It was interesting to read my thoughts on what the year had been like, and what lessons I had hoped to take into the year that has just come to a close. Did I learn them? A few, perhaps – sadly, some of these lessons I am still learning. This post reflects on my first year of a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and what I am still learning about becoming an academic researcher and writer (and what I still probably need to learn in 2016, and beyond).

I started 2015 as I am starting 2016, with many ambitious plans and some deadlines in place while others are more nebulous. I am starting with energy, and excitement about what is ahead, and also trepidation and nerves about workshops I need to organise and people I will have to work with that I do not know well (yet). So I’m keen to get going, and quite happy to get back into bed all at the same time :-). I do hope this is normal – the ambivalence about knowing what work I need to be doing, being excited about it doing it, and also dreading having to do at least some of it.

From marsyberon.com

From marsyberon.com

One lesson I had hoped to learn, and suspect I will spend the rest of my life learning, is to be more realistic and focused in planning my projects. There are two parts to this: one is about carrying over or finishing off projects, and the other is about how many to actually plan for in any given year. I carried over a few projects into 2015 from 2014 that I just ran out of time to get to, so the carry over was not planned and I started the year feeling a little like I was on the back foot. This was frustrating. To try and learn a lesson here and start 2016 on a better footing, I planned my carry overs more consciously. I am working on a paper due at the end of the month, and one due next month, so I am carrying these. I am also halfway through a two-year research project that forms the basis of my post-doc fellowship, so obviously I am carrying this too. But here is what I feel I am finally learning: to plan 6 months ahead with writing projects, and to be a little more realistic about how long it actually takes to research and write a good paper (nevermind the reviewing period). If you plan at least 6 months ahead, you can avoid unexpected carry overs that can drag on into the new year and set you back on your planned-for progress.

The second part of this is more tricky. I find I am finally getting ready to move on from my PhD research to expand into a longer-term research plan that will stretch me, and require new fieldwork, new theory and hopefully new research partners. So, I have many, many ideas for this research, and for papers and also a book that I really want to write. I have, really, too many ideas. I know that I can’t, and don’t have to, write them all in the next two years. But I want to. I want to write, like, 3 papers a month, and a book by December, and generate new data and code and organise all that data, and go to conferences and have a life. I know, right? It’s madness. I really battle to be properly realistic about what I want to do, what I need to do and what I actually can do. I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I am trying to plan for the year on three levels: from now until March; from now until June, and from now until December. I hope this planning will help to curb my madcap plans to do all the papers and research now.

To help with part two a little more practically, I took my own advice in 2015, and made a work plan that I checked in with periodically and updated. It helped that I was required to write a narrative of my progress for each quarter as part of my fellowship admin, because these formed the basis of regular check-ins which encouraged me when I felt like I was making no real progress, and also helped me to plan for the coming quarter a little more realistically in terms of the time available to me and how much I had managed to do in the previous quarter with the same amount of time. This practice will be part of my research programme for this year, but is something I’ll take forward after the post-doc. I also keep a running log of the whole year, and to this I am adding a mid-level that covers just 6 months, so that I really can stay on track with myself and my plans. This is also important considering that I am working with other authors  and lecturers this year, and we all need to stay on the same page in terms of goals and timelines.

Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong; the best laid plans of researchers and writers are subject to the same. Planning is, I am learning, important; realistic, focused planning that involves accountability and regular updates as life happens around and to you, is everything if you want to stay on the course you have set, and achieve the goals, papers, and satisfaction you have in mind. I wish us all a productive, successful and well-planned 2016!