Starting PhD writing: what on earth is there to worry about?

WP_20170105_10_34_42_Pro[1]This blog has had a long holiday – longer than I originally intended. But now it’s that time of year when many people (at least in the UK) are beginning brand-new PhD projects. So, it’s also the right time to start thinking about the nature of the task ahead and I’d like to join the debate once again.

Last year, I asked a group of about 30 students starting their PhD journey what concerned them most. You can find the interesting mix of answers that they gave me by clicking these links. You can decide whether you agree or disagree.

General worries

Worries related to reading

Worries related to writing

A question that I perhaps need to ask myself concerning the start of my own PhD project is not just “What did I worry about?” but more importantly “What should I have been worrying about?”  I have to rely on memories from over 20 years ago, but some of these have remained surprisingly vivid. This is my own (short) list of worries at that time:

  1. I will run out of ideas (the greatest fear of all)
  2. I will run out of reading material (more easily achieved in the pre-digital era)
  3. I will run out of time (everyone does)
  4. I will run out of money (inevitably – and so it came to pass)

In retrospect, what should have bothered me most? This is a difficult question to answer, but with the wisdom of hindsight very different aspects of my research project emerge.

First, I deeply regret not keeping better records. By records, I mean copies and draft versions of absolutely everything that I read or that I wrote. Every annotated photocopy, every memo to myself, every exclamation or question mark added to texts. There is a good reason for this which I can now fully appreciate. I should have worried much more about developing an effective record-keeping system – one that would allow me 2 months or even 20 years later to access the different phases of my thinking. Why is this so important?

The only certainty related to PhD reading writing is that our way of thinking is bound to change over time. Three or four years is a significant chunk of a lifespan. So why didn’t I realize this and ensure (for example) that I kept a copy of the brilliant writing journal that I kept for nearly two years? It didn’t seem brilliant at the time, but now I have no way of explaining to myself why I suddenly decided to cut a complete chapter from my draft thesis or why I radically changed my approach to data reporting. I would like to read my journal again to discover why I made certain choices and decisions but, sadly, it has gone forever.

Second, I worried too much about my preconceived questions and the hypotheses that accompanied them. I knew quite rightly that I couldn’t afford to spend years reading all of the literature and had to narrow the focus of my research. But I chose my preferred route too quickly. When I re-visit the transcripts of interviews related to my research produced in 1997, I can appreciate how carefully I highlighted what I wanted to see, namely the answers to the questions that I had set. There is nothing wrong with being focused or being clear. But there was so much else there, including the answers to questions that I hadn’t even begun to formulate. I worried about ‘getting it right’ and as a result the different voices of my respondents remained (at least partially) unheard.

Third, I was distracted and excessively worried by other people’s deadlines. There is no way of avoiding this: in fact all the evidence seems to indicate that an obsession with deadlines is an ever-increasing phenomemon in an age of league tables for PhD completion rates. However, deadlines should be there to help writers by providing useful milestones in what is a relatively unstructured exercise. My problem is that I worried exclusively about meeting each deadline and I was then happy to move on to the next one.

The danger here is in moving on too quickly. Each piece of work submitted and each presentation was followed by a mix of oral and written feedback. I worried about meeting the deadline, but perhaps I should have worried more about the outcome of the whole exercise. Did I really spend the time that I should have done reflecting on supervisor and peer feedback, trying to understand it and considering how to respond to it? In some cases, I probably did: in others, I was too concerned about the next deadline and the one after that. Feedback and responding to feedback need to be carefully integrated into the planning of writing. I understand that now, but it wasn’t a source of worry  at the time.

The moral of the story: respect deadlines and always take them seriously. But if you find that they are dominating your research writing and your whole life, then it’s time to pause for reflection rather than continuing the race against the clock. To be continued …

10th October 2017.




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