The neverending story of the PhD

Rhymes that keep their secrets / Will unfold behind the clouds / And there upon the rainbow / Is the answer to a neverending story ~ Lyrics to ‘Neverending Story’ by Limahl. Watch the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vf2sDgeu7k

Bastian atop Falkor; just like PhD-finishing triumph Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Bastian atop Falkor the luckdragon in the film; just like PhD-finishing triumph
Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Children of the 80s like myself will remember The Neverending Story, a quest narrative in which the protagonist escapes into a fantastical world through the pages of a magical book. What started as a 1979 German fantasy novel by Michael Ende became a 1984 film directed by Wolfgang Peterson with a deliciously-80s theme song by Limahl. When I’ve been asked what the song of my PhD would be, I often answer ‘The Neverending Story’ as it just goes on and on!

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the seeming neverendingness of the PhD. I’ve had people in life and on Twitter congratulating me on the completion of my PhD … despite the fact I have not submitted! I think it is because I announced with glee that I had finished my full thesis draft in July. People seem to think that I surely MUST be done by now.

But no.

While the first full draft means that all the chapters are written, it does not mean that the document is (anywhere near) finished. There are some great online resources to help doctoral students with long and laborious revision and editing. Pat Thomson talks about the process of revision, as opposed to editing. Rachel Cayley’s great piece outlines the stages and layers of editing. Katherine Firth’s post on editing gives thorough and accessible strategies. And Tara Brabazon penned this Times Higher Education article which includes ten editing cycles, including ‘read every sentence underlined with a ruler’ (I have tried this). A finished first draft is 3-6 months from a finished final draft.

I kicked off my full-draft revision with a writing retreat, in which I spent about two full days and nights on the first 40 pages. This wasn’t editing. It was Frankensteinesque dismemberment and radical textual surgery, as Pat Thomson puts it. After making it through my first lot of revisions, I talked about my willingness to chop chop chop, to improve the text’s argument by streamlining it closer to its essence. I have now managed to cut what was a 110,000 word draft to 95,000 words. And the text is stronger for it, reflecting Katherine Firth’s comments on the pruning required of verbose texts:

Like a haircut when your tresses are damaged, or like a diseased rose bush, cutting a lot of stuff off can give the rest of your work a space to breathe, and promote healthy growth for that last little bit.

But still, I didn’t think that I’d be making such big changes this close to the end of the game. Just when I think I’m an Oxford comma away from being done, a new ‘a-ha’ moment or a feedback curveball comes my way.

Last week I met with my secondary supervisor who posed a question about a ten-page section of my literature review: How did it fit with the threads of argument in my thesis? On reflection, I realised that this ten pages was relevant but not central. It was something I had been strongly driven by at the beginning of my PhD, but which had become a distraction from my main argument. I was so close to the document that I hadn’t been able to question it in this way. I was attached to something that had been in my thesis from the beginning, but which no longer fit. Luckily, I was attached but not precious about this section, so when its inclusion was interrogated, I was able to say, “Ok, maybe this doesn’t fit. I’ll try lifting it out and see how it works.” I’ve cut the offending section and pasted it into another document, with the intention of reworking the material into a paper. A little of the material I’ve added into my rationale and context sections, in very small bits. The literature review now feels stronger, punchier, less bogged down, leaving the main threads of my argument to breathe.

With less than a month to go, on and on I go. Read, revise, edit, proof, receive feedback, add literature (I can’t stop myself from reading!), apply feedback, read again.

Yet despite what can feel like the dizzying highs, terrifying lows, almost-finisheds and never-finisheds of the PhD, the doctoral experience is a great example of what good learning can look like. The candidate gets to work on a project of personal passion and importance. They are invested in the work and own its purpose. They work over a long period of time, getting (hopefully) regular feedback from their Falkor-luckdragonesque supervisors which (hopefully) helps them to develop their research and writing into the best it can be within PhD parameters.

Even at submission my PhD story won’t end. Then it will be waiting for three examiners’ reports, making corrections, resubmitting. It’s a long road to ‘Dr Deb’. It’s “the neverending storrrrr-yyyyyyy! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahhhhhh!” It’s not over yet!

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Recipe of a good reference list: Ingredients for PhD success

The doctoral researcher invites to the table the scholars she would like to join her for a conversation over the evening meal. … As host to this party, she makes space for the guests to talk about their work, but in relation to her own work. ~ Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision

Who's coming to dinner? by @debsnet

Who’s coming to dinner?

The reference list of a doctoral thesis is the summary of years of reading and developing ways to critically and respectfully talk about reading in an academic voice. It’s also a list of the ingredients of the thesis, of what was collected and selected from which to create our work.

With over 300 references, my PhD thesis reference list runs to 19 pages and almost 8000 words. As I (check and check and check and) consider that list, I ponder what makes a ‘good’ reference list.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, in their book Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision, talk about using literatures to ‘establish the territory’ or ‘assemble the dinner party guests’. In their dinner party metaphor, which they attribute originally to John Smyth, they discuss the choosing of what literature to include as hosting a dinner party, in which the thesis writer invites to the table those scholars with which their work engages. This gets the candidate to think about what academic conversation/s their thesis inserts itself into, and with which scholarly groups they belong.

I have also read and heard that examiners sometimes read the thesis from the back (urban PhD legend or real deal?). That is, they flick straight to the references, then perhaps to the introduction, the conclusion, then … the findings? Who knows?

Tara Brabazon, for instance, in her 2010 article in the Times, writes:

Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.

The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located. …

If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.

If my reference list was the first thing my examiners looked at I wonder what they would be looking for or what they might think. If I’m being judged on the calibre of my sources, I wonder how my reference list reflects the quality of my scholarship.

I wonder about the ratio of old and new references. My list includes some of the godfathers and matriarchs of the areas of my research; the early works. But when it comes to texts cited from the 1990s, will the reader be wondering why I’m citing not-foundational-but-not-recent texts? Do these texts help to show that I know the field or do they call the relevancy of my list into question? I have also included recent references, including a number published this year. I’m hoping that this shows that my work draws on the very newest thinking in my field. So, I’m hopeful that this combination of old/foundational, middle (some of which are seminal texts for their field), and brand-spanking-new will create a portrait of literatures well canvassed. As Pat Thomson notes in this blog post, examiners know the field, and so will know ‘the originals’. It’s the doctoral candidate’s job to show that they know where their field came from, as well as where it is now.

I have also been thinking about the kinds of texts expected to make up the doctoral reference list. My Voxer doctoral group has thrown up the question about whether blogs and social media can be included in the reference list of a dissertation. My own understanding is that they can be – each style has guidelines for how to cite blog posts and tweets – but that the accepted norm is that a reference list is made up of academic texts, articles from peer-reviewed journals, a few doctoral dissertations and some reports from large organisations. The doctoral dissertations give me hope that mine may get cited on day too! While I’ve seen blogs and tweets used as data, I don’t see them as being considered appropriate references in most PhD theses, unless that medium is central to the field. I haven’t cited any in my own thesis.

Both Pat Thomson and Tara Brabazon mentioned the perils of sloppy or lazy scholarship, which can be revealed through an inaccurate or incomplete (according to the reader) reference list. How is the candidate to know what is enough and when is enough? I am in my final revisions, planning to submit within a month, and still I am reading and inserting citations and references! A recent post on the Thesis Whisperer blog talked about academic FOMO (fear of missing out). I have reading FOMO: the overwhelming fear that if I don’t keep reading, I will miss a seminal paper or a text of importance to my work. And as my thesis uses a bricolaged methodology (different traditions woven together), as well as three phenomena, plus some important contextual factors, there’s plenty to know and plenty to read.

So how, to use Kamler and Thomson’s metaphor, do I know when I’ve invited enough people to my dinner party? Or if they are the right guests?

I found that I started relaxing about the scope of my reference list when I began seeing the same names appearing and reappearing in the texts I was reading. ‘Oh yes,’ I could finally say, ‘I’m familiar with the key names cited here; reading this hasn’t led me to hunt down ten new references.’ But I’m pretty sure I’ll know that the reference-list-litmus-test will only be finished when I press ‘print’ on the final copy.