By Susan Carter
Horror stories sometimes circulate about disasters that struck doctoral research. Pat Cryer (2003: 213-215) lists examples of doctoral projects that hit walls and how they were salvaged through modification to timely completion.
Sometimes this really does occur. It can be that once the thesis is almost drafted, a new publication comes out seeming to cover the same ground. Publications may also produce new evidence that debunks a doctoral approach to the topic. Or results are so unexpected that the theoretical approach is rendered inappropriate—and results may be negative. It is not uncommon when a doctoral scholar is a few years into the project to come across different theories or methods that make those that are already laboriously written up seem out-dated or ill-fitting by comparison.
Cryer’s (2003) short section reminded me that one of the seldom-mentioned skills of independent researchers is being able to survive disaster and salvage projects by handling fairly radical revision. Perhaps this is something that supervisors need to point out to doctoral students: professional independence means the stamina to treat demanding revision as a job of work and handle it. As much as we have to be able to handle the review process, including multiple rejections, we need to be able to manage writing when the research trajectory changes after a manuscript has been largely constructed.
My own first experience was with the first article I wrote completely independently after completing my PhD. I was tutoring on limited term contracts that paid only for my time preparing and teaching. Preparation always took me ten times what I was paid for–good teaching evaluations were important as I began collecting evidence towards applications for a real job. I had moved on to an intriguing topic that I hadn’t covered in my PhD, so this was my first bit of truly independent research. It took several years to complete the article as I traced new veins of literature and positioned myself. When I submitted it, reviewers pointed me to two recent books on the same topic, whole books that did a beautiful job of making most of the points that I had.
After recuperating from feeling a chump, I read the books, and found that a couple of my less significant observations were not covered in them. My article had to be refocused to ‘add to recent interest’ in the topic and to foreground what had been less significant in my earlier version. I rewrote the introduction and conclusion, cut some stuff out, and theorised a bit more on those small points, taking them as far as I could. It worked and was published.
Retrospectively, I see that the unfolding of that project was another conceptual threshold crossing I made as a novice researcher: learning how to cope, adapt, make do, persevere and do it independently without the support of others. On the positive side, it means learning to value your own ideas to the extent that you will persist with them until they find the daylight of publication. As I watch doctoral students graduate, I’m only now realising that acquiring resilience for independent work is a vital research attribute, and one that it is perhaps impossible for supervisors to teach.
Perhaps we just have to go back to stories. Horror stories have appeal because they are affective, but I’m sure that there are stories like mine here that have happy endings because they describe salvage and recuperation. Supervisors and advisors could raise this attribute for research writer success: researchers not only have to handle rigorous review, but sometimes we need to learn to take work that we have done and turn in a new direction. The written thesis may yield more than one story with a little work.
When research writing is as lengthy as a doctoral thesis, this becomes more challenging: most doctoral students dread the spectre of someone else producing their findings before they can get over the completion line. Yet if it happens, it is the trial-by-fire likely to produce a strong survivalist researcher. Most doctoral students are spared the task of reworking the thesis at short notice before submission. Considering that spectre, though, might be a post-submission starting point for future publication.
I’m interested in other stories about what went wrong and what happened, especially when there is a happy ending. Have you got one of these? Perhaps even more relevant, do you have tips for how to teach doctoral students to handle writing revision?