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This week’s blog is from Dr Susan Mowbray. Susan is the Academic Literacy Advisor in the Graduate Research School at Western Sydney University where she works alongside postgraduate students at all stages of candidature, supporting them to refine and progress their research writing. Susan’s interest in supporting doctoral students throughout candidature is reflected in her research and publications.

As Claire noted in June, writing the methodology chapter is a hard process. The learning and thinking involved is intellectually demanding and time-consuming (I’m speaking from experience here!) and also rarely acknowledged.

It’s some comfort then that this learning becomes increasingly visible in our writing as we synthesise our reading and thinking, knowledge and growing understandings. Cally Guerin and Kristen Wilmot both describe this as learning to “theorise your findings” or to find a framework to help you “read” your data.

In practical terms, “theorising your findings” means reading, writing, thinking, rethinking and rewriting, talking with your supervisor(s), and then repeating the process again (and again) until a clear, cohesive understanding is distilled and written. Realising that you finally understand what you have can be(come) one of the most rewarding parts of the PhD process. But theorising one’s findings can also be one of the biggest sources of angst, frustration, self-doubt and confusion during candidature, and even more so when it takes longer than expected!

Like many candidates, this was my experience. Writing my methodology took 18 long months and 14, often frustrating and painful, iterations. It was the hardest chapter of my thesis to write. It was also the chapter that highlighted the usefulness of mind mapping, memoing, and abductive reasoning in identifying a framework to help read/theorise data.

An internet search on mind mapping and memoing brings up lots of different approaches and software applications. Here, though, I am talking the old-school pen and paper approach. Throughout my candidature, an A4 lined notebook was my constant companion and the place where I mapped and recorded my thoughts and ideas (even at 2am!).

Mind mapping approaches can be quite structured or more free flowing. All involve writing a topic on a page, jotting down related thoughts, and then connecting each point to help identify a narrative or frame for informing and progressing thinking.

When I was analysing my data and my mind felt overloaded with information and ideas, I found mind mapping a useful exercise. Emptying my thoughts onto a page helped clear my mind. At the same time, the map I produced usually provided ideas, thoughts and topics to explore further and extend my thinking. Sometimes too, I used a mind map as a concrete starting point for a discussion with my supervisors on how my writing and thinking were progressing (or how to help it progress!) and/or to discuss and pose potential future directions to explore. We even drafted a few mind maps together, particularly in the early stages of candidature to help establish the boundaries, and later when I was stuck and unsure, to help identify potential avenues to move forward.

Alongside mind maps, memos helped to develop and inform the thinking process. The memos more fully recorded the thinking underpinning the connections made on the map. This thinking, informed by wider reading, experiences, understandings, tacit and lived knowledge, discussions with colleagues and supervisors, explored and interrogated the ideas in the memos.

The memos took various formats: most often as a long-hand response to a specific mind map or query (e.g., what are the benefits/limits of grounded theory methodology), frequently as a scrawled note (a 2am specialty e.g., check out connections between learning and knowledge), and sometimes in a table that posed specific questions (as shown below). And as I was usually the only one reading these initial thoughts and connections, they were less formal, often rapidly written – yet a valuable kind of doctoral writing.

What’s happening here? What does this indicate/suggest? What is the key concern?
     
     

In combination, the mind maps and memos suggested potential framings to explore my data, with all notions considered worthy – and many dismissed along the way! Importantly, both were practical, accessible and generative processes that I could easily and readily implement, and use to explain my research to others – and to myself.

The processes of mind mapping and memoing also identified that I was using an abductive research approach. Abduction, or abductive reasoning, represents the combination of deductive and inductive modes of enquiry and theorising (Denzin, 1978). It explicitly acknowledges the position of the researcher and the processes they engage in when they bring their intellectual, theoretical, lived and tacit knowledge, and imagination to develop useful explanations for observed facts (Peirce, 1979).

Discovering abduction, after spending 12 months articulating and dismissing two potential theoretical framings for my data, was like shining a light into a very dark, very tangled, murky and scary place. Informed by my mind maps and memos, abductive reasoning illuminated a clearer pathway forward to help determine a rigorous and effective theoretical framing for my data.

Have you, like myself and Kristen, found a useful framing through writing about the work? As a supervisor or researcher developer, have you found other ways to use writing to help candidates find their framing? We’d love to hear to about it in the comments below.

References

Denzin, N. (1978). The research act: A theoretical introduction to sociological methods (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Peirce, C. S. (1979). Collected papers. Cambridge: Belknap Press.