Doctoral writing: Why bother?


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By Susan Carter

Recently a colleague posed this question to academics: ‘your research and publication–why bother?’ Now that sounds sullen and disenchanted, but it is a great question for drawing out what really matters about research. This post considers why we bother doing doctoral writing as students and carefully supporting it as academics.

It’s based on a workshop for doctoral candidates with a twofold purpose. The first was about emotion, to vent about the tribulations of doctoral writing for catharsis (and bonding, according to Mewburn, 2011) and then turn to listing positive reasons for doing this work as a motivational exercise. The other is to emphasise that throughout the thesis the reasons why the research matters should be overtly stated in writing, specifically in the introduction and the conclusion.

In a two hour workshop with doctoral students from several disciplines we first worked through the disenchantment inherent in ‘oh, why bother?’, making space for shared griping about what is bothersome about doctoral research and writing. People talked about what seemed hard to them at the time.

Then candidates moved to individually answer that question. The answers to ‘why bother?’ had to be accurate, not exaggerated or understated. There was a tendency for understatement, which is common, given that often it seems socially inept to tell people how important your own work is, and that allowed us to talk about the way that defending the doctorate required stating its significance. Group peer review ensured perfect iteration so that the right wording for inclusion in the thesis was sharp and persuasive.

My own belief is that we are hugely privileged to spend time on a research project and acquiring the advanced literacy skills that enable communicating what it means to others who are likely to be interested. I think of the very bright people I know trapped in boring jobs, perhaps with family responsibilities that mean they haven’t got the possibility to do a doctorate. I know many doctoral students have similar pressures in their lives, but somehow within their own resources they find a way to keep their career moving forward and their minds keen as they learn. Not everyone can.

Here is a list of reminders about what doctoral writing can do for you:

  • Finding an academic voice helps define who you are and what matters to you; it is an act of self creation;
  • Gaining a sophisticated level of literacy that will be useful in the future;
  • Finally figuring rules about grammar and even appreciating their logic;
  • Writing passages that are really satisfying in their clarity and cleanness;
  • Realising that writing is often flowing more easily;
  • Joining a distinct discourse community;
  • Gaining an ability to mentor others;
  • Widening future career opportunities; and
  • Becoming a stronger person who can manage their own emotions and the large writing project.

Many doctoral students are the first in their family to venture so far into education, and as they write, they write possible further success for future generations into their family’s history and repertoire. For some, passion about making the world a better place drives them as doctoral writers; they may be tackling big challenges or smaller ones, but know that they join the legions of humans who work in different ways to make things better.

This blog often acknowledges the challenges of doctoral writing, the way that feedback can be demoralising, that outside pressures can really squeeze, and that the pedantry and perfectionism of academic writing can baffle and irritate. We comment on these kinds of things because we know they can be bothersome. ‘Why bother?’ may often rise out of irritation, or self-doubt or self-pity from doctoral students or the academics who support their writing.

I’d like to gently suggest that most routes through life are harder than doing a doctorate, harder because they are more limited, smaller, and less full of potential. But it can be productive to take a moment to take this question to heart and to formulate a response that reminds one of the joys and benefits of the challenge. It is good to take ‘why bother’ literally, too, and articulate in the thesis so that there is no doubt that the project was worth doing, worth a doctorate, and that the original contribution is significant.

In the introduction and conclusion of the doctorate students could be encouraged to answer further questions with careful detail.

  • Why did you take up this research?
  • What was the problem that motivated you to seek a solution, or partial solution?
  • Who were hurt by that problem?
  • What was hard for you in this research project and what gave you the impetus to keep going?
  • How does your research mitigate the problem or fill in a gap in knowledge or understanding?
  • Who will benefit from your research findings?
  • Might benefits be wider, in that your methods would work with other problems, or for practitioners in other disciplines?
  • What gaps in knowledge or understanding still exist?

Supervisors probably need a different set of prompts, but might remember that whenever we work supportively with someone else’s writing, we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and how we can mentor as part of making the world a better place through research and its writing. I’m always at risk of arriving at a happy ending, and am doing it again here, but would ask for contributions to share ways that we can help each other to know why we bother, and that it does matter. What is your response to ‘doctoral writing; why bother’?

Mewburn, I. (2011). Troubling talk: Assembling the PhD candidate. Studies in Continuing Education. Available at




Developing doctoral writing in four dimensions: Helen Sword’s baseline


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By Susan Carter

This post is premised squarely on the base line of Helen Sword’s latest book on academic writing. She begins by asking the reader to self-audit their own strengths and weaknesses as writers. This task orients them into the book, one rich with data from interviews with successful academic writers as to how they work. Sword has recommendations for each of the dimensions in this exercise. Yet she begins not with good advice, but with an affective approach, reaching into the core of each reader by asking us to reflect on who we are as writers. To self-analyse, we are given an exercise evaluating the different aspects of academic writing that influence development. Continue reading

Lyn’s Favourite Things: Time Management Strategies



In this post, Dr Lyn Lavery offers some excellent advice to doctoral writers for managing their time productively.

I’m a big fan of making the most of the time I have as it means I have more time to spend on the things I enjoy. Here are my three favourite strategies for doing just that.

Eat a Frog

If you’ve ever had the experience of sitting down to check your emails first thing in the morning, only to realise three hours later that the most productive time of your day has disappeared, then I highly recommend frog eating. The idea comes from Mark Twain – he suggested that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you’ll know that’s the worst thing that will happen to you all day. (There’s a thought for when your doctoral writing is getting on top of you.) Continue reading

Call for posts: Extending the doctoral writing conversation beyond English



By Cally Guerin

Looking through my notes from the 2017 Writing Research Across Borders conference (WRAB) (held at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogota, Colombia in February), I was struck by how much of the program I was unable to participate in. Any conference with parallel sessions means missing out on many of the papers. However, this time, as a monolingual English speaker at a largely Spanish-speaking conference, I really missed out!

Although not usually a victim of FOMO (fear of missing out), this time I was acutely aware of being surrounded by fascinating conversations that I couldn’t access. What was going on around me? What are the pressing issues for those writing doctoral theses in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese? Are they the same as those faced by scholars writing in English? Is this different again when writing a thesis in English as an additional language? I suspect that many supervisors who work in English-speaking countries have little awareness of the different language and cultural conventions and expectations that come into play.

The posts here on the DoctoralWritingSIG blog have, until now, focused on the issues relating to writing a thesis in English. We cover all sorts of aspects: topics specifically focused on thesis writing; on grammar and style more broadly; on writing practices; and on the issues around identity and emotion that arise in the context of doctoral writing.

It would be of great interest to extend our understandings of the issues around doctoral writing in other languages. If you work with doctoral candidates in languages other than English, or with candidates writing in English as an additional language, we’d love to hear about your experiences and insights into the challenges faced and helpful solutions you’ve found. Or if you are a student writing your doctorate in a language other than English, you may have insights you’d like to share. We see from our website statistics that we have readers from nearly every country in the world, so there is a wealth of knowledge out there amongst you.

Here at DoctoralWritingSIG we’d like to host a special themed month on doctoral writing from the perspective of those using languages other than English. We will accept contributions in English as well as other languages. Our practice is to always review posts before they go live and this will also be the case for these submissions (with some translation help if not in English!).

Please send us your proposals (100-200 words) so we can start this conversation. We’ll work with you to prepare your ideas for publication on our website as a blog post of 600-800 words. Email your proposals before 31 July to

The developing thesis proposal: questions to launch doctoral writing



By Susan Carter

A potential doctoral candidate choosing their topic might ask themselves: ‘”What are the subjects that interest me—that I want to make sense of?” “Who do I want to talk to about these subjects?” And “What can I bring to the conversation?”’ (Kempe, 2005: 2). These are three pertinent questions that Anne Sigismund Huff saw as initiating research direction. From there, though, it is rarely that simple. Continue reading

Writing text for research posters



By Cally Guerin

Recently I sat down to make a poster about the DoctoralWritingSIG blog for a higher education conference. I’ve made only a few research posters over the years; this genre is more common in some science disciplines than it is in humanities and social sciences. The exercise encouraged me to think about how this kind of research writing differs from that of a journal article or a thesis or, for that matter, a 20-minute oral presentation for a conference.

Poster prose is a little like reducing an 80,000-word thesis to a Three-Minute Thesis presentation: turning an article-length idea into a poster requires the author to focus in on the key messages of the communication. Posters encourage writers to extract the skeleton of the narrative they have developed in more fulsome terms elsewhere, to distill the key ideas of the work into neat dot points or short statements. This is not a time to be chatty; a poster gives us only the central message. Continue reading