Tough self-scrutiny as a doctoral writing tool


By Susan Carter

I’ve just been to a great lecture by John Bitchener on giving good feedback on doctoral writing. John has intensively researched the topic, as his website shows, and his books are very helpful. He began the lecture by looking at some of the causes of doctoral writing difficulties. In this post I am turning his observations into a checklist that students could use for self-auditing.

But before we begin, a caveat: self-auditing, like writing review from others, is often disconcerting. Those questioning processes can hammer your identity and sense of self-worth in unpleasant ways.

It is important that at doctoral level, especially in the early stages, students are made aware of the way that critical review, including self-review, is a method for strengthening your academic identity and worth. It is a bit like tempering metal: you get stronger metal after heating it up and bashing it.

So yes, for humans, this is uncomfortable; nonetheless, all academics go through routine hammering from reviewers. Supervisors do well to explain this, and show some of the snide reviewer comments they have received over time.

Now to apply the heat and hammer. If students feel that feedback on their writing is more negative than they expected, they could consider how the following may have contributed.

  • A gap between past experience at undergraduate or masters level and doctoral level, for example, if prior educational experiences or qualifications were achieved in a different country from where they are doing their doctorate.
  • Incorrect assumptions about what a doctoral thesis should be—it is longer, more defensive and with more emphasis on original contribution than they might have understood. It also often builds new theories and expands methods.
  • Misalignment between theory and practice, or between knowledge and application, and uncertainty as to how to work between these dichotomies.
  • Lack of awareness of what theory does (as well as what it is).
  • The appropriate use of hedging and emphasis (or what John terms ‘boosters’). The capacity to use English to get just the right degree of emphasis can mean the difference between a statement being convincing or simply wrong.
  • Unawareness of the need to be developing an argument at macro levels—the thesis of the thesis—and at micro levels within chapters.

On reflection, I think this suggestion for students’ self-auditing does several positive things. It improves the writing because students see what is not quite working. It gives students agency for their own learning as writers, cutting the umbilical cord dependency on supervisors to always show the way. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches the habit of positive critical reflection, one I believe that academics need to survive and to be good academic citizens. Chris Park (2007) points out that one contribution of doctoral work is the fully-fledged independent researcher. Critical self-auditing of writing quality is seldom easy, smooth and comfortable; finally graduating with a PhD is so satisfying partly because it is recognises the high research quality produced by all that hammering.



This post comes from the notes that I took during Professor John Bitchener’s Feedback on doctoral writing at Epsom Campus, The University of Auckland, 10 September 2014.


Park, C. (2007) Redefining the Doctorate: a Discussion Paper, York: Higher Education Academy.




The bones of the thesis: structure and articulation


By Susan Carter

I was talking to a chap who’d just graduated through a taught Masters with strong grades. He said, “Sometimes I got my best marks when I was really busy and didn’t have enough time. Then you’d just try to figure out the bare bones of what they wanted. Actually, that seems to be what matters.” With a big project like a doctoral thesis, looking for what matters becomes harder because there is so much detail to attend to with painstaking care. It becomes very easy to overlook what matters. Yet examiners who need to tick off that each of the generic requirements has been met are really looking for “what matters.”

A thesis with good bones usually stands out as strong once finished. This post is given to the bones of the thesis, the framework that gives its structure.

Figuring out the bone structure gives a writer multiple advantages at many stages of the thesis. Usually a full thesis proposal produced in the first year will have a suggested outline. The more concrete such an outline is, the easier the author makes it for themselves to begin the writing project. Knowing how many chapters (or articles if this is a thesis by/with publication) means envisioning the work that must be done.

Working back from the word limit helps too: knowing the full thesis might be 80,000 words lets you figure more or less what proportion of these words will be given to the different moves to be made within that word limit. It already breaks that work up into smaller tasks that seem less daunting. It also begins to outline the bones of each section—if there are only five thousand words to cover the three theories that underpin the research, then you need to decide what detail matters enough to be included. The shorter route to finished becomes more visible as a sense of structure firms up.

Pulling back to do a stocktake on what matters, and reconsidering the bones of the thesis, can sometimes be helpful if the detail is beginning to grow tiresome. Shifting from detail to the bare bones of thesis structure gives psychological relief as a way of shuffling forward with a large writing project. Moving back and forth between different sections and chores at different levels helps with the sheer tedium involved in a large project. For many doctoral students, this will be their first exercise in persistence. Consciously developing psychological strategies may be essential for survival.

Then, before submission, it’s a good idea to take an x-ray view of the thesis. At the end, the articulation of the skeleton becomes crucial because it does much of the work that allows the examiner to tick off against the criteria for a PhD.

That word articulation is apt: it applies to both talk and to movement. ‘Articulate’ is the word I use when I’m struggling for absolute precision with a theoretical or novel idea that is still slightly nebulous: “I need to find a way to articulate this.”

The articulation of the skeleton gives movement to the mass of flesh: the talk of a thesis, the flesh of content, needs to make moves too. It needs to demonstrate that it meets the generic criteria for doctoral qualification–these usually relate to originality, incorporation of the relevant literature and methodology, and the overall format.

The metaphor of a skeleton with articulation could be taken a bit further into the joinery hooking those bones together. Ensuring that every section of the thesis is framed within the main argument, the context of problem, what is known, what unknown, the theory, the methodology and why the research matters somehow assures examiners that this is a coherent entity that makes a substantial enough contribution. Doing this entails successful articulation of those good bones (what really matters) and sets them to work persuading examiners and future readers that the research contribution is valuable and interesting.

Do you have different metaphors than dancing skeletons for that might help doctoral students think about their key points and how to emphasise them in writing?

Review before submission: an index-building model for multiple audience theses


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By Susan Carter
This post applies a book index-building experience to doctoral writing with multiple audiences. You do not need an index in a doctoral thesis. I am not by any means suggesting this as an exercise before submission: it is a big time consumer, but I will suggest the possible usefulness of a truncated version.

Some doctoral students have two distinct audiences beyond the examiners. This may be true of those taking an indigenous, feminist or queer theoretical position, or showing that one group of people (nurses in the ward, or teachers in small rural towns, say) need more support in some area or that they are undervalued. Research like this often creates new knowledge that underscores the need for support for a particular course of action. The authors of such theses may be aware that have some sympathetic readers—insiders who will welcome the research on a topic of concern to them–and others who are sceptical. Thus they need to direct their argument in two different directions at once to influence the progress of their cause.

I learned a new way of seeing when I co-edited a book about generic support for doctoral students. The book’s structure was unusual: in addition to the introduction and conclusion to the book, we editors also wrote introductions to each chapter and some sections within the chapters. Our joint coherent argument was built through a bricolage of other voices, with about thirty-five others giving us short inset pieces we fitted into our own frame. Most of the book’s expected readers would be sympathetic: other learning advisors providing generic support to doctoral candidates and seeking inspiration. However, our argument really hoped to persuade the unconverted of the value of our practice and pedagogy. These readers include a middle group of academics whose supervisory work meshes with generic support, doctoral students who sometimes don’t realise how useful generic workshops would be for them and, most of all, senior management who so frequently engage in a program of change management that entails restructuring generic programmes. We felt this last group might very well be sceptics.

Now, to build an abstract index, i.e, one that indexes ideas and not just single words, you work through your list of terms to be indexed and find-search in your large document, checking each instance recording how long its discussion runs. This gives a quantitative overview of how many pages are devoted to the themes and factors that build the overall argument, the thesis. The process showed us how often we talked about good practice in terms that learning advisors would recognise, and how often in terms likely to speak to senior management. For example, the index included:
1. Terms for the sympathetic: academic identity formation, critical thinking skills, culture, equity, graduate attributes, homeliness, indigenous, insider/outsider, theory, thesis-writing
2. Terms that talked to those neutral folk we complement and work with: collaboration, communities of practice, intercultural skills, supervision, university context
3. Terms intended to persuade senior management: accountability, assessment, benchmarking, completion of doctorate, curriculum, effectiveness, employability, publication, key performance indicators.
The index-building process surprised me with a new view of a document that I had gone through diligently so many times.

I had worried we might be biased towards our sympathetic reader, or too didactic overall, soapbox thumping about what matters to us. Instead I found that we were fairly even-handed in the attention we gave the different audiences as instanced by our interweaving of different stakeholder discourses. In effect the search for terms let me gauge how appropriately and successfully we were in driving one argument forward that was differently nuanced for different readers. I could see that it was a way to pick up any lack of balance.

Many doctoral students are similarly motivated by the desire to articulate the value of their work to sympathetic insiders who know that a cause really matters, and to persuade the unconverted. This method could be modified when scholars/candidates/ students have a near-completed thesis: they could make a short list of the most significant themes and associated terminologies and then do a find-search for each thus enabling them to build a map of usage. When this task is undertaken as though constructing an abstract index, it means checking the text surrounding the term to decide how much attention is given to the concept. This kind of quantification shows how the overall argument weighs out in terms of speaking to different target audiences.

I’m hoping you might have other suggestions for doctoral students in the last few months before submission. What other ways are there to audit the structure and the weight of argument throughout the entire thesis? And what else needs checking when different research methods are used?

Sharing our practice: Writing and HDR supervision



By Claire Aitchison

In this blog I thought I’d share some of the teaching materials I used recently when working with higher degree research supervisors. As part of a series on supervision and researcher writing I created small vignettes from stories I’d collected over the years. Groups were encouraged to talk over the scenarios in response to two prompts: What is going on here? and What strategies might be useful to address the issues?

Very often academics work in isolation, rarely having the opportunity to share their teaching practice – despite a literature that extols the virtues of peer observation (Shortland 2010) and the desire of (especially newer) academics and supervisors for learning from colleagues (Hamilton & Carson, 2013).

Given the history of PhD scholarship and the increasingly busy lives of academics, it is not surprising that the student-supervisory locus remains the most private of all teaching spaces. For students and supervisors alike, what goes on there is rarely scrutinised, discussed nor made public (Goode 2010). Perhaps that is why this activity that showcased some pretty common scenarios received so many exclamations of recognition and generated such lively discussion. As long as it’s not overdone, I think we all enjoy the chance to share and compare our own experiences against those of others. Well-constructed scenarios that ‘ring true’ can encourage us to consider events from different perspectives, trigger self-reflection and hopefully enrich our supervisory practices.

As you read these vignettes perhaps you’ll rehearse some possible explanations and responses? Perhaps you’ll think of other stories that could become a launching pad for discussions about challenges and practices in supervision, or you may like to share a pedagogical initiative that’s worked for you?

Scenario 1
‘For over a year now I have been giving my research student careful, detailed feedback on her writing. At the end of the chapter I try to summarise her main problems and identify relevant spelling or grammar rules. I have even given them links to grammar websites that have clear explanations and practice activities. However, I have seen the same errors repeated over and over. I am at my wit’s end. What else can I do?’

Scenario 2
‘A recent incident has negatively impacted my relationship with my doctoral scholar, leaving me perplexed and surprised.
Luke wrote a fabulous Masters dissertation that was insightful, quirky and inventive. I was happy to take him on as a doctoral scholar. Because I am already familiar with Luke’s capabilities, I guess I have not been as attentive to this student as I am with others; nevertheless, I have been happy with the progress of the candidature. He has been highly self-motivated, achieved all the milestones and handled some difficult surprises in his research. He is now in the last 6 months of candidature and I am working more intensely with him.
In my experience, candidates’ writing capabilities often show significant improvement in the final stages of intense ‘writing up’. As is not uncommon, some of Luke’s writing had long been under par – lacking the sophistication and depth required of a highly theoretical thesis. When I tried to explain that his writing was not ‘academic enough’ and that he still wrote like a Masters student rather than ‘at PhD level’, he reacted badly. He cut short our conversation and left the meeting. Since then our interactions have been rather steely.’

Scenario 3
‘My doctoral student has been a high school classroom teacher for over 35 years. His research is on second language acquisition – an issue about which he has very strong opinions. He is a great writer, teacher and communicator, and despite emigrating from Italy, his command of English language is exceptional. His thesis writing, however, is convoluted and dense. His sentences are long and complex. He writes passionately, at times infusing his work with hyperbole and flourish. He is determined that his views, born of extensive experience, find a place in the thesis. I am not sure how to proceed; so far he has failed to pick up on my feedback about the importance of being objective.’

Scenario 4
‘One of my very capable students is at risk of not completing on time. She is demonstrably clever and contributes well to lab activities and discussions. She is popular amongst her peers, often helping others with their work. She has developed an active social media profile with a website and research blog where she posts stories and pictures from the field and communicates with a global network of researchers.
However, she regularly fails to deliver substantial pieces of writing – rather, she turns up to supervision meetings with pages of dot points and descriptions of what she is going to do. She often presents with yet another new idea. She doesn’t stick to agreements about handing in work a week before our scheduled meeting, nor producing text in accordance with our discussions. She always has excuses – and grand plans for catching up. She has probably attended nearly every workshop available to HDR candidates.’

Goode, J. (2010). ‘Perhaps I should be more proactive in changing my own supervisions’? In M. Walker & P. Thomson, The Routledge doctoral supervisor’s companion: Supporting effective research in Education and the Social Sciences. Oxon: Routledge.

Hamilton, J., Carson, S. & Ellison, E. (2013). Building distributed leadership for effective supervision of creative practice higher research degrees Final Report for Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from

Shortland, S. (2010). Feedback within peer observation: continuing professional development and unexpected consequences. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47(3), 295-304.

Managing the writing energy


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This post comes from Gina Wisker who is head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton in the UK where she is  professor of higher education and contemporary literature, runs writing courses for staff, supervises PhD students and teaches undergraduates. Gina’s books include the Postgraduate Research Handbook (2008)  The Good Supervisor (2012) and  Getting Published: writing for academic publication (forthcoming  2014).


Today is a writing day – it is 12.30, early afternoon and I have defrosted the freezer, dealt with hundreds of emails, planned a course or two and not done any writing. I work best in the morning and now I have traded my writing energy for all those other things which crowd into my time (I happen to be working from home today, meetings and office paperwork can be substituted for these email experiences).

A few years ago Maggi Savin-Baden and I (2009) carried out some research into writing blocks and breakthroughs, and I added some more to that a couple of years later. One of the interesting revelations about breaking writing blocks and actually getting on with that important research-based writing was from an ex-colleague who said, ‘I only have so much writing energy, and if it is expended on bureaucratic documents, then it is gone.’ This has stayed with me among the other information about what we do to recognise and unblock writing blocks and I share this idea of managing the writing energy with writers in workshops and on doctoral projects.

Managing the writing energy is about taking control of your writing rhythms and the times and places in which you can write, some of which are premium – your best time for writing – some are edged in between other events, not in ideal locations. Rowena Murray refers to snack and binge writing (Murray, 2002), snacks being small moments of focused writing in between other things, when you can, binge being a long writing period in which you can really get through a serious piece, finish something off.

A few thoughts from the research and publications, and my own practice:

Planning to write: Find out your best times to write and be realistic about this – mine is early in the morning. Find a slot or two in your work or personal calendar and block it off. Plan to write then but set yourself realistic targets – don’t put in so many writing tasks that you will only experience despair. This is also about finding places and times when you can write. If you cannot write in your ideal time, can you trick yourself into writing later? Some people write well in the morning, some later in the day or through the night. Plan for it, don’t despair if it doesn’t work – find another slot.

Managing the writing energy: If you have to do other work or writing, then deliberately choose to take that time from writing, otherwise try and write when your thoughts are clear – you will make good progress and not ‘waste’ that limited, invaluable energy on the more everyday work. Cut the emails off until you take a break, and capture the thinking, conceptualising and expression energy.

Writing to write: We found many writers said they broke writing blocks and brought their best writing into being through any kind of writing. This includes free writing (Elbow, 1973), writing fast on anything – maybe reflections or a topic – until you stop. Or splurge (Wisker) – writing flat out on and around what you need to write to get your thoughts out, through to writing well phrased first attempts in structured sections of an article or essay, chapter, whatever you are writing. You give yourself the right to write, you write till you have worked the block out of your system by writing about it, or through writing generally. Then you could be more thoughtful about your topic, think it through by writing, and express it very clearly.

Multi-tasking: You can fool yourself that you are multi-tasking, in other words, doing several things at once, and miss out the writing, with the focus on defrosting the freezer and completing the emails. You can also break blocks and just rest your mind by deliberately moving away from the writing and letting your thoughts range freely, or let them focus on a problem of expression, a complex idea or argument, while you are cutting up the supper, sitting in a meeting in which you have to say next to nothing (this does not work if you are chairing or have major items), driving between sites, or going for a short walk outside the building. Focusing on home activities can enable the thought processes to pick up ideas from elsewhere to deal with problems, and to keep going – like having several documents open at the bottom of your computer screen. You can also deliberately choose to listen to music, watch a film, take a long walk or clean out the cupboards. Your writing will be clearer once you return to it. This isn’t wasted time, nor is it procrastination.

Talking to write: I have recently discovered how to make this practice work for me. Sometimes we cannot write down our thoughts but could speak them. Keep a notebook with you at all times to capture what you are writing and a tape-recorder to capture what you are thinking, sometimes clearly expressed, sometimes more hesitantly. This works well if two of you are co-writing, as a recorded conversation can form the basis of the thinking for a first stab at an academic essay (there will be much more hard work to come, but sometimes we generate our best ideas through talking).

Mimicry: When we first start to write in a discipline discourse or for a journal or a particular format, it is useful to research how this looks and sounds, the way arguments are formed and developed, information expressed, and what link words are used. Mimicry (Homi Bhabha) was a denigrating term used in postcolonial theory to suggest initial (at least) copying of others, but in writing it is about learning the language, the forms, expressions and skills. First, we process writing by others in our discipline, and in the format and outlet we want to write for, and see how they argue the points set out in their work. Using the discipline language, we learn to mimic the language and the forms, linking words in an argument (‘in this respect’…. ‘my research suggests that…’). We are not copying their information nor their work; we are learning about structure and expression. We practise until we own the discipline language, the structure and links, and then these are ours to use in our own writing as expressions of our own work.

These are just a few thoughts on practice based on experience and research. One last tip: do not feel guilty if you get less done than you thought you would. Just get on with another strategy, persevere, find out what works for you and use it, take control, congratulate yourself at each piece of beginning or finished, well formed writing, and manage your writing energy!


Peter Elbow (1973) Writing Without Teachers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 77.

Rowena Murray (2002) How to Write a Thesis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Gina Wisker (2014)’Voice, vision and articulation: conceptual threshold crossing in academic writing.’ in Threshold concepts: from personal practice to communities of practice.

Proceedings of the National Academy’s Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference [E-publication]Ed. Catherine O’Mahony, Avril Buchanan, Mary O’Rourke, and Bettie Higgs January 2014

Gina Wisker (in press) Getting Published, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gina Wisker and Maggi Savin-Baden (2009) Priceless conceptual thresholds: beyond the ‘stuck place’ in writing. London Review of Education 7(3): 235–47.


Gina’s podcast on publishing from your PhD at:

Gina’s podcast on publishing journal articles at:

You can also listen to two podcasts by Gina via the following links:

Keeping the public out: No-go areas in your thesis


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By Claire Aitchison

Earlier this month when I was running some workshops for doctoral students in the Northern Territory of Australia, a conversation ensued about no-go areas in the thesis.

nogo areas205

In thesis writing, as in life, we are wise to make decisions to keep certain things to ourselves. Some things that happen in doctoral research are best not shared. For example, don’t tell them how you forgot to turn on the tape recorder at the focus group interview…

Let me quickly make it clear that I am not advocating unethical practices like hiding bad results or manipulating data or findings, or withholding relevant information from participants. It is absolutely imperative to conform to ethical standards of research and to be as transparent and as consultative as possible about our processes and practices.

But in writing the thesis, one constantly needs to make decisions about what to include and exclude. Various institutional, disciplinary and ethical practices – and personal preferences – impact our decision-making about what goes into, or stays out of, the thesis.

In my experience, depending on the disciplinary expectations and the kind of research being undertaken, doctoral scholars may be uncertain as to whether or not to write (or write very much) about the following kinds of things:

For example, how much do we need to tell about the twists and turns of the research journey?   It’s not always clear. I worked with a student who sought to measure the impact of a certain leaf-chewing insect on a eucalypt forest. For many and convoluted reasons to do with access to a specific machine in the laboratory, she ended up changing her research, instead investigating the impact of the insect droppings on soil structures. She could have told this story from a variety of vantage points – not the least of which would have been her anger and frustration! What appeared in her thesis, however, was a very authoritative statement about the need for the study she did. Another scholar working with an indigenous community also had to make significant and unexpected changes to her research. She felt that she was not at liberty to relate any aspect of the circumstances which had brought about this substantial change, even though it had had a major impact on the research. Her choice to keep the public out of this part of the story was the right ethical decision.

It’s unlikely any doctoral thesis will include a review of all the relevant literature. Generally, it’s only after many iterations arising from sustained engagement in the research itself that we get clarity about what can stay and what must go. You can’t leave in a beaut 5,000 words on globalization – no matter how well-written – if it’s no longer relevant because your research moved you on in another direction. If it’s not fit for purpose, then it shouldn’t be in the thesis.

The pilot study can also present a dilemma. On a number of occasions I’ve worked with doctoral scholars who have been in a quandary about reporting on their pilot study. In my own doctoral research I did a small test-run to check out the veracity of my interview questions and to see which participant recruitment flyer appealed most. It was a useful activity for me – but it wasn’t a particularly important part of the research and I never reported on it, nor did I use the data that I collected in the process.

On the other hand, I’ve known of situations where the pilot study, although conceived of simply as a mechanism to test specific research methods, itself became an important source of data. In this case, the researcher had to decide how to tell that story. Should they have described how it started out as one thing and changed to another? What was necessary information in this case? Could they abandon the term ‘pilot study’ and include that original investigation as one of the data sets? Is it better to conceive of that component as a ‘First Phase’ of a two phase study? The point here is that we need to decide what story fits best the requirement to present a strong, coherent and honourable account.

Sometimes doctoral scholars are unsure about the need to include raw data in appendices. Again, there will be different answers according to the discipline and nature of the research. In the sciences there may be an expectation to include considerable amounts of information in appendices (protocols and calibration specifications, for example). In the social sciences and humanities there is often less need – but again it depends. I know of a couple of studies using photovoice as a method, but only one thesis had an appendix with the participant’s photos. For most social research, it would be rare to include the full transcripts of participant interviews or focus group transcripts in the appendices. On the other hand, this may be required for certain studies in applied linguistics.

When deciding whether or not something needs to go into the thesis, I am reminded of something my kids say: ‘I’ll tell you if you need to know’. This could be equally good advice for thesis writers.

If you’ve had other experiences or can suggest strategies for making some of those tricky decisions about what stays in, or gets removed from, the thesis we’d love to hear from you.


The value of blogging


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By Mary-Helen Ward, who recently completed a PhD on students’ experiences while doing a PhD in Australia. Mary-Helen works in eLearning and Learning Space management at the University of Sydney.

When I enrolled in my PhD, in 2005, blogs were very popular. There were even ‘blog evangelists’, who would tell you that blogs were the best way to do a range of things, from promoting your business to getting undergraduates and even school students to express themselves. I’d always just thought of them as a useful way to record what was happening in your life, but academics were starting to write about blogging as a useful way to both develop ideas and to share them internationally. There was Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs’ 2006 book Uses of Blogs, Stephen Downes’ blog and articles (eg 2004), Toril Mortenson and Jill Walker’s 2002 book chapter that was reproduced and referenced many times, and Jill Walker Rettburg’s 2008 book Blogging (which has just been updated and republished).

While I was working on my PhD (over seven years part-time) I kept three blogs. One was the blog I’d already had for a few years. Subtitled ‘What I think, what I do and what I knit’; it recorded my theatre visits, books I was reading, my knitting projects, and my general opinions and doings. The second I started when I enrolled. Originally entitled ‘Faultlines’, later ‘Living in Liminal Space’, this was the place where I recorded my struggles and victories, and also, before Evernote became available, where I recorded useful web-based material on the fly. Then there was the entry I dashed off about something I observed on the way to work, that made it into my thesis as a screen grab exactly as you see it on that page.

The third blog I can’t link you to, because it was a part of the data for my PhD and under the conditions imposed by the Ethics Committee it can’t be made public. Part of my project to investigate how the PhD operates in Australia involved having a group of PhD students blogging their process, and of course I was one of them. For about 18 months, a group of 7 PhD students wrote about their lives, their feelings and their studies. The result, as you can imagine, was a rich and complex document that enabled me to think about the experience of doing a PhD in Australia in a complex and nuanced way. Although there has been quite a bit of writing about supervision and what PhD students need in Australia, as you probably know there has been very little written by students themselves – about their own or other students’ experiences. What has been written includes the theses of Jim Cumming, Kevin Ryland and Liz Harrison referenced below.

There are many ways in which public blogs can be useful in the PhD process. At the most basic level, it can provide students with a place to dump random thoughts and reactions – and at the same time practice presenting their ideas, even when raw, to a reader. Over time, it provides a record of process that can surprise the writer on re-reading, and create opportunities for reflection and reflective writing on progress. This is especially valuable for someone using a methodology that requires reflection and self-reporting, but is helpful for anyone who wants to be self-aware of their own process of doctoral development. Sandra West, a very experienced supervisor, and I have written about the advantages of using joint blogs between student and supervisors. Sandra’s students are often busy professionals, and the blogs have proved useful for her to keep in touch with them between face-to-face meetings, while also encouraging their reflective writing. She asks her students to record supervision sessions, then write something on their blog a few days later about the session, with the supervisors then being able to comment and continue the conversation.

But there is another level at which blogging can be useful for PhD students. As has been well documented – it is really the reason for this blog’s existence – many PhD students find writing difficult. Finding their voice and becoming comfortable with making claims about their knowledge is a threshold concept for PhD students (Kiley & Wisker, 2009). In a blog, an online space that they own and can decorate to represent themselves, they can play with ideas, record emotions, link to others’ ideas easily, store copies of important documents and, if they choose, put their ideas out for others to read and react to.

Although PhD candidates have always kept notes of their research, these have often been concerned with the research project and not with their development as researchers. And although a document is a simple way to record and reflect more widely on what we are reading, a blog, kept over time, easily records how we are developing as researchers and writers. Here is an entry that is a picture of a twitter conversation I had with Inger Mewburn one day, during which I had a small conceptual breakthrough. Looking back over my blog to write this I also found these two entries, which reminded me of stages I went through that I had forgotten – the significance of events shifts so much through time. The comments on the second entry were interesting to revisit too.

So, although some might decry blogs as ‘so twentieth century’, they still provide flexible, easy to share and, in our mobile world, always available tools for journaling and sharing academic work. In addition, the continued popularity of this blog, Thesiswhisperer, Patter, and other blogs like Nick Hopwood’s that aim, at least in part, to support HDR students, demonstrate that blogging has continued to be an important way that students can gain skills and share experiences as part of their development as independent scholars.

Comments welcome.

Bruns, A., & Jacobs, J. (Eds.). (2006). Uses of blogs. New York: Peter Lang.

Cumming, J. (2007). Representing the complexity, diversity and particularity of the doctoral enterprise in Australia. (PhD), Australian National University, Canberra

Downes, S. (2004). Educational blogging. Educause review, 39(5), 14-26

Kiley, M., & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing. Higher education research and development, 28(4), 431-441.

Harrison, J. E. (2010). Developing a doctoral identity : a narrative study in an autoethnographic frame. (PhD), University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.

Mortensen, T., & Walker, J. (2002). Blogging Thoughts: Personal publication as an online research tool. In T. Morrison (Ed.), Researching ICTs in context. Oslo: InterMedia Report.

Ryland, K. D. (2007). Reconceptualising the Australian doctoral experience : work, creativity and part-time study. (PhD), Deakin.

Walker Rettberg, J. (2014). Blogging. (2nd edn) Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Ward, M.-H., & West, S. (2008). Blogging PhD Candidature: Revealing the Pedagogy. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 6(1).

Williams, J. B., & Jacobs, J. (2004). Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20, 232-247.


Academic selfies, self-promotion and other narcissistic behavours


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By Clairephoto 4

I was talking to my 90-year-old father about his working life in a post-war world where opportunity seemed abundant, where hard-working people had job security and predictable promotion trajectories. My father doesn’t understand self-promotion. In his view of the world, good work is noticed and rewarded by good managers. Blowing one’s own trumpet is crass; modesty and humility are admirable. I’m grateful he isn’t part of my world and will never see how we academics survive by self-promotion.

I have conflicted views about this brave new world – sometimes it seems so self-indulgent and narcissistic. But I also recognise that there are few alternatives. The Anglo-Christian idea that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ and Confucian respect for humility, for example, just doesn’t cut it for job-seeking doctoral students.

In our highly competitive world, doctoral students need to keep a very firm eye on profile building. Publishing – and here I refer not only to traditional paper-based publishing – is a central plank to constructing one’s public profile. Publishing is not simply about disseminating research, it is also about building an image of yourself as a scholar, promoting your work and your availability. Unfortunately, most of this promotional work needs to be driven by the individual; our institutions rarely assist scholars in this endeavour.

So, what academic selfies are available – and acceptable – for building this public profile?

Self-citation, or citing oneself, is a pretty traditional approach, although it’s not always clear where, when and how much one should cite oneself. For example, a friend is scathing about her colleague’s habit of citing his own work within the first paragraph of his articles…

Citation circles (you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours) have long been used for building a presence and getting traction within a particular community. Of course, sometimes citing oneself or one’s colleagues is entirely legitimate, but not always necessarily entirely innocent…

Email signatures can be effectively constructed to advertise new or highly cited publications.

Personal websites and online professional networks such as LinkedIn, and ResearchGate are widely used for displaying publications, profile analytics, and other professional achievements. A Google Scholar profile is a basic essential these days.

Compared to these relatively static mechanisms, the power of social media (eg Twitter, Facebook, blogging) for profile building is like dynamite. Big and loud, social media can make an impact that can be useful – but it can also be damaging. It is immediate and pretty unforgiving. Social media, more than these other tools, requires you to manage your own image-making. Blogging – that is, public diary-keeping – is now commonplace and it’s no surprise that doctoral scholars and researchers are increasingly taking to this medium as readers (Tenopir, Volentine, & King, 2013) and for the dissemination of their research (Gruzd, Staves, & Wilk, 2012). But blogs also present an image of their authors, inviting public engagement in ways that aren’t predictable (Steel, Cohen, Hurley, & Joy, 2012). The format, title and visuals, the choice and treatment of topics, the style and tone all help brand the author as a certain kind of scholar.

Image making is hard-wired into social media tools. I found this out recently, when I signed up to Twitter. Having agonised over the choice of name (or hashtag or handle), finally, with the help of seasoned experts Joyce Seitzinger and Tseen Khoo, I signed in – only to discover that Twitter then wanted a descriptor and a photo. Weeks later, I added a descriptor – as short as I could get away with. Not long afterwards, momentarily forgetting about the still absent photo, I tapped out a response to a tweet, only to receive this quip: ‘I see you’re still an egg head!’ So much for my careful image making!

This relatively harmless stuff-up underlines how easy it is for social media to backfire. Blogging and other social media, operate like selfies – you choose and make the image of your public self. Therein lie the benefits – and risks.

Participating in this self-promotional world is a performative act, that, to a degree, is self-indulgent, but can also be business-like and professional – and, when viewed as a reciprocal community, can reap great rewards. Nevertheless, successful engagement necessitates careful thinking about what, where and when you will promote particular aspects of your research and professional persona. It involves decisions about identity, image and personal/professional boundaries.

My foray into this world has largely been experimental and fun – but I recognise the central requirement to sell oneself in such public forums can be daunting. If your objective is career-building then it’s worth taking a considered approach to how, where and when you will build your public profile.

Some of these themes will be taken up again next week in a post by Mary-Helen Ward on PhD blogging, in the meanwhile I wonder:

Can doctoral scholars avoid self-promotion? Do institutions have a responsibility to help them (and their supervisors) learn the ropes in this new context?



Gruzd, A., Staves, K., & Wilk, A. (2012). Connected scholars: examining the role of social media in research practices of faculty using the UTAUT model. Computers in human behaviour, 28, 2340 – 2350.

Steel, K., Cohen, J. J., Hurley, M. K., & Joy, E. A. (2012). Why We Blog: An Essay in Four Movements. Literature Compass, 9(12), 1016-1032. doi: 10.1111/lic3.12012

Tenopir, C., Volentine, R., & King, D. W. (2013). Social media and scholarly reading. Online Information Review, 37(2), 193-216. doi: doi:


Comma, stop



By Cally Guerin

It comes as a great surprise to me that other people don’t always seem to find punctuation as fascinating as I do. In fact, it turns out that the vast majority of my students find it frankly boring and tedious, despite my enthusiastic offers to devote the next two-hour workshop to exploring the wonderful world of commas. I admit that I’m definitely not a serious scholar of punctuation, but I do like talking and thinking about it (and I suspect that some of my colleagues deliberately include punctuation errors in documents simply to give me the pleasure of correcting them!).

The continuing evolution of English means that conventions keep changing. While it’s not useful to be too pedantic about punctuation, there are lots of situations where a misplaced or missing comma can confuse the reader. The critical placement of the comma in the title of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves plays with the image of a panda wielding a shotgun: removing that comma changes ‘shoots’ from a verb to a noun. While not an academic text, this very readable and entertaining exploration of how punctuation works is much more approachable than some other texts on punctuation that I’ve tried to wade through. There’s also a version for children that is fun.

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice I’ve received about punctuation is to read the text aloud and pop in a comma wherever I need to pause for breath. This might work for very simple sentence structures, but is really not useful for doctoral writing, where noun phrases are often very long. By the time the subject has been announced (the ‘thing’ the sentence is about), I often feel that I need to take a breath and gather my composure before continuing. An example of a long noun phrase would be ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma…’

By contrast, one of the most useful rules about commas that I’ve been lucky enough to learn early is that a subject must never be separated from its verb by a comma. In the above example, we must leap straight to the verb: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma is a source of great consternation to many academic writers’. Sure, I can’t say out loud the whole sentence without taking a breath, but readers will get confused about how the parts fit together if I slot a comma in before ‘is’.

When sentences get more complex, it’s possible to insert extra information in between two commas: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple, although alarmingly complex, squiggle known as the comma is…’ And don’t forget that those dependent clauses also need a comma when introducing the main part of the sentence: ‘Although they are alarmingly complex, commas can be tamed by even the most timid of writers’.

There are lots of much more erudite scholars than me who can help writers work out the correct punctuation for their sentences (and no doubt some readers of this post will not agree with my own comma choices here!). One book well worth exploring is Punc Rocks (Buxton, Carter & Sturm, 2011). The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University has very straightforward, useful materials available for free. And I really love the pamphlet I found as a first-year PhD student called ‘English Grammar on One Card’ by Vincent F. Hopper – clear, easy, direct.

For doctoral writers, the main focus must always be on ensuring clarity for the reader. While extremely complex sentence structures might look scholarly to some, most readers will be more interested in following the argument than trying to track the subject of a sentence through a dense array of punctuation marks. Directness and simplicity can go a long way in communicating complex ideas.

Now, don’t get me started on which words need to be hyphenated…


Buxton, J., Carter, S. & Sturm, S. (2011). Punc Rocks: Foundation Stones for Precise Punctuation, 2nd Edn, Auckland, Pearson Education New Zealand.

Lynn Truss (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, London, Profile Books.

Blog roundup – some recent favourites on argument and voice


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By Cally Guerin

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that it has encouraged me to keep an eye on the wonderful work on research writing that other bloggers also publish. Some of my favourites are Patter, ThesisWhisperer and Explorations of Style. I use these informative sites on a regular basis to refresh my own approach to writing workshops and supervision. Here I want to reflect on some blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that remind us of the important links between argument and voice, particularly in relation to signposting the direction of the argument.

Pat Thomson warns doctoral candidates about the dangers of boring writing in ‘Don’t send your thesis examiner to sleep’. She advises doctoral writers to be wary of over-signposting: Don’t become too repetitive in announcing what will be done and what has just been done. I agree that this can be utterly off-putting. I once proofread a thesis that told me so many times what I had just read before it allowed me to find out what was coming next that I completely lost track of the actual content.

Patter also encourages doctoral writers to get some life into the writing, rather than being ‘Kind of impersonal and distanced. Professional. Stuffy. Lacking in personality.’ In other words, think about creating a lively voice in the writing. I really like this. As a supervisor and as an academic editor, I prefer not to intervene too much: I think it’s important to preserve the individual style of a writer. But remember – one person’s charmingly quirky can be another’s irritatingly obscure or self-conscious. It’s about striking the right balance and it can be very useful to get a few different people to read sections of your work to see if they find the voice appropriate.

Also in relation to voice, Inger Mewburn in the ThesisWhisper posted ‘The zombie thesis’, referring to those theses that ‘can walk and talk, but aren’t really alive’. That is, theses can meet all the rules and regulations, can include all the elements that check the boxes, but still fail to engage the reader and communicate the excitement of the research. This lack of life is sometimes caused by the overall argument being lost in amongst a whole lot of detail. The post recommends the very effective practice of going back to basics and revisiting the outline of individual chapters and sections. From my perspective, it’s even better practice to encourage students to focus closely on the planning of outlines right from the beginning, so that the central argument is kept alive throughout the writing process. This in turn can free up the author to present opinions confidently, and thus bring the whole thesis to life.

The issue of signposting sufficiently without overdoing it was also canvassed by Rachael Cayley in Explorations of Style in a recent reblogging of a post from her archives. This post reminds us about how to create useful transitions while avoiding the boring repetition mentioned in Patter. There are some really good ideas here for linking between sentences, but I was particularly interested in the advice regarding transitions between sections—this seems to be the hardest part for novice writers to get right.

Achieving the right the balance between showing how the sections relate to each other without overstating the obvious is not easy. It helps enormously if the argument is clearly structured, so that each step seems inevitable as it moves in a straight direction towards the concluding statement. Headings derived from the original outline of the chapter/section are helpful, but I also like the suggestion from Explorations of Style to read through a piece of writing without referring to the headings in order to ensure that the sense is not too dependent on the headings to guide the argument—we need both headings and textual signposts to find our way through the text.

Do you have any further suggestions about how to find the right balance in presenting the argument clearly in one’s own voice? How can we keep the writing interesting, but make sure that there is enough signposting to let the reader know what’s going on?


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