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.

Revising writing: Lessons from the PhD thesis

The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in. ~ Henry Green

Musée d’Orsay clock - the neverending tick tick of the PhD

Musée d’Orsay clock – the neverending tick tick of the PhD

The PhD is a long journey which seemingly goes on infinitely. Just as the doctoral researcher reaches one summit or one horizon, another appears. It’s easy to feel like there is little time to stop at each point, take a breath, enjoy the view, and look at how far we’ve come. Usually the researcher straightens her shoulders beneath her rucksack and begins trudging up the next slope. (Or is it skipping up the slope? Storming the incline? I don’t want my language to be too negative. I love my PhD but its hard work is part of its transformativity.)

This weekend I hit a point in my PhD which I decided warranted celebration. 2 years and 9 months after enrolling, I sent my revised full thesis draft to my principal supervisor.

There are still revisions to go and work to do (of course) but making my way through the full text to the point where I felt it hung together as a whole, felt like a summit worth stopping at. Sitting on a rock, taking a peanut butter sandwich out of my pack and reflecting on the path I’ve traversed so far. (Ok, peanut butter sandwiches are not my culinary celebratory choice; I went out with friends for lychee martinis.)

Gullfoss waterfall ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you've come

Gullfoss waterfall after a blizzard ~ take time to pause, reflect & see how far you’ve come

So, how did the revisions go?

To give some context, my qualitative PhD has 10 chapters which roughly cover: 1) Introduction; 2) Literature Review; 3) Research Question; 4) Methodology; 5) Method; 6) Data/Story/Findings #1; 7) Data/Story/Findings #2; 8) Data/Story/Findings #3; 9) Discussion; and 10) Conclusion. The review of literature covers my three studied phenomena, plus a contextual issue. The narrative data chapters are split into three chapters, one story for each group of participants.

When I finished the first full unrevised draft, I sent my supervisors Chapters 9 and 10. After the consequent supervision meeting, I revised these. That way, I had the end in mind when I went back to the Introduction. I could see the beginning and end as matching book ends to be viewed together.

Revision from the start of the text began on my PhD writing (well, revision) retreat, which got me into a revision routine and mindset.

My revision system was: take a hard copy chapter and make annotated revisions -> go back to the Word document and make revisions, highlighting any sections of text that still felt rough, or that I hadn’t yet ‘solved’ -> go to next chapter. I worked through from chapters 1 to 10 like this. Then I revisited my highlighted sections. Then I went over the Introduction again, which needed the most work. I always tell my students that the introduction is your reader’s first impression, and your conclusion is what you leave your reader with. Spend time on them.

Other revision bits and pieces included checking references, checking for APA comma use, and the most desperate of phdcrastination techniques: changing the font! (I chose Garamond for its classic serif 16th century gorgeousness).

I found that the first half of the thesis needed more work than the second half. Luckily, as I got towards the end and felt like I was lumbering through wet cement, the text was better, the meaning was clearer, the writing was more assured.

One thing that helped me at the end of this full draft revision was the support of the Twitter community. Curled up on the couch with my Surface on my lap, I tweeted out an academic SOS and had a number of people reply. Not only that, but they followed up in the next days to see how I was travelling. I was so grateful to these doctoral candidates and scholars who took the time to make me feel as though I wasn’t isolated in my struggle deep in the shadows of the PhD cave. Solidarity. Inspiration. Advice. Thank you #phdchat community and others who responded to my despondence when I was fighting to my deadline!

So, what might be my advice for the full draft revision stage of the PhD?

1. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to revise your text. The first three chapters, about 40 pages, took me my entire writing retreat weekend. There are many layers of revision. Revision for continuity of argument, consistency of language use, for paragraph sequence and structure, for accuracy of language, consistency of referencing and compliance to style. The earlier your writing, the more work it is likely to need.

2. Be open to really changing your text. This revision stage isn’t as much for moving punctuation around as it is for thinking about the essence and elegance of argument. What is necessary? What is superlative? What belongs or doesn’t belong? How is the argument hanging together? Is it consistent from beginning to end? Am I dropping the flags for the reader to follow?

3. Don’t be afraid to chop chop chop. I cut 8000 words from my bloated thesis in this first round of revision. It was great to be at a stage where I didn’t feel sentimentally attached to my words, where I was able to consider their purpose and let them go if they weren’t strengthening the narrative. As the quote at the beginning of this post says, what we leave out serves to highlight what we leave in. I knew my argument would benefit from being strengthened through streamlining (and my readers would rejoice – less words!).

As I edited, I was thinking of this post by Pat Thomson in which she writes “Pat is in the lounge room reading a thesis. She is finding it hard going and wants to go back to bed.” This put me in the frame of mind to think about my reader. I don’t want reading my thesis to be hard going or painful or ‘when will she just get to the point?’ I want the reader to be propelled through the text, with enough detail and a sense of excitement of what is to come.

I’m excited to hear my supervisor’s feedback in a few weeks. My supervisors have seen the chapters bit by bit over time, but not the whole text together. And I’ve left a couple of flourishes as a surprise.

The draft is at a stage that has me feeling pleased and proud that my study has resulted in a thesis document which makes an exciting contribution to my area in a way that is systematic, creative, full of powerful authentic stories, and maybe slightly subversive in the realm of traditional academic writing.

While there is more work to go, it felt right to pause and celebrate a PhD moment.

Writing retreat: Dedicated time away to write and revise

Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation. ~ Neil Simon

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips)

Where I imagined my retreat would be (photos from previous trips).

The idea for a PhD writing retreat came to me in a dream. While I live in Australia, I dreamt that I wrote up my PhD thesis in Paris. I imagined myself pensively working at Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Or editing on a soft patch of grass at the foot of a sculpture in the gardens of Musée Rodin (Le Penseur?). Or typing away beneath the huge train station clock at the Musée d’Orsay. I would take breaks to stroll Parisian streets or to savour Ladurée macarons, foie gras from Fauchon, or ice-cream from Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis.

This dream was no doubt influenced by the at-that-time steady stream of tweets coming from the ANU Thesis Boot Camp during which doctoral writers were given celebratory LEGO-style bricks as they hit various word-count milestones. The academic focus and collaboration zoomed through social media to my device. Oooh, I thought, how wonderful it would be to have some dedicated time to work on my thesis. But with work and two children under five, a long luxuriant Parisian getaway wasn’t on my list. And my university doesn’t offer a boot camp.

by @debsnet

Where my writing retreat actually was.

Writing retreats have been called a ‘scholastic nirvana’ away from the walls-closing-in pressures of academia. Dr Helen Kara, blogging about her recent solo writing retreat, talks about the simultaneous self-indulgence and productivity that finding dedicated time and space for writing can bring. In Dr Kylie Budge’s post about her PhD writing retreat to NYC, she cites research which claims that physical and psychological distance from the norm can increase creativity and productivity.

Casey, Barron and Gordon (2013) note that writing retreats provide protected space for the practice of writing, allowing continuity as opposed to fragmentation. They emphasise the importance of carving out time away from normal activity, and finding space separate from usual settings. This certainly resonated with me, as much of my writing happens in fragmented, stolen, in-between moments.

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

cycles of revision: read, annotate, make changes, repeat

While many boot camps, ‘shut up and write’ sessions and writing retreats are about producing words, this was to be more a revision retreat. Having recently finished the first draft of my conclusion, I had a first full draft of my thesis and wanted to use retreat time to look at my thesis as a whole document. In fact, my thesis is over its word limit, so this retreat was about streamlining and strengthening the content, not producing more. I’d reached a point where I needed to burrow down into my PhD cave’s subterranean depths and sit there for a while. Present. Focused. Submerged.

Like Helen and Kylie, this retreat would be solo: just me and my thesis having some quality time together. Romantic, right? When I floated the idea with my husband, he said, ‘Go for it.’

A bit of an expert at making my PhD feel like a holiday, I often choose writing spaces that feel more like luxe and less like work. So, for my retreat, I considered exotic, non-home places with varying degrees of faraway-ness. I was aware of the aforementioned research about productivity and creativity being heightened by the feeling of being away from home and somewhere new. But I didn’t need exoticism, or a vibrant distracting location. I was going for a weekend, so it needed to be close and affordable, just not home. In the end, I rented a studio apartment via airbnb only a few suburbs from home. I was hoping that being not-home would give me enough separation from my everyday world to provide the laser-like focus and conceptual creativity I was after.

Writing retreat Day 1

Writing retreat Day 1

While not as poetic as retreating to somewhere far from home, there were some great things about doing a retreat this way. In giving myself only two nights away, I had to be productive. I had a short time; I needed to use it. I didn’t waste time travelling to and from the retreat (it was a 20 minute drive); this was an escape in my own city. It turned out to feel just new enough to set my nerve filaments tingling with an awareness of difference of environment.

Going into the writing retreat I planned on using my most productive times of the day for writing, working in 2-3 hour blocks of time followed by breaks (walking, showering, eating, changing location, taking some photos). I wanted to be clear about my intention before I began. My main purpose was revising for coherence and story. Here was time to look at the document as a whole. I kept in mind Pat Thomson’s advice to attend to the underlying argument. I was looking for consistency of language and idea development across the thesis. Having just finished the Conclusion, it was important to go back to the Introduction and make these bookends work together.

Writing retreat Day 2

Writing retreat Day 2

During my retreat the first 30-40 pages took me the longest, because there was so much of what Pat in her post calls ‘where the writing is poor because we are struggling to express an idea, to put into words something that we can barely get our head around.’ The beginning of the document contained my earliest writing and earliest thinking. I needed to delete or rewrite much of it in a way I can only do now that I have reached the end.

What surprised me about the retreat was how challenging it was to maintain a consistent focus on one task. It made me realise how much my usual fragmented way of PhDing works for me, doing a little all the time in prized, highly-focused chunks. Fitting in PhD time in and around other commitments has meant that normally I am itching to get to my PhD work, not having to psych myself into doing it.

Writing retreat Day 3

Writing retreat Day 3

Yet, the time and space to dedicate a couple of days to my thesis, and giving it careful, continuous attention, allowed me to make substantial progress and identify those areas in need of further attention. While in this time I only got through the Introduction and Literature Review, these were the sections in need of the most serious revision (and they will need more). I also managed to cut 3000 words out of those two chapters, which, considering I was also adding words where required, is a good start to streamlining my argument.

The retreat embodied my 3 words for 2015: presence (in the moment), sharing (through writing and now blogging), and strength (of argument and academic voice). It helped to set up my approach to my thesis revision, kickstarting this push-to-the-end-process and propelling me forward into the rest of the document. It felt a bit like kicking off the swimming pool wall, getting some initial speed and feeling the water before settling into the lap ahead.

Local retreats: not so bad.

Local retreats: not so bad!