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By Claire Aitchison

As I explore this idea I’m thinking primarily – but not wholly – of qualitative researchers who must learn to live with a high degree of uncertainty. Of course, to be admitted and/or proceed with their project most doctoral scholars will need to write convincingly about their research design, describing the aim, research questions and method. Quite rightly, everyone takes this first account very seriously. Supervisors and students will work to make the research proposal as accurate as possible—after all, it will be the basis for years of work ahead. Students are encouraged to make clear decisions and write with certainty—even though we know for qualitative researchers there is a degree to which these declarations of intent may be a bit of a charade. What I mean by this is that, although a research proposal proclaims with confidence the nature and purpose of the investigation to be undertaken, in truth, the newly minted doctoral student (and their supervisor) may secretly concede the text holds plausible degrees of uncertainty.

We know that qualitative research design is emergent; that is, things will change. For example, questions may be reworked in the light of new literature or findings; theoretical frames considered suitable at the outset may prove unsuitable when put to work with the data; data collection methods may have to change to accommodate evolving understandings of vulnerable or first nations peoples; it’s not uncommon for the title of the thesis to be different from what was originally proposed, and so on. And, as non-traditional forms of the thesis documentation become more widely accepted, even the shape and nature of the written account may alter.

Needless to say, uncertainty and change can be hugely unsettling, for supervisor and student alike. There is something very comforting about certainty. That’s why recipe books are so popular—if you follow the instructions and stick to the rules, you’re likely (but not guaranteed) to produce exactly what’s expected.

So, what role for writing in all this?

The writer writing towards certainty

Predictably, I join with writing teachers everywhere to advocate that one can find one’s way towards certainty though the act of writing. Engaging one’s self in writing is a healthy, as well as productive, way to deal with uncertainty. When we write out our thinking, it means we can separate ideas from personhood. When we put our ideas, no matter how half-baked, rudimentary, foolish or worrying, onto a page, we objectify thoughts and concerns—we remove them from our body into another space.

When ideas are moved out and beyond ourselves by being recorded externally, temporality and geography are altered. The idea becomes a separate entity detached from the thinker.  This emergent thinking, the drafting expressed as words on a page, can be put aside to cool off, allowing a revisitation later—for example, after a good night’s sleep, or after analysing more data, or doing more reading. Written text can be read objectively by the writer and by others.

Writing as a healthy activity is explored in more detail in our post next week from the Mindful Researcher.

But not all writing work is equal. Unlike a fictional writer, the doctoral scholar cannot succeed alone, being just who they want to be, writing purely from their imagination. Doctoral research writers MUST bring the work of others into their writing. For doctoral students, the task of making meaning involves making sense of their own thinking in relation to existing knowledge—be that knowledge collected through analysing their data, and/or through critically reviewing the research and conceptualising of others. The new knowledge that doctoral scholarship seeks is relational, deeply embedded in the dynamic social and disciplinary contexts within which they operate.

That is, doctoral research writing is the artefact of very specific kinds of inputs and outputs. It serves a very specific audience and purpose, requiring the author to take on a specific identity—for example, as scientist, geographer, policy analyst—at a particular point in time.

How do we help students get the input-output balance right?

Because doctoral writing cannot operate in a vacuum, we need to help students find ways to make sense of the inputs: for example, by guiding them in how much, when and what they read, how much data to collect, when to stop analysing it, and so on. Supervisors can also monitor outputs by setting guides on what, when, how much and what kind of writing should be submitted for review and feedback.

I am reminded of a natural scientist I worked with some years ago whose supervisor insisted on getting chapter drafts every fortnight. The student argued this writing-production regime simply didn’t given her enough time to read, think and consolidate; it had become a matter of churning out words. For her at this time, writing had lost its power as a meaning-making activity; instead in an act of compliance, she used it simply to record facts and actions. The opposite imbalance is perhaps more common—students can be ‘stuck’ reading and thinking—and just.not.writing. Somewhere in between is the healthy middle ground, where writing is not cranked out, and where reading and thinking do not stay within the doctoral candidate but fuel writing that is meaning-making.

If we recognise writing is a powerful tool whereby students can work out their thinking developing ideas and identities, then we need strategies that embrace writing as a relational dialogic experience. Writing alone is limiting; getting supportive and critical feedback can be transformative. When students are left isolated and directionless, when they don’t get timely and constructive feedback, the input-output balance can be well off-kilter, impacting confidence and motivation—and likely delay completion.

There will always be times of uncertainty in PhD scholarship, but writing through that uncertainty, just moving on regardless and trusting in the process, can help resolve doubt and indecision. The PhD must be written, and oftentimes treating it like a job to be done, without excuses, trudging onwards, writing and submitting drafts can bring surprising clarity—as well as joyful satisfaction.

Do you have any experiences as a supervisor where students have needed an extra nudge to rebalance the input-output equation? Can you share strategies that help students achieve certainty through writing?