By Cally Guerin
The Postgraduate Students’ Association at our university recently organised a screening of the wonderful Piled Higher and Deeper Comics film. Just as heartbreakingly funny as the comic strip itself, the film explores the ‘reality’ of what it’s like to be a doctoral student. And, as one might expect, there was minimal mention of actually writing the thesis! Sure, it was set in a laboratory, and these are the students who never quite complete anything, but even so, it worries me that writing is left out all together.
We really need to wean PhD students off the idea that ‘writing up’ is something that happens at the end of the whole process. When students (especially those in the hard sciences) start making Gantt charts to create a timeframe for their doctoral studies, the temptation is to allot the last six months to writing. How do we get them to believe that this is something that needs to begin from the very start of candidature? Certainly, they’ll probably focus on the finer details of putting the whole thesis together in that last six months, ensuring that the document is properly unified, checking and re-checking the bibliographic details, updating the literature review to include the absolutely latest publications that are relevant to the topic, and completing all the final editing and careful proofreading that is required. But to think that the bulk of the writing can be undertaken in six months is not realistic for the vast majority of PhD students. Is this your experience – as an academic developer, supervisor, or student? We’re keen to hear stories that prove or disprove this! Perhaps there are other important reasons the ‘writing up’ model endures.
I run academic development sessions for PhD students and see lots of students who are keen to come along to writing workshops at the beginning of their candidature; they appear to be eager to get as much input as possible starting out on such a big project. In my Australian context, there is generally significantly less coursework in the early stages than is usual in the US, for example, and Australian universities tend not to insist on participation in courses on composition and rhetoric. Structured doctoral programmes are not yet standard practice in most Australian institutions.
Then, I notice that as students move further into their research, the focus on data collection (in whatever form that might be – field work, laboratory experiments, reading ancient documents in dusty archives) often starts to take precedence, and the writing falls into the background. Meanwhile, much of what has been covered in the early workshops is relegated to the ‘must remember that for later’ basket, where it can be overshadowed as all sorts of other research information crowds in.
However, we know that for the vast majority of doctoral students it’s good to start writing early and keep writing. I want to get the message across that writing is a skill that requires maintenance and regular practice, especially for those of us for whom it doesn’t necessarily come easily. The reason for providing writing development workshops near the beginning of candidature is precisely so that there is time over the next three or four years to hone those skills. Until students start doing some serious writing, it is hard to have an accurate picture of where their writing difficulties might lie.
So this is a plea to encourage doctoral students to believe that writing a thesis nearly always takes longer than one imagines, and writing skills can’t be developed overnight. If the habit of writing every day (well, most days, anyway!) can be established early, those last few months will be more manageable. Doctoral education is partly about training students to become independent researchers, and being able to think of writing as an activity that happens every day is central to that identity.