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.



2 thoughts on “On support for PhD and research writing

  1. Natasha says:

    Thank you for this post! I agree that there needs to be more energy put into developing better pedagogies for writing a thesis and/or paper. As a current PhD student I’ve noted the distinct lack of support and the assumption that you automatically know what and how to write.

    Right now, I’m fumbling my way through learning what works for me and my process. Two things that I have found incredibly helpful are: 1) joining a “shut up and write group” (writing strategy developed by Dr Rowena Murray). This group has helped my productivity so much and has created an amazing support network with other students in the same boat. It has removed, to an extent, the isolation of academic writing and allows us to share experiences and advice. 2) A book called “The Art of Slow Writing” by Louise DeSalvo. It’s targeted toward people writing fiction, however all of the techniques and suggestions are applicable to academic writing as well. This book has made me realise that everyone has their own process, and that it is okay to not understand a problem with your narrative straight away. It’s taken a lot of the pressure off getting things “right” the first time around, especially in terms of expressing an argument.

    I hope this post means that you’ll be doing some research in this area?

    • sherranclarence says:

      Hi Natasha. Thanks so much for your comment and feedback. Writing groups are so helpful – even if no one talks, feeding off the energy of other writers working away at their own projects can be energising and encouraging, and much less lonely as you say. I will have a look for that book too. Two of things I find helpful: in terms of making time to write, to use the pomodoro technique (you can look this up online – loads of information about what it is and how it works), and in terms of keeping my thinking going, to use research journals which creates a different writing and thinking space that feeds into the more formal writing for publication.

      I hadn’t yet thought about researching this, but maybe I should… 🙂

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