What if I’ve got it all wrong?

Readers of my blog will know that I have finished my PhD, and am now working on postdoctoral research, and the seemingly endless process of trying to write, receive feedback, revise and (please universe) publish my research. So, I am not in the middle of the chaos and confusion that can often be so much a part of working on a PhD thesis. But, I am in a different kind of chaos, trying to work out what research I really want to do now, trying to find new questions to ask and find answers to in higher education that will make my research relevant, and useful, and trying to work out which theoretical and methodological tools and frameworks will help me do all of this.

I am currently at my alma mater for a week of research meetings, workshops and seminars centred around doctoral support for PhD scholars in the programme that I was part of while doing my PhD. Today, I spent the afternoon listening to a researcher I am going to now be working with, and whose work I have found very useful, talking about theory and how to use theory in educational research. I love and hate seminars like this one in equal measure: I love them because they always offer me new ways of thinking about my own work, and what I am doing with the theory and data I am using; I hate them because they always make me wonder whether what I have been doing up to this point is actually all wrong.

One of the things I heard early on in my PhD process, and fairly often, was that I couldn’t just buy into my theory wholesale; I needed to retain some kind of critical distance. I needed to be able to see what it offered my study, and defend that, but also see possible occlusions in what I could see with it, or blindspots to be aware of. I must confess that I did, and still do, find this difficult, and unsettling. During my PhD it felt impossible to do this because I really needed the theory to be right about the world. I needed it to be robust, and strong and able to just help me answer my research questions and get to the end so I could graduate. I was afraid to be too critical, and then find holes, and then be unable to live with the holes and then feel like I was wrong and would have to start again. I didn’t, in the words of a wise therapist I once consulted, know how to hold the ambivalence – to be right and maybe also wrong at the same time, and work through that.

This ambivalence – where I like the theory I use because it makes sense in relation to the questions I am asking and the work I am trying to do, but where I also see now how other kinds of theory could complement or even replace it in certain ways – is still hard to hold. I have rather bought into the theory I use, and I really do like both it, and the community of scholars I am now part of because we all have this theory in common. It’s useful, and relevant. BUT, the danger, I feel, is that I am still not always able to see possible occlusions and blindspots, and some of these have been pointed out to me by peer reviewers of papers I have written. These comments are helpful, but also invoke great anxiety: what if I still have it all wrong?

I had a conversation with the researcher who spoke this afternoon, after the seminar, and it was heartening to be listened to and taken seriously (I hope). But it made me feel so young, in career terms, and so naive about some of the work I am doing, and I wondered, driving home, whether I am actually reading enough, or thinking enough, or thinking about the right kinds of things. I know this is what I’ve signed up for, and I can see how far I have come and how much I have learned, and that I am always going to have things to learn and a distance to travel in my thinking and writing. But, man it’s exhausting. All this writing, all this thinking, all this reading, all the seminars and workshops and scribbles and peer reviews – it just goes on and on and on. When you have a day where you learn useful things, but also stop and wonder, quite seriously, if what you have just learned calls into question theory and methods which you have invested much time and energy in learning about and using, it can just feel flattening.

I know, rationally, that my research is probably okay. Good, even. I know that I am driven, as I think we all should be, by the problems I am working to find solutions to in my context, and by the questions I am asking that I really want to answer, and that if I am finding theory that helps me work in this way and is relevant, that’s fine. I know that I have learned enough to be more comfortable than I was two years ago, with being wrong. I can hold, for some of the time anyway, a kind of ambivalence without wanting to rush too quickly to a resolution that does away with doubt or confusion. But, tonight, I am tired. Tonight, I just want my theory and methods to be right, and I don’t want to wonder if I have it all wrong. Tonight, I want my research to change the world just as it is, without peer review pointing out all the things I have not seen or thought about yet, and need to look at and think about next.

There’s no moral here: just a recognition that it’s really normal to feel like you have no idea what you are doing. It’s really normal to be close to finishing a PhD, or even to have one, and still wonder if you’ve got it all wrong. I think that if you never wonder if you’ve got it all wrong, you never get to push yourself to work out whether indeed this is the case. Research is not really about proving your assumptions right. Research is about trying to find out whether you have the right assumptions to begin with, and where you do have blindspots and where where you might have got it wrong, or at least less right, so that you can keep pushing yourself to do the kind of thinking and writing work that makes your research relevant, useful and transformative in your context. To adapt a well-known phrase: a pesquisa continua*!

*The research continues (Portuguese)