Tag Archives: Writing the PhD

The PhD as a … 3D Stereogram

In search of my research metaphor

PhDs, thesis writing, research, scoping the literatures – I’ve heard these processes likened to ‘journeys’ or ‘giving birth’. I imagine that this is because they take a long time, you don’t know what’s going to happen along the way, and the final push/destination could yield unimaginable joy or utter disappointment and exhaustion.

Neither metaphor works for me.

The PhD as a journey doesn’t quite work for the reasons given by Thomson and Kamler in their really relevant book Detox your Writing. For example, the idea that a journey is a quest that comes to an end and leads to a ‘treasure’ (page 41) is misleading as far as a thesis is concerned, at least for me. Not that I am near my destination yet, but I am close enough to imagine the end, and right now, it feels like when I do get there, there will be lots more travelling and lugging around of heavy baggage. But yes. A little rest at the end is hopefully there, too.

As for giving birth, well, no. Having done that, I can guarantee that this feels nothing like being pregnant or giving birth, in any sense or at any stage in the process, from conception to delivery. A PhD also takes longer than 9 months, for starters.

Kamler and Thomson offer other metaphors, such as doing research is like having ‘lunch with friends’ (page 42) or ‘making a table’ (page 43). The ‘lunch with friends’ conjures up the idea that you are in control, you decide who to cite, critique, group together, take a stand against. That might work in thinking about the choices needed to build a literature review. The ‘making a table’ is about not re-inventing the wheel. Others have made tables before you, so you can draw on that expertise. But you have agency in the shape, colour, size and purpose of the table/argument you are making.

Having 5 years of part-time research behind me, I am now trying to cohere what I have and decide how to fill in the missing bits. This still involves an awful lot of seeing too many trees and very little of the wood. Exactly what I am saying and what I eventually want to say – my take home message, my ‘So what ….? (page 88) – keeps going in and out of focus.


You don’t expect to see something stand out, so seeing the 3D object for the first time can be surprising

So, I’ve come up with my own metaphor for this particular stage of writing the PhD: the 3-D stereogram. If you look at the picture superficially, you see a lot of minute detail, a few recognisable shapes, but certainly not ‘the point’ or the ‘main focus’ of the picture.

To see ‘the point’ or ‘the main focus’ you need to do one or both of the following:

  • hold the image close without trying to focus on it. Then step back slowly keeping your eyes relaxed. The ‘point’ should jump out at you;
  • stand about an arm’s length away from the image and focus on something behind it. Shift your field of vision to the picture without shifting your focus. You should now see the ‘point’.

Some see the picture very quickly, others take time to see it. Some never will. It is difficult to see it, but with patience and practice, it can be seen. There may also be other ways to finally visualise it.





Reading, writer’s block, and creativity

I need to write a another PhD chapter, but I can’t, and the reason I can’t isn’t being resolved by the copious sensible options offered by Pat Thomson, or any other experienced academic writers.


A Cornucopia

Since I have been here before, and become unstuck, I am not too worried (just a bit), and since I am bursting to write, I’ve resorted to my bloggy cornucopia for release.

Prompted today by a more recent Patter post, by a lovely colleague who tweeted how lonely he felt in writing his dissertation, by the seriously unbearable building work going on outside my study window, and by having tried all day to stop reading and start writing my own thesis, I have finally given up, accepted that, once again, ‘today is not the day’, and resolved to write tomorrow (as I have done for the past month).

Last week, I met with one of my two very ‘generous’ supervisors (in the sense that I feel they either over-indulge me or have too much faith in my vague over-ambitiousness, or both) about plans for this final year-and-a-bit of my PhD. I had a ton of plans – publishing, writing, re-genring – all of which have been causing me stress and anxiety. He listened, and then simply reminded me of how much I was enjoying the first couple of years of my research and advised me to find a way of enjoying it again.

What he meant was to simply get on with writing (the bloody thing) and not feel the need to do anything else. Writers-Block

So here I am. Resolved to ‘enjoy’, once again. The problem, however, is that I am enjoying the Reading way more than the Writing. And that is what is blocking me. I am finding the Reading far more satisfying than writing my own stuff, than re-reading myself, editing, re-writing (yawn).

Clearly, this is not good since I am now committed to finishing what I have set in train. But it’s a fact.


Becoming unstuck

What has given me some solace today is Keith Sawyer and his tome on Explaining Creativity. Chapter 17 is all about writing, and although he doesn’t explicitly talk about academic writing, he may as well be, because his anecdotes and insights resonate with writing a PhD thesis.

Here is a mash-up of what Sawyer says and what is giving me encourgement:

  • T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was arguably co-authored by his wife and Ezra Pound, both of whom had to heavily edit it many, many times before it became what it has become.

IMG_20171026_174904914I am in no way taking from this that I am going to get someone else to write my thesis! No! On the contrary, I am totally obsessed with my ideas, so would never be able to share them with anyone other than my supervisors and very close (academic) friends. What I am taking from Sawyer’s example is that there is no such thing as a perfect first or second or third (and so on) draft, and that writing is really hard work, requires dialogue with others and is pretty lonely without it, as he goes on to say below:

many successful writers seek out good editing, listen very closely to such comments, and are grateful for them. Eliot’s story shows us that creative writing is often the result of collaboration (p. 320)

  • Sawyer develops this idea with reference to other writers, highlighting that writing is a craft that requires hard work, multiple attempts and failures, that the Romantic impulse and one-off inspiration is not enough to get you through to your final text, and that the actual act of writing is helping us to think through our ideas:

Jessica Mitford engaged in a constant dialogue with her unfolding drafts: “the first thing to do is to read over what you have done the day before and re-write it, and then that gives you a lead into the next thing to do” (p.321).

Poet Mary Sarton wrote: “The poem teaches something while we make it; there is nothing dull about revision” (p. 321)

Novelist Ann Lamott, in her writing advice book Bird by Bird, emphasised the importance of generating “shitty first drafts” (p.321)

Since writing this post (and blog) helps tremendously with unblocking my own writing, I’ll end it with a quote, again from Keith Sawyer on p. 324, that resonates with where I am at right now (my bold):

… the writers all emphasised the constant dialogue between unconscious inspiration and conscious editing, between passionate inspiration and disciplined craft. They all agreed that it is important to listen to their unconscious. They kept notebooks nearby at all times so that sudden snippets of text or dialogue could be quickly scribbled down for later evaluation. They worked in a problem-finding style, starting their work with only a phrase or an image rather than a fully composed plot, and the work emerged from the improvisational act of writing and revising. There was never a single big insight; instead, there were hundrends and thousands of small mini-insights. The real work started when mini-insights were analysed, re-worked and connected with each other; and as with every other type of creativity, many ideas that sounded good at first ended up in the trash.


Mam Tor, Castleton – I still have a fair whack to go ….




Thank you & sorry to a few people

Academic Messiness, but also Honesty and Integrity (I hope)

This teaching term is turning out to be unpleasantly busy, stressful, messy. I said ‘yes’ to too many projects before Christmas, and now I’m paying for it.

So I wanted to publicly thank a few people I have been neglecting and who are having to pick up the pieces of my disorganisation and my anxiety. I could not do a PhD, work, commute, parent, shop, cook, and generally function without them. I am also travelling very far next week, the furthest I have ever been, and I am feeling anxious: partly because it is so far; partly because I am presenting some of my research. I will be alone and very much outside of my comfort zone.


Where I spend a lot of my life

The following is not necessarily in order of guilt. Maybe in order of priorities … It’s just that the linear format of this medium obliges me to write in an order that suggests preferences, but I am sincerely grateful to everyone.

  • My son: I was horrid over Christmas because I had a Chapter to write and really didn’t want it to be Christmas. He is adapting to a new form of mothering: Remote Mothering. I phone him, text him, email him to find out how school went and what he wants for dinner. He is getting used to hearing me say ‘non adesso, amore’ (trans. ‘not now, darling’). He is a lovely boy who always asks me how I am when I get home;
  • My partner: he does a lot of my parenting, sorts out home technology, sources books and resources for me, fixes my car, cooks, and generally keeps things running smoothly, calmly and happily. We’ve agreed that if he is thinking of leaving me, he can only do so after I have passed my viva :-/;
  • My colleagues at CELE, University of Nottingham: they are covering lessons for me when I go to conferences and other PhD-related activities, sometimes at quite short notice (but I do return the favours!); they also put up with my lippiness and outspokeness, and I am sure I really piss them off (sometimes);
  • The School of Education, University of Nottingham: they are supervising and helping to fund some of my PhD and conferences, and have been really patient with me when I have missed deadlines or messed up applications or been late with meeting various deadlines;
  • My supervisors: they are encouraging, communicative and generous with their time and their guidance. I think they are slightly w(e)ary of where I am going with some things, but maybe that is why they are being so nice – just to make sure I stay level-headed and don’t give up. Either way, they are allowing me to believe I actually have a valuable PhD contribution to make and they are allowing me to do exactly what I want; they are also making me reflect a lot on how I teach and advise my students;
  • cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

    ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman: a story of friendship

    My family and friends: both local and abroad. I am hopelessly crap at staying in touch (I always have been, but not as bad this). I think of them a lot, resolve to write or skype or send gifts, but then too much time passes and too much stuff happens to be able to just have a casual chat or send a short note. Each chat or meet-up would need hours and hours of catching-up, so I end up simply not not calling or writing;

  • My neighbours: I have really nice neighbours. Sometimes they are very noisy, though; sometimes they park in my parking space which drives me insane; one of them always knows when I am home and rings the doorbell to tell me something totally unimportant (to me, anyway). Predictably, I have got annoyed with them but then apologised as I realise I am particulalry impatient and over-sensitive to noise, and intolerant of other people who have normal lives that include leisure, gardening, listening to music, doing DIY, playing with toddlers, having time to chat.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s back to my presentation slides …


Writing about writing

In search of completion: preparing to write the thesis and the genres it requires

thesisSince October, I have been thinking about my own thesis. What’ll be in it and in what order; what forms it will take and modes it will include; how it will compare to other theses and in what sense that matters; how long it will take to write; how I remain ‘in the zone’ for another two years without becoming even more anti-social, mono-thematic, scruffy, fat, and self-absorbed …


Only a graphic novel can convey what doing a PhD does to your appearance

I have spent the last 4 years part-time reading about the history of academia and of ideas, and then writing what I can only describe as ‘epistolaries’ to my supervisors, bits of process writing that have no clearly defined genre: they weren’t essays or chapters or annotated bibliographies or reports or summaries or book reviews, or anything that I had ever written before or seen in the research writing guide books. They were sort of responses or reactions to our meetings and emails, prompts and props to break the ice at the start of a supervisory meeting; they were more like reflective pieces or bulletted slides to show where I was intending to go with things. In Italian, I would collectively call them pro-memoria: things that serve to jog your memory. I think, at one point, I called one piece of writing a ‘Clarification’. Another time, I just had images on a loop to exemplify some point or other. Oh, and then there is this blog … So, I have actually written thousands of words in the last 4 years. I haven’t actually counted them, but a lot of this blog is going into the thesis, and every ‘epistolary’ was about 10,000 words, and there were probably around 5 or 6 of those, plus the email exchanges, the conference and seminar presentations, and the draft papers I have written which I have not yet submitted to a journal.

But now I am on a ‘proper’ writing rota. I have to write chapters, about 6 or 7 in all, and all those pieces of writing, conversations and annotations have to coalesce into recognisable and acceptable’academic writing’, the very topic of my thesis, the very phenomenon I am deconstructing and reformulating. And I have just submitted a draft chapter (which took me over 2 months to write) that self-consciously follows all the conventions that I am questioning: in fact, as I was writing it, I was conscious of how its very form was progressively, word-for-word, being undermined by its very content, i.e. my argument!

How supine am I?!

As I was writing, I was also desperate to close my Word .doc and write a blog post instead, and I think the reason is that blogging is so liberating, it’s a little box where you can store all the thinking, evidence and annotations that can be retrieved at a later date, when they become relevant to other contexts and projects, and, crucially, to delivering some poignant rebuttal! I submitted my chapter late last night, have been at work all day, and now I can write this post! Liberation!

A blog post also affords a sense of completion in the same way that going into the kitchen and making dinner has a clear beginning, middle and end. That’s why I prefer washing up to ironing (which I actually never do): I don’t have a dishwasher, and I don’t want one. Washing up is cathartic.  Doing a PhD for so many years makes you crave completion because after a while, however much you are devoted to your subject, you do get bored with it.



I may refer back to this post and the ones I wrote here and here as part of my reflections on the actual process. And, NTM, start to link and group these posts better.