A PhD metaphor: Thesis as sculpture

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free. ~ Michelangelo

Metaphors are something that I engage with when I am trying to make sense of something, and this has certainly been true as I have worked through the stages of my PhD.

I have previously explored the notion of a thesis as a sculpture, a collision of imagination and hard, systematic work. As I move towards the end of the first full draft of my PhD thesis, I have been reshaping this personal metaphor into a more specific vision inspired by the work and words of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who saw the sculptor as the free-er of sculptures from their stone slumber.

Seeing the Statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence was for me an almost spiritual experience. But perhaps even more magical to see and experience were the ‘Slaves’, unfinished figures twisting and writhing inside giant stone blocks. Lining the wide hall of the Galleria dell’Accademia, leading to David, they seem to be the tangible epitome of Michelangelo’s aim: to free existing figures from stone.

The metaphor of the researcher/Michelangelo and thesis/stone-sculpture works for me for a few reasons.

Firstly, like Anitra Nottingham’s metaphor of thesis-as-baking-a-cupcake, producing a thesis takes knowledge, skill, materials and creativity. The artist or researcher must know their materials and their methods. The researcher-sculptor learns, applies and refines their craft and their art. They must learn the basics, practise repeatedly and make many mistakes before their work begins to resemble the skill and originality to which they aspire.

Secondly, like Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren’s metaphor of research as swimming, it is hard and arduous work, requiring patience, persistence, sweat and a focus on doing your own best. Often working alone in his studio, the sculptor carves away at hard, unforgiving stone, systematically testing his tools and techniques against its surface. Some days his body aches. The mental and physical effort of the work keeps him awake at night. He makes excruciatingly slow progress, but sees his vision slowly come into view. Soon, it is no longer a rough cut slab of shapeless stone. The form starts to be revealed, loose but almost recognisable. And in the final stages, the sculptor uses small tools to polish and finely sculpt the finishing details, working obsessively on the most minute aspects.

Stone carving also reflects for me the process of the thesis. The researcher-sculptor begins with a purpose, a question, a vision, a method; but from those beginnings emerges something else. A figure twisting out from stone as a result of the influence of sculptor’s hand, mind, materials and tools. As the researcher-sculptor chips away, the thesis takes shape, influenced by the researcher-sculptor themselves, the pressure and techniques they apply, and the materials, data and methods with which they work.

Perhaps, also, art imitates artist. Seeing the ‘Awakening Slave’ writhing free from his block of marble seems a little like the PhD candidate emerging, through struggle, as a formed researcher from the PhD stone, or perhaps the PhD chrysalis.

There are differences, of course. Michelangelo became a master of his art, whereas the PhD researcher is an apprentice. And a PhD researcher makes mistakes, back tracks, double pikes, and tries again. It is not as though Michelangelo could gouge out a piece of marble, change his mind, and glue it back on, while retaining the integrity of the artwork. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it allows me to inhabit the internal space of worker, tinkerer and creator, driven by my purpose while sensitive to my materials.

Is your thesis like a sculpture? What is your metaphor for your researcher self?

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it. ~ Michelangelo

A Google search for 'my thesis is' won't give you inspiration.

A Google search for ‘my thesis is’ won’t give you inspiration.


14 thoughts on “A PhD metaphor: Thesis as sculpture

  1. Nice metaphor – we definitely have a lot in common Deb. I had much the same experience when I first turned right to walk between the enslaved to the almighty sculpture of David. I couldn’t take my eyes off him as the pages of my art books came to life. It’s been pretty much a similar feeling of awe as I have travelled and come face to face with these 3D artworks after having studied them in 2D terms amongst the pages of my books. Many times members of my family have apparently come back two and three times to find me still standing or sitting in front of these works mesmerised and totally overpowered with their grandeur and beauty – you should’ve seen me at Dali’ house in Cadaques!! And anyway…in response to your question – what is my metaphor for my thesis atm? – well I’m not sure – I think I’ve misplaced my tools! Looking forward to catching up in person 🙂


    • Jo, we are similar! I sat with David for a reeeaaaally long time. He is a powerful and amazing presence which, as you say, commands the space. And the Teatro Museo Dalí in Figueres is one of my most memorable ‘gallery’ experiences.
      As for the thesis. My metaphor changes all the time! I allow myself to be pulled by whatever works. And sometimes it’s tools-down metaphors-down time.


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