*cough, cough* *waves away dust* Hello? Is anyone here? Wow. So it’s been a over a year since I last posted and I am very very sorry for neglecting this blog. Partly because I really enjoy writing these posts and … Continue reading
Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!
However, since I sat myself down and said:
‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’
I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.
When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).
This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!
This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.
But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you.
How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.
To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?
I am currently in the final stages of doing my PhD; collecting final data and attempting to write up my monster baby of a thesis, and on an almost daily basis now I am facing the reality of completing this project. It is a well known fact that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint – and that you have to choose your subject really carefully because it will be, in essence, the ONLY thing that you think about for between 3 and 4 years.
Now I consider myself really lucky in the way that I came to do my PhD. I’m older, have worked in ‘the real world’ and had to leave a paying job (with an independent life) to come and do this, so it was not a spur of the moment decision. I had to think long and hard about whether it was right for me – could I really be happy turning 30, when back as a student at University again? I decided, yes, I could be happy – and what’s more not only did I want this challenge, but that it was the right challenge for me. And my subject was PERFECT.
I love my subject. Like, really REALLY love it – I could spend all day talking about geology, and how people understand geology and how they talk to other people about geology. It’s inspiring and fascinating at the same time. It is the only subject that I could successfully do a PhD in, because to me it is (to paraphrase the Lego Movie):
‘The greatest, most interesting, most important subject of all times.’
But today, as with many days over the last year – I also hate it.
This is a difficult thing to admit to anyone other than another PhD student, because you are not supposed to hate your subject – not least because you have given up 3 years of your life to dedicate to it, but yes hatred is definitely the right word. I hate that I constantly feel that I haven’t done enough for my data, that they are sitting there judging me, saying ‘what have you been doing with your time?! You could have completed two independent analyses of these data in the time it’s taken you to do one!’. I hate the fear that I have gotten it wrong; not my interpretation of the data (which as a scientist I accept as part and parcel of doing research), but the analysis again – did some stupid mistake skew everything I have been doing?! I hate that I have so much time and so little. I hate that the subject is not cut and dried, there are no easy numerical answers with cognition.
The tricky thing is that a lot of the things I hate, are also some of the reasons why I keep coming back to loving this. I love that my data is constantly provoking new questions or I would be bored. I love the qualitative nature of the work and, although I don’t love it, I value that my work keeps me second guessing myself so that I don’t become complacent.
I guess what it boils down to is that on a good day, my love for my topic makes it really easy to throw everything that I have at this. I’m optimistic, driven and focused. But on a bad day I hate my PhD so much that I am barely able to look at my computer and writing anything becomes like pulling my nails out. I struggle with this dichotomy. Each day I’m pushing myself more and more to finish, to make it make sense, and remember why I started this. Some days, however, are better than others.
What do you think? Has anyone else struggled with the PhD love/hate relationship, and how do you deal?
In a previous post I have spoken about the value of ‘leaning in’ to my work when I am frustrated, and I still stand by this, but now also I will add that when my hatred gets too burning, a chance of scenery helps. Not digital scenery, but actually getting up and out of the house.
So if you feel the hatred taking over, try a walk? And remember – there is life outside your PhD.