Scribble, scribble … toil and gain?

I am a scribbler. I have piles of notebooks and notepads and bits of paper in folders and scraps of files on my PC full of notes and scribbles and ideas (in various stages of being worked through). This is not really a super-efficient system, because I have too many ideas and notes in too many places, but they are somewhat thematised and organised – it’s a work in progress. The point I want to make in this post has to do with the value of the scribbles, not the filing of these (although we’ll get to that).

When you undertake something like a PhD, you envision from the beginning that final, formal, written meisterwerk you will toil and toil and toil over for at least three years of your life. You think a lot about producing all those words, and this produces a lot of anxiety and also a real feeling of anticipation. A LOT of different kinds of thinking, reading and writing have to go into producing that meisterwerk. It follows that you need different places to do these kinds of reading, thinking and writing. I keep reading and research journals, and I read and write at my desk, on the couch (often results in naps, though), and also in the car on the way to work (often on my phone), or in the garden on a sunny day. I try to make it less like a chore, although this is not always possible. I think you need to see value in doing small, informal, scribbly writing as well as more formal, ‘this goes into the thesis’ forms of writing. You need to see all of the small bits of thinking and ‘percolating’ (my friend Deb’s very apt term) that you do as moving you forward, but it can be hard to do this if you don’t keep track of all of this steady progress.

research journal inside

I think that PhD students put a lot of pressure on themselves to produce pages of formal writing that they can send to their supervisor, to indicate progress and on which to receive feedback and often tend to feel like unless the writing or reading they are doing is ending up in The Thesis, it’s not all that valuable. I’d like to challenge this. I did this to myself, especially in the beginning of my PhD. I made loads of notes, very formally, and kept trying to write chapters way before I was ready to. After I learnt to keep a research journal, I relaxed a little, and started to enjoy scribbling bits and pieces of ideas and thinking, connecting dots or creating new dots to think about. I still worried a lot about producing the formal words, but I could see that the scribbling was slowly but surely moving me forward, especially in weeks where an hour of scribbling the whole week was all I could manage. There were a lot of weeks like this, and if I had not been scribbling I would not have been doing much of anything except searching databases and saving new papers I was not getting around to reading (I’m not sure this counts as PhD work, really).

There has to be a balance between formal and informal academic work – I don’t think you can write a whole thesis in scribbles (sadly). You need to move between informal and formal forms of writing and thinking – the PhD dissertation is a very sophisticated form of academic writing and thinking, and requires a lot of its writer. But, I suppose I am arguing for more value to be placed on the informal kinds of thinking, reading and writing that you can do rather than seeing these as silly, or less worthy of your time. Without these initial and ongoing forays into the scribbles, drawings and informal ramblings, you may try to rush towards doing the formal, academic, this-goes-into-the-thesis writing before you are ready. If you do, this may well reflect in the feedback you receive, and this could end up being demotivating or really hurtful and difficult to deal with.

I think the bottom line, annoying and trite as this may well sound, is that writing and everything that goes into making writing possible is a process, and it unfolds in pieces over time, sometimes smoothly and sometimes in a very bumpy fashion. If we can try to hold onto the process and trust that the product in the form of the meisterwerk will come, we can probably find it easier to indulge the scribbling and drawing and less formal work that can push our thinking forward, can provide more creative outlets for us to do our academic work, and can make for very interesting reading when the process is at an end. So, scribble, scribble, scribble – the toil will be worth the trouble ;).

To keep, to break or to make the ‘rules’… that is a question

What are the ‘rules’ of dissertation writing? They almost certainly differ between fields. In the visual arts, for example, a dissertation would almost certainly include text as well as images, textiles, design elements of a certain shape and form. In Mathematics, a dissertation would have to include mathematical ‘language’ and forms as well as more conventional text, as arguments are made in equations as well as in other forms of writing. In the social sciences in general the ‘rules’ seem to be fairly general. But it seems broadly agreed that there should be around 80-100,000 words or text, and that there must be an introduction, a literature review, a methodology and methods chapter, findings and discussion of these, and a conclusion that could include recommendations. These were certainly the ‘rules’ as I understood them when I started out with my own PhD process. By rules, I mean ‘the agreed upon (usually quite tacit) format, style and content of a dissertation within a particular field or discipline’.

A big question for me, throughout my own doctoral journey, was about these rules, and whether I was breaking them, keeping them or making new ones as I went. There are risks associated with breaking rules – you could be misunderstood, or make your argument more convoluted and confusing through trying to create a new way of producing a dissertation, or find yourself having to do many corrections. But, I think there are also risks associated with keeping a set of rules, especially if you don’t have a clear understanding of what the rules are and why they are there. In this case you could end up producing a thesis that conforms but underneath the surface may be ‘thin’ or unsatisfying, and this lack of understanding of what you are writing and why could make it harder for you to move successfully into a research and writing career post-PhD. Further, making new rules is tough, and doesn’t often happen (not for scholars just starting out anyway). You may make small little dents in a structure you disagree with or think could be improved, but it’ll take a number of you to really start making people question whether a specific rule, process or outcome perhaps needs to be changed or updated.

I feel like I bent, rather than broke, some of the rules of dissertation writing, and the experience was mostly an anxious one, even though the creativity it allowed me to bring to my writing was exciting, and satisfying. I think visually, and my research journal is full of pictures and scribbles as well as more conventional forms of text. I like metaphors, and I use these a lot in my writing and my teaching. I had a metaphor for the argument I was making, and I was using this to think through my ‘theory chapter’, until a friend, Carol, listened to my idea and suggested that it might be a useful metaphor for the whole dissertation. The metaphor was that of an archaeological dig, and it structured the way I organised my chapters, the headings I gave to them, and what I included in them. I really loved it, but I worried that it was too creative for a PhD in Education, and that it would somehow detract from the seriousness of my argument, or be seen as flippant by my examiners. I think this is one of the more common fears, perhaps, about using a visual and creative tool like metaphor in a field that is not conventionally visual, like the fine or creative arts. In the end, none of my examiners commented on it (which was disappointing) so I needn’t have worried so much. But I still think what I did was important, for me, even if it was not noted by the people who were ultimately responsible for passing or failing my work.

We write, when we do, for others – for our readers and colleagues – but more importantly, we write for ourselves, for our own personal, emotional and intellectual growth and edification. I think when you’re doing a PhD and you’re focused so much on what your supervisor/s think and what your examiners will think and what parts you’ll be able to publish in journals and what the wider academic community in your field will think, we forget to ask ourselves what we think about what we are writing. The questions about making, breaking (bending) or keeping within the rules becomes a question then about balance – to what extent do we consider our own desires and aims as creators of our own work, and how to we balance these with what we are asked to produce for our external audience? What kinds of risks do we accept and grapple with when we choose to bend and break generally accepted rules of thesis or article writing? What if what we are doing feeds our own souls, but falls on deaf ears in terms of examiners and peer reviewers? Is that too much of a risk, and do we then tone down our creativity in order to create something more conventional and less risky? For me, this is a risk: I’ll be able to get my article published (please editors) but I may not be really happy with what I have put out these connected with my name.

Perhaps we need to make these kinds of conversations a more recognised and conscious part of PhD supervision, and academic writing for publication. Why do the ‘rules’ as we tend to know them exist and who do they serve? Can they be bent, broken and remade? Who carries the risks here, and what indeed are these risks? I don’t yet have any clear answers**, but I think these are important questions to be asking, talking about, and finding answers to as scholarly communities of practice and as PhD students and supervisors.


**A new edited collection takes on the notion of risk in doctoral writing from a range of perspectives: Thesen, L. and Cooper, L. 2013. Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, Their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Using metaphors for thinking and writing your PhD

I read a really interesting article recently by Frances Kelly on using metaphors in thesis writing, and she highlighted to kinds of metaphors: structural and conceptual. As I understand her, a structural metaphor can help you to use an image or an idea to organise and shape your thesis – to lend it an underlying narrative of sorts. A conceptual metaphor can be used as a way of thinking about what your argument and data actually mean, or the shape your methods and methodology are taking. She mentions a common PhD-related metaphor that could possibly be used both structurally and conceptually: the journey. I am sure many of you have heard this metaphor and even used it for your own thinking about your PhD process and what kind of journey is has been or is for you.

I am using a metaphor in my PhD, a structural metaphor that came to me quite early on as I was trying to work coherently with all the layers of theory and conceptualisation that are now mostly contained in chapters 2 and 3. It is the image of an archaeological dig of sorts. I have outlined 6 stages, steps or layers in the process of doing a ‘dig’ and each chapter now aligns with these. I was just using this image and idea in my theory chapter to unpack and fit the parts of theory into a whole, but a friend suggested I try using it for the whole thesis and it has worked well. This metaphor or image has, importantly, helped me to think about what I am doing and need to do at each stage in telling the story of my study, and how the parts fit together to make a whole.

Image from NBC News

Image from NBC News

In my use of this metaphor, I move from choosing the dig site and giving my reasons for the choices, to finding and setting out the right tools for the kind of dig I am doing, and to help me find the things I need to find. I then move on to do the dig with the tools, describing and reflecting on my process of digging, explaining why I did not do certain things and did do others. Then, in my two ‘analysis’ chapters, I go on to show you what I have found in the dig and what I think these artefacts mean in relation to my reasons for doing the study and my chosen framework. I conclude as I explain the significance of the findings within the area in which I chose to dig, and within the field in which I am working. I like this metaphor – I have found that it has helped me to focus and also given me a space to play and be creative while still producing a fairly normal, regulation PhD thesis. 

Like all metaphors, though, there are things it does not do and ways in which it could all fall apart and confuse people who may interpret it differently. So, if you want to try and use either a conceptual or structural metaphor in your own thesis, these would be my top tips:

1. Choose an image or idea that has resonance with your study – either with the field of study, the research questions, the methods you are using or the conceptual framework. It should not just be creative frippery, it should work on a deeper level and tie in clearly with what your study aims to achieve or say.

2. Work out very carefully how you are using the metaphor and for what end. You will need to explain its use very carefully to your reader-examiners so that they cannot misinterpret it, or tell you it makes so sense and to take it out. Try it out on your supervisor or a critical friend and see what they think.

3. Choose something that excites you or makes you feel creative – think about adding images as well as just words to describe the metaphor. A friend of mine used Alice in Wonderland’s journey down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her thesis with beautiful illustrations and it worked really well. Take your readers on your creative journey by pulling the metaphor very clearly into the places it belongs and showing your readers why they need to take it as seriously as you do.

Happy thinking, scribbling and writing, everyone!


Kelly, F. 2011. ‘Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(4): 429-438.

PhD fantasies and why you should have them


I want to introduce you to someone: this little gal in the handdrawn picture is PhDgirl. She is my alter-ego, my superhero other. She can write and think and come up with ideas and connections and put it all together like a pro. See the LBD she is wearing, and the cute shoes? The swinging red gown and the funny red hat? She is at her PhD graduation. It’s April 2014. She is thinner and more toned than I am now, having taken up Pilates and stopped eating so much chocolate. She is fabulous and clever and accomplished. She is Dr Clarence. She is the main character in my PhD fantasies.

This post is about PhD fantasies and why they can be useful, and good to nurture. They give you a goal, an endpoint in what can sometimes seem like an endless process. They give you something to focus on and push towards; a positive beacon. Maybe your fantasy is that the next time someone says ‘Is that Mrs or Miss?’ and you are a Ms, you can say “Actually, it’s Dr’. And then smile a slightly smug smile (you have earned that small bit of smugness, really). Maybe it’s being addressed as ‘Dr’ by a colleague in front of others who perhaps have not yet given you the credit you deserve and have earned. Maybe it’s that graduation ceremony, and hearing your name called out and having a lovely, and hopefully flattering, paragraph read out about your research and the contribution it has made to your field; being handed the scroll and having it framed and hanging on your wall. Maybe it’s a change in your email signature. Maybe it’s a fantasy about getting really great reports from examiners full of praise, and, if there must be corrections, constructive and helpful feedback. Maybe it’s an improbable but oh-so-fabulous verdict from examiners of ‘pass with no corrections’.

I have had all of these PhD fantasies from time to time. They can be distracting, as most fantasising can be if you let it be, and if you think about these things too much rather than actually working on the PhD that will make your fantasies a reality. But they encourage me and push me on, especially on the days when I really just want to nap instead of writing or thinking or reading. I recommend nurturing a few of your own. Keep them for rainy, gloomy days when you need a point in the future to focus on, to keep you plodding on. I also highly recommend a superhero alter-ego – he or she is there inside you anyway. Give him or her a name and channel all those super-powers when you need to push on and keep going in the face of work and tiredness and family and all of the stuff that life throws your way. Have fun with your fantasies. And don’t feel guilty about the inevitable procrastination that they will bring about – everyone needs a wander into fantasy-land every now and then.

PhDgirl over and out :-).

The value of writing just for yourself

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Writing Centre@UWC here.

I am currently working on the full draft of my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.

My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.

I found my way to a website called, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically for the most part but quite faithfully as my ‘formal’ writing has picked up in pace. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do’ list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour or so and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, using it now when I need to do some freewriting to unblock my brain, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And I have been moving forwards, even if what I was writing about in May and June on the website has not all found its way into the Thesis. I am still moving forwards – and I have indeed learned that the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.

As so many PhD students who are studying part-time and working (and some of them parenting) full-time find, time is at a premium, and if we are going to make time to work on the PhD we want that time to be as productive and useful as possible. We want to read only books and articles that we will cite, and write only words that can go into chapters. We try to make the process as linear and straightforward as we can so that we can fit it into our lives and manage it along with everything else. But too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open our own eyes to the process that is writing, and see beyond just the ‘product’ that we are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my draft in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.