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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 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0158037X.2011.585151?src=recsys