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Writing a PhD – A Journey

2015. február 12. 8:20

Are you about writing a PhD, or considering it? If yes, this blog post might be of interest to you. It deals with the process of writing a PhD thesis. The aim is to provide you with some general advice how to approach, start, continue and in the end – hopefully – finish your thesis (and possibly book).


As I myself wrote my PhD in the areas of international and constitutional law, as well as legal theory, the examples I will give, will be shaped by this legal perspective. However, the intention is to give a broad overview, the famous big picture, about the process as such. In this way I hope you will still benefit from my thoughts even though you are writing your PhDs in different fields.

To paraphrase the journey I will use a metaphorical language of a journey, which is very well known to all of us: our lifetime story. By using these pictures I hope I can highlight those aspects, which are key moments in the process.

Therefore, not surprisingly, the journey begins with the birth of human beings. At birth we are a remarkable being: much is indeterminate and remains open. We are quite unbiased; however, we are also quite helpless without the protection and guidance of our parents or adults in general. And yet, we are equipped with basic instincts and a very remarkable setup to grow, even though in miniature. I would like you to imagine this picture and equate it with your graduation of law school or other comparable Master diplomas, which made you eligible for PhD studies.

This is not to say that you learned nothing during your studies, not at all. To the contrary, all the remarkable instincts and properties of a new-born child are reflected by the knowledge you gathered during your studies. The basic fundament is already there.

And there are also very positive aspects about this early stage: Psychological research suggests that very young children have a unique capacity, for instance, to learn easily (foreign) languages. For older children, however, this is already more difficult. It is exactly this early stage of academic scholarship which qualifies you in a unique way. You can see things out of a fresh, maybe naïve, but also unbiased, unprecedented perspective.

By studying and with graduation the foundation for the process of writing a PhD is laid. Well, to be honest, yet, it is still quite a challenging path until you will be able to make your very first steps by yourself. However, you are not alone. As young children make their first steps with the help of their parents you are accompanied by your supervisor, who shall guide and help you to make your first academic steps; for instance, by starting your own original research. The German term, “Doktormutter” and “Doktorvater”, which literally translates to “Doctor-mother” and “Doctor-father”, expresses this comparison quite lively. Your academic parents may indicate you relevant literature. They even may point your attention towards a problem or an interesting debate, which could serve as a PhD research topic.

This is very important, for instance, to ensure that you have a valid and fruitful research question, which shall guide you in your research. A good research question helps you a great deal also to structure your thesis in a concise way. The illustrative picture of a “red thread” is worth mentioning here. The “red thread” shall be visible throughout your whole thesis. If it is not, you might need to question yourself whether a specific argument or even a whole chapter are “off topic”. If you entitled a certain chapter “excursion” it is most likely not necessary for your argumentation. This is distracting the reader (or your supervisor) and even though it might be hard for you, you should better erase it or at least write about it elsewhere, for instance, in a separate paper.

As time goes on soon you will be able to say your first word(s). However, keep in mind that the first words children say are the very start. If children begin to speak more and more this is especially in order to learn the language by practicing. And, yet, as it is quintessential to start speaking, which is in our analogy here to start writing, for instance, on your proposal, it is essential to keep in mind at which stage we are.

I have lively memories of my first writings and the first time I was writing down own opinions on an academic discourse. As a young scholar, it was quite hard to erase my first thoughts and lines I had put on paper. Yet, this is also a very important aspect of the process of writing a PhD: As we get older and more experienced, we may understand the faults and flaws of our very first ideas and drafts. And even though it might be hard to erase or review some thoughts, or even whole chapters, it is a normal part of growing up.

So one key message is, start writing, and let it flow. But remember, and be ready to revise your writing and thinking as you grow up. This might go even so far as you begin to realize that the perspective or main research question you fixed at the very beginning is not very useful to deal with the problem you want to tackle with your research. Well, if this is so, it might be a good advice to rethink the angle or method, from which you want to tackle the problem. And don’t forget, in this process, your Doctor-mother and -father are surely of great help with this issues.

Likewise you might wish to re-read some papers or books you read at the very beginning of your research. As you get more and more into a debate and much more experienced regarding your topic, it is very likely that you will also understand better the work of other scholars. By re-reading pieces you read at the beginning you will possibly discover new points and understand arguments better. So you will discover new things, which you couldn’t grasp at the beginning of your research.

As you get older, and you made your first steps, you said your very first word(s); your first school day will get closer.

Again school, you might think now. What is he talking about? We graduated at birth and now we should go back to school? However, this advice is rather declaratory in nature: you are already here.

What I mean is that it is very important and helpful to go to summer schools or post-graduate conferences. To study some specific topics concerning your research in a PhD summer school abroad or to present your research proposal at a conference is very instructive. On the one hand you might get important new insights from senior scholars from other countries, which maybe have similar problems as addressed in your research, but quite likely other solutions due to other backgrounds. And on the other hand, you might get to know other young researchers, with whom you can discuss your ideas and maybe also some downsides of writing a PhD in order to get new motivation and also build up networks and even friendships.

To read each other’s drafts could be helpful in terms of preventing from “business myopia”; a certain blindness, which you develop as you are concerned with your project for so long. Some things, for instance, are crystal clear to you; however, if somebody alien to your project reads your proposal she or he might immediately come up with some simple problems of understanding. This external perspective will help you to find out that the idea might be clear in your head, but on paper some essential information is missing.

You might also try to explain what you are doing to people with different backgrounds, such as for instance family and friends. Already Einstein said very famously:

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”

There is a lot of wisdom in this quote. The famous ‘elevator test’ might help you to grasp the main questions you want to answer even better. You should be able to explain what you are doing in your research in 1 minute only. This can help you to get a good overview and understand core aspects of your work. By summarizing your research plan in 1 minute you will also envision your PhD project as a whole, which is essential again in order to follow the “red thread”. Another major value of this insight is that it will enforce you to write clearly. If a phrase is very complicated and long it is not only misleading and difficult for your readers. Complicated writing style might also indicate that the author has not fully understood himself about what he is actually writing.

By finishing elementary school and getting older almost all young people know the phase of adolescence. You maybe have even your own lively memories of reaching puberty. Teenagers are rebelling and they usually stop taking advices or at least don’t think it is the absolute truth what their parents or other adults are telling them. This is an important period in the process of growing up and forming your personality. You might start to question the positions held by your Doctor-mother or -father or of the leading or mainstream scholars in the field of your research. Challenging these thoughts can be a necessary step in order to develop your own position. This might be the reason and basis why your PhD is a fruitful contribution to the academic debate.

However, being older now, by looking back on our adolescence years we possibly realize that we made some stupid things too. Those experiences were important to learn, yet, now we know, they were mistakes.

During my academic puberty I got a wise advice from one of my supervisors. I would like to share this insight with you: He told me that it is good to question grand masters and their theories. Yet, however, if some theories survived quite a long time and enjoy still a lot of respect from many scholars, it is very unlikely that they are completely nonsense. It is maybe possible to rethink details of big theories of grand thinkers, or maybe point out that they made sense in earlier times, but are outdated nowadays. However, it is not very likely that they have serious fundamental flaws.

Life goes on, you are older now. You developed your own position and you hopefully finished your book. So now we can have a look on how to sell your “memoires”. In order to get published it is important to change perspective. Who are your possible readers? And in what are they interested in? This leads you to the question why your paper is original and valuable research, which contributes fruitfully to an academic debate. For journal articles it gets again important to point out your core arguments. Is it possible to sum up your argument of an article in 1 sentence? This is necessary, because in order to get cited this is what other scholars will look for. Even a very successful paper will end up as 1 sentence in a footnote of another scholar as a quotation. You should be able to articulate this sentence already in your abstract or conclusion. Yet, I would suggest that we talk about publishing in the discussion we hopefully will have or during a break later.

Let me summarize very roughly: Of course the task of writing a PhD thesis might be arduous sometimes, but yet also in life we are faced with ups and downs. The last important message I want to give you is as simple as important: don’t give up. Stay positive. With a positive attitude, a good portion of motivation and an optimistic outlook I am very sure that you will successfully accomplish your thesis and contribute fruitfully to the academic debate.

 

This article gives the views of the author, and it cannot be interpreted as the position of ILS CSS HAS.

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