For the love of books: On the tactile PhD thesis

the shameless joy of the thesis selfie & those three little letters emblazoned in gold

the shameless joy of the thesis selfie & those three little letters emblazoned in gold

Having books bound signifies respect for the book; it indicates that people not only love to read, but they view it an important occupation. ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

The chemical breakdown of the smell of books was the subject of a 2009 study (downloadable here and nicely summarised here), but those smells are about more than science. They are about emotions and memories. Libraries. Being read to snuggled in beds. Reading alone in beanbags, on sunny window ledges or in hidden cubbies or corners. Dragons and sleuths and science and fantasy. Escape into other worlds and other lives. Empathy, fear, disgust, happiness, tears. The pads of fingers on pages. The whoosh of the page turning. The thud of a closing book. The grief when a trilogy or series ends.

I’ve written before about the memories of my grandfather’s study, filled as it was with old books, including the two prized books he left to me. My grandfather wasn’t a Ron Burgundy kind of man, but he did have many leather bound books. He was an academic, a professor and a book binder. (He also made those little wooden ships and magically placed them inside bottles.) The smell of old books–which is described here by Deepak Mehta as bibliochor, inspired by the word petrichor–takes me back to sitting in the cushiony chair in that study, having books gingerly passed into my hands. Feeling their physical and symbolic weight. He didn’t live long enough to see me finish my PhD and share my own Big Book with him, but I was lucky enough to be able to share the first part of my PhD journey with him.

This week I was full of nerdy book-loving joy when I picked up the hard bound copies of my PhD thesis. I’m an English and Literature teacher, reader, bibliophagist, smeller of books, narrative researcher and writer of texts. So it stands to reason that I would be obsessively perfectionist about the physical thesis book (totally reasonable, right?). I agonised over font, paper and end papers.

What’s in a font? That which we write in Helvetica by any other font would read as sweetly.

I always envisaged my thesis volume as channelling the old storybooks and encyclopaedias (remember those?) of my childhood. My selection of the font Garamond acknowledges that serif fonts are more readable, while visually referencing the traditional old-style serif typefaces of literary fiction. Garamond is a sixteenth century French artisanal font based on the work of Claude Garamond, and it is lovely in italics. It was a more beautiful option that the conventional Times New Roman. Apparently TNR is mandated in some institutions but as its inception was to squeeze the most text into the columns of The Times, it’s a bit squishy and a bit ubiquitous.

If you are thinking about thesis fonts, check out Anitra Not’s wonderful Slideshare on how to make a beautiful thesis. There should be a word for ‘the joy brought by beautiful typeface’. I don’t think that thinking about the beauty and readability of your thesis is total phdcrastination; there’s some method in wanting to present your work in a way that resonates with its purpose.

O, feel of paper and smell of page!

While my university prints theses on heavier-than-usual copy paper, I ended up researching papers on which I might print the thesis. I eventually settled on an archival paper watermarked with the National Archives of Australia registered trademark. It was cream rather than white and a bit textural rather than super-smooth. I tested the paper for its ability to handle the illustrations in my thesis and printed double-sided, to keep the thickness down and save some paper, rather than for aesthetics (there was a bit of show-through).

I also bought some white Japanese Unryushi paper to act as endpapers after I discovered that getting marbled endpapers in Australia is prohibitively difficult (my granddad would have known where and how to get some).

thesis pages

thesis pages

Bound pages nestled within the regal carapace

To bind a doctoral dissertation is not just to join pages prosaically together into a document. There are medieval bookbinding traditions and regal colours. In Australia there isn’t really a choice in the actual binding as each university tends to have theses bound by a particular book binder, to particular specifications. The traditional binding is in buckram cloth with gold lettering. Each university has different colours associated with each degree. At my university, the PhD thesis is bound in maroon, so maroon it was. The nice thing about that was that on the day I picked up my pile of five theses (one for the university library, one for each supervisor, one for the school at which I conducted my study and one for me) people congratulated me as I walked through the grounds. “Well done!” “Congratulations!”

The Big Book

The Big Book

Of course, none of this matters in the big picture. A font does not make or break the substance of a thesis. A bound thesis needs to meet its university library’s specifications, but no more than that. I know that my thesis could have been printed in Arial or Times New Roman, on ordinary copy paper, and it would have been of the same written quality. Now that most theses will be read online, the archival quality of the thesis makes even less difference than in the past.

Yet, my own love of books and their tactile, olfactory and objet d’ art properties meant that I put a lot of cognitive and emotive energy into the physical book. And I took a lot of joy from experiencing the finished product. It might have been my favourite PhD moment so far. If you’re like me, go ahead and embrace your inner book nerd.

It’s ok to be a book-perfectionist. It’s ok to love your finished thesis, imperfect as it might be. Think of it as a handmade quilt, full of the humanness of your mark. For me the choice of font, slightly textural end papers and creamy archival paper were about valuing the text and helping my reader enter the narrative of my thesis, which uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a literary lens. The tactile experience of turning those first pages might help them down the rabbit hole of the text and into the world of story, into the study and back to their childhood memories of reading.

bookish gifts for my supervisors

bookish gifts for my supervisors

Thinking about doctoral study? How to get started.

The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ~ Anaïs Nin

thinking of opening the PhD door? ~ Oia, Santorini

thinking of opening the doctoral door? ~ Oia, Santorini

In response to a number of questions from friends and colleagues about how to get started on a doctorate, I’ve written this blog post. It deals with what to consider when starting on your doctoral journey, and a bit about my story and how I went about it.

Remember that each person who is doing or has done a doctorate (including your supervisors!) has only done one. We will each base our recommendations on our singular experience, although supervisors have the additional experiences of guiding and examining doctoral students. My experience is not your experience, but it has been positive, and I would wish that for anyone taking on the doctoral thesis beast.

PhD or EdD?

The boundaries between doctoral degrees seem blurry to me, but my understanding is that the PhD is seen as the more academic qualification and the EdD is seen as the more professional qualification. The EdD is apparently about knowledge for and in practice, of more relevance to practitioners in the world of schools, whereas the PhD is seen as focused on the theoretical, of more relevance to those in the academe.

It seems, though, in Education, that many PhDs are undertaken by practitioners, around their own practice, and with practical implications. And I can’t imagine a school leadership appointment being affected by the Ed/Ph difference. So I’m not entirely sure why the distinction is necessary (apart from that Harvard started the professional doctorate trend and everyone else got on board). Please, someone, enlighten me!

From a course-content viewpoint, in universities local to me, the EdD has both coursework and (smaller than PhD) dissertation, while the PhD is a pure research degree with no coursework components. This means that an EdD candidate is required to turn up at courses, intended to help them prepare for the scholarly work of the dissertation, while a PhD candidate is not. In this way, the EdD candidate is provided with more formal support, as their coursework is usually done in preparation for their research project/s.

When I enrolled in my degree, I had a 6 month old and a 2 year old, and shortly after enrolling I went back to work, so coursework for which I needed to be in a particular place at a particular time did not work for me. My circumstances were more suited to doing my research in flexi times, often late at night or while children slept. While I was an educator not thinking about a job in the academy, as a book-and-writing-loving nerd I happily committed to the Doctor of Philosophy.

From a financial perspective, Australian citizens or permanent residents studying their doctorate (professional or PhD) in Australia are currently not required to pay fees (except the usual university student fees). These higher degrees are subsidised by the Research Training Scheme (RTS), although this may change from 2016. A funded RTS place is granted for four years’ full-time study equivalent, so it doesn’t go on forever!

The Doctor of Philosophy / Doctor of Education choice is worth thinking about from your own perspective. Where are you coming from? What are your circumstances? Where do you want your study to take you? Would you benefit from some coursework to kick start your degree, and a smaller thesis to manage?

Talk to people who’ve done both options. Talk to academics and university offices. Talk to school leaders. Talk to potential supervisors. Ask the Twitterverse or the blogosphere. Figure out your best option.

PhD by ‘big book’ or ‘publication’

If undertaking a PhD, it is worth thinking from the outset about whether you want to prepare a ‘big book’ thesis, or take the option of ‘thesis by publication’ in which your thesis includes a series of papers, some of which are published and which can be co-authored. These papers would stand alone, but also be tied together in the thesis by an introduction and conclusion in which you explain how they work together for your research purposes.

While the ‘by paper’ option is increasingly popular, I chose the big book variety as I conceptualised my study as a whole narrative. While I have been writing conference papers and journal articles from my thesis material, I did not want my thesis to be a collection of papers, which felt disjointed to me. I envisaged (I had a dream!) my thesis as a holistic magnum opus which would bend my mind and test the limits of my researcherly readerly writerly thinkerly muscles. A little theatrical, but it was my choice, and it has suited me. I’m sure it would be some people’s idea of a nightmare!

To help you make your decision about the big book vs. the publications, you might find these blog posts useful:

How to get started? Local university or the perfect supervisor at a remote campus?

Apart from you, I think the most important thing to help you complete your doctorate is a good supervisory relationship. It’s worth thinking about who and where your supervisors might be. My university required me to have two supervisors before I enrolled so this was an early decision; you forge this relationship before you begin.

You might know some academics who can steer you towards appropriate supervisors. I didn’t, so performed a combination of cyber stalking and cold calling. I looked at academics’ profiles and publications at local universities, and sent emails to the Deans of Education and HDR officers, and/or to individual professors. My email included an introduction and a brief outline of my idea for my study, as well as an attached curriculum vitae.

After receiving a number of positive replies, I ended up going with the person who showed the most genuine interest and excitement in me and my project. That supervisor then helped to find a second supervisor who was complementary. These two individuals have been wonderful for me. I have no dramatic personal stories of supervisory angst or neglect. My supervisors have provided me with a thoughtful combination of encouragement and critique, comfort and discomfort. They have allowed me to walk my own path and shape my research into something in which I believe. When I have suggested left-of-field ideas they have provided challenge, but also the space for me to argue my case and provide a rationale that will stand up to the academy, and then cheered as I carved out my space as a researcher.

Amber Davis has recently penned some good tips for being supervised. I agree with her that supervisors are very busy academics, often under many pressures. As a PhD candidate I see the responsibility for managing my project as up to me. They help me through it as advisors, mentors and colleagues (there is a point in the PhD when supervision starts to feel more like a peer-to-peer process), but I need to have ownership and drive my own study as researcher.

My experience of supervision at a local university is that the face-to-face meetings have been an important aspect of my PhD experience and have often propelled me forward. While we have used Skype, Google Docs, Dropbox and email to supplement face to face interaction, I am glad I chose to be supervised at a university in my own city, as the person-to-person interaction has borne the most powerful feedback and progress.

Choose your path

So I chose to study a PhD via a big book thesis at a local university. Mine is one set of choices and experiences. I would love to hear other stories and other perspectives.

Good luck with your doctoral travels, however they may begin and wherever they may lead you!

traversing the PhD road? ~ London in the snow

traversing the doctoral road? ~ London in the snow