By Susan Carter

At the Quality in Postgraduate Research conference (April 17-19, 2018), a group of scholars came to a doctoral writing special interest group (SIG). Why, you might wonder, when writing in and of itself might seem to not be a topic with an argument to make. Most were academics who support doctoral writing, and a few were those writers themselves. I asked them to jot down what they find so interesting about doctoral writing, explaining that I would construct a blogpost from these.

Their individual responses splatter around the complexity of the process and product, and led me to the metaphor of sailing. Partly, I suspect, the metaphor of long ocean sailing trips came to mind because a friend is recently back from one, and we spent a pleasant evening sharing anecdotes. Stories circled back to being ten hours from anywhere and uncertain about survival….having to make repairs to gear in a storm…the night when a cruise liner went past, with its huge wake….. Those stories have comparisons with some of the experiences of the doctoral journey: the feeling of being acutely alone in a vast sea of literature; the realisation that theory or approach must be stripped back and remade; the book that came out just before submission and had to be factored in right through the thesis. Sailing and doctoral writing are both interesting in part because of the largeness of the venture. This post analyses thoughts on why doctoral writing might be interesting, and what these thoughts might tell about the experience…

A few of the academics were intrigued by their own puzzlement as to what doctoral writing was, as though it had an intrinsic but elusive selfhood. Comments on that theme include

  • ‘It’s such a problematic area; we know a lot about the experience of it but not what it looks like’
  • ‘It’s so interesting because it’s such a hot topic –there is so much that is not known about actual doctoral itself. What it involves, what it looks like, how it differs etc.’
  • ‘It is research writing but can be anything it needs to be’

There is something vast and oceanic about doctoral writing that means preparing, charting the course, talking to sailors who have taken a similar route, and then the pleasure of perfect sailing, the monotony of doldrums, and the terror of the unknown are all within range. Very rarely, there’s a tsunami, and total wipe out. Mostly, there are chores that must be done, and always self-management of handling whatever the wide sea serves up. When you set out to sea, as prepared as possible, you do not know what will happen—that is true too of doctoral writing.

Others in the DoctoralWriting SIG revelled in the extraordinary learning that occurs through doctoral writing.

  • ‘Finding identity through prose’
  • ‘Opportunity for intellectual growth’
  • ‘Challenges for intellectual growth
  • ‘A protracted journey of discovery in terms of self, identity, subject knowledge, ‘voice…’
  • ‘It becomes the foundation of the student’s perception of quality (at least for a bit)’

Again, I think of sailing, and how much it teaches you about yourself, and about doing whatever it takes. The learning of doctoral writing can be hard, but, dare I suggest, that toughness is also exhilarating and privileged.

Other SIG-attending academics seemed to be in awe towards what is accomplished by doctoral writing:

  • ‘New knowledge is constructed in it’
  • ‘High stakes; assessed by gatekeepers to academy; “publish or perish” – a life or death activity!’
  • ‘Writing is so intrinsic to the doctoral enterprise’
  • ‘Often the first opportunity people have of being an author of a large work’
  • ‘Usually on the cusp/edge of new knowledge’

Then there was recognition of the intensity of the writing project, something memorable experienced usually just once in a lifetime.

  • ‘Compelling to be creative about expressions and arguments within the research space for HDR scholars and now maybe ECRs.’
  • ‘The gradual/sudden changes that usually occur during the research quest.’
  • ‘It is about the unique genre of thesis writing expressing an original and significant contribution to knowledge – for every author generated in many ways (co-author etc) across different journeys.’

The development of voice in doctoral writing intrigued some. I think of this as self-creation, the creation of the persona that the author is likely to inhabit for some time.

  • ‘Original contribution that follows singularly unoriginal trajectory challenge of finding one’s voice’
  • ‘How to find an authorial voice and confident in thinking’
  • ‘Academic language in development early stages’
  • ‘Translation of complex ideas into writing’
  • ‘Different voice (usually subdued)’

Then there seemed to be simple celebration of the products of doctoral writing.

  • ‘So much in terms of the artifacts themselves and processes and practices to enhance the successful outcomes’
  • ‘It’s the way doc students convey their passion etc forward/their research’
  • ‘New knowledge is constructed in doctoral writing’

It was such a pleasure to spend time at the doctoral writing SIG with a group of other academics absorbed in the practice and support of doctoral writing. That is similar to being in port with others traversing oceans, catching up, and sharing experiences that include the extreme. As a reader of this blog, you may have other another tack on what is interesting about doctoral writing, and if so, please use the comment function.