Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear



I suspect it’s annoying to be my friend if you are doing your PhD. While you think you are having a casual conversation with me over coffee and a muffin, I am writing a blog post about you in my head. Some of my friends at RMIT have started a thread on Twitter called #tabit due to my habit of exclaiming “there’s a blog post in that” and are threatening to make Tshirts.

So, to my latest victim.

The other day I had a drink with a friend of mine who is doing his PhD. Let’s call him Todd.

I know lots of very smart people, but Todd is exceptional; mind like a laser and all that. He doesn’t fritter away time on social media and blogging, he writes serious academic papers and thinks about stuff. Since he works in my field I am a little jealous of the focus that Todd brings to his work and always interested in what he is doing.

The drink was an thinly veiled opportunity to hear about his latest effort: a book chapter destined to go in a prestigious edited compilation (the sort I never get invited to I might add – possibly because I spend so much time blogging). It was an impressive piece of work by anyone’s standards, which is why I was surprised when he told me that it wouldn’t “fit” in his PhD.

In fact Todd seemed a little depressed and anxious about getting his PhD done at all because everything he had written so far “didn’t fit”. This is a problem for Todd. Like many of us, Todd is in marginal academic employment while he completes his degree. He needs to do casual academic work to pay the rent, which takes time away from his PhD, but he doesn’t have a hope of really escaping this casual work trap until he has a PhD.

Todd is acutely aware that he needs to finish his PhD quickly, so I asked him what to me was an obvious question:

“How many words have you written this year?”

“About 40,000,” he replied.

“OK then,” I said, “20,000 to go. For you that’s about 6 months right?”

Todd looked at me like I had grown an extra head. He didn’t seem to be able to grasp the idea that a thesis can be thought about as a matter of meeting the word count. But it can. Let me explain.

In the last 30 or so years how we think about knowledge inside academia has been changing. Without getting all postmodern on you, there’s been a gradual acceptance of the idea that knowledge can be partial and contingent and yet still valid. With this idea has come a shift in the way we make PhDs. While a PhD used to be thought of as a book, with chapters held together with a consistently argued position, it is quite acceptable now in many universities to produce a PhD as a series of publications with a bracketing essay. Even in science.

In fact, our colleagues in science were the first to point us in this direction. For a long time now science PhDs have been encouraged to publish and compile their papers into a thesis. This is often referred to as a ‘PhD by publication’ and makes sense for you professionally as you are building a research CV as you go.

Some people think they have to be enrolled in a PhD by publication to do their PhD this way, but this is not always the case. And it doesn’t just have to be articles that you are publishing. At RMIT we have many people doing PhDs in Architecture and Fine Art. These people make things – paintings, buildings, sculptures, computer games – and then write about them. The things count as much, if not more, than the writing. We call this ‘PhD by Project’; I did my masters degree this way so I can vouch for the fact that it’s not straight forward or easy, but you can make a bunch of seemingly unrelated things, collect a bunch of disparate writing about the things, wrap it in an extended essay and pass your degree.

This idea of these ‘patchwork PhDs’ has been slow, as far as I am aware, to penetrate into traditional humanities areas such as social science and education, which brings me back to Todd’s problem. I suspect Todd’s comment about his writing not “fitting” into his PhD is really about a secret longing for coherence. This coherence is only achievable with extensive rewriting; hence Todd’s despair.

But I have to wonder, is this labour really worth it? In my view taking all that time to make a big coherent document that, to be frank, not that many people will bother reading, seems ridiculous given the pressing matter of paying the rent. Far better, in my view, to present these articles as discrete ‘projects’ like an architect would present a series of buildings or a painter a series of paintings.

If Todd took this approach the bracketing essay would be an extremely important piece of the thesis. It would take a lot of time and effort to craft an essay which would serve as introduction, guide and conclusion: around six months work for Todd. Taking my patchwork metaphor seriously for a moment, this bracketing essay would be the thread which sews all the patchwork pieces together. Even though the pieces would have their own identity, the essay would help them make some kind of sense as a whole.

I put this idea to Todd, but he just sat there, looking a bit sceptical (like I said – he’s very smart). I asked him if there was any holes in my argument. He was silent for a moment before he said: “I don’t know Inger. That sounds kind of like cheating”. We turned to other topics then, but I took this “cheating” comment home with me on the train and chewed over it for a few days.

If it is “cheating” who or what is being cheated? Todd is not cheating the discipline of education. If a PhD is an original contribution to knowledge and demonstration of scholarly competence, his published articles are out there as evidence he can play with the best in his field.

Does Todd think he is cheating himself by taking the ‘easy way’ out? I doubt it – he has worked damn hard to produce those 40,000 excellent, publishable words. Or is he worried the examiners will think he is cheating? Perhaps, but that’s something his supervisor has to deal with. As I mentioned in my post the other week about choosing examiners, it’s important that your examiners understand how you are trying to make knowledge. In this case it’s simply a matter of finding an examiner who understands and is open to the concept of PhD by publication.

I wonder how many other people are out there, with tens of thousands of words on their hands, thinking that they have to rewrite these words to ‘tame them’ into the traditional thesis format? If you suspect you are one of those people I suggest you take a good hard look at what you are doing. You might be longing for coherence which, while desirable, is not that practical or necessary.

Count all those words – perhaps your PhD is closer than it appears? What do you think?