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by Cally Guerin

It is not unusual for doctoral candidature to be disrupted for extended periods over the three or more years that these projects usually take. Candidates take a leave of absence for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes this is because of very positive, planned life changes such as maternity or parenting leave, or good short-term job opportunities arise. Other times the interruption can be for more difficult reasons of illness or injury, carer responsibilities for elderly relatives, or pressing financial need pushes candidates into paid work for awhile.

But when those events have run their course, the task of starting again on the writing needs to be addressed. For some, the chance to get back to their writing is an eagerly awaited moment, and they are filled with new energy to kickstart the project. For others, though, it is a very daunting prospect that is approached with great anxiety.

I think part of what must be remembered here is that not only has the momentum of the project been disrupted, but also the emerging researcher identity has been disrupted. We know that the writing of the thesis is closely linked to developing doctoral identities (Lee & Boud 2003; Aitchison & Lee 2006; Kamler & Thomson 2006). For those who have taken a break from that identity and are now trying to return, there are pressing questions to face: How does my identity as a new parent fit with my identity as a scholar? As a cancer survivor, will I have the energy required to complete this intense writing phase? After a major accident that involved head injuries, am I still the kind of person whose concentration span is sufficient to do rigorous, scholarly research? Now that I am a bereaved widow instead of a carer for my terminally ill husband, will the writing fill up that aching gap of grief or will it be too isolating when what I really need is human warmth? It’s important not to underestimate how confronting these questions might be, nor how far beneath the surface they might lurk, stalling progress but not consciously acknowledged.

Disruption to candidature doesn’t have to be an entirely negative experience, however. Starting again after a break can be regarded as a chance to re-assess the project and its direction with fresh eyes, and maybe even make significant changes to improve the final product.

When I was a PhD student many years ago (in the days when people relied on hardcopy from typewriters rather than electronic copies stored in cloud technology), a student at my university lost the single copy of his almost finished thesis when his home was burnt down in a terrible bushfire. Traumatic as this was, the student courageously started again, rewrote the thesis, and ended up with an excellent, medal-winning thesis that was published to great acclaim. The story went that, in the process of starting again, he was able to reassess his approach to the work and rewrite the thesis based on the digested, synthesised knowledge that had developed over the entire candidature. Of course, I would never wish such trauma on anyone, but the salutary lesson here is that a bit of distance from the project can bring unexpected improvements to the writing.

So when talking to students who are coming back to doctoral writing after an extended interruption, what advice can we offer? The obvious starting point would be to read the last version of any existing chapters, go through the notes collected while reading the literature, and establish where the project is actually up to (as opposed to hazy memories that may be more or less optimistic about how much had been achieved previously). With that done, it is possible to make an overall, big-picture plan of what remains to be done, in what order, and in what timeframe. Then I’d recommend breaking the work up into manageable, bite-sized tasks rather than thinking of it as the monumental undertaking of ‘writing up’ the entire thesis. It’s also a useful strategy to start by doing the easy bits first, as it is always encouraging to see something ticked off the list of jobs and some progress registered.

Have you started again after an extended break as a doctoral student? Or as the supervisor advising a student? As a writing advisor? How did you go about it? What advice can you offer to those faced with similar circumstances?

Aitchison, C., & Lee, A. (2006) Research writing: Problems and pedagogies. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3): 265-278.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. New York and London: Routledge.

Lee, A., & Boud, D. (2003). Writing groups, change and academic identity: Research development as local practice. Studies in Higher Education, 28(2), 187-200.