How to look, is not first

A blog that offers a glimpse of change – as I ponder my planning for my first formal report – and a re-ordering of my priorities (again)

Priority change #1. Quality not speed.

“Why are you here, Warren?”, was the earliest question of my supervisors.

Publication: that is my goal. And a PhD by publication requires three publications. That is three research papers, that are each to be formed, submitted, and approved by a publication process that is peer reviewed at leisure. Is speed, and volume of output, really my goal?

Not so much, I now realise. The metric of citation and regularity of publication is what all young career dependent academic hopefuls must endure. Thankfully, I do not. Instead, for me, buried deep within my existence is something academic trying to get out. Not as a career and a role, but as process and a quality of output that results. Whatever the something is that I am to produce, it is still to fully reveal itself to me. And publication, whilst important, is not the priority I hold most dear. The quality, not the speed or the volume, is what interests me the most.

The importance of that distinction is paramount in these early stages of my PhD. It now sets the tone and the focus of all that follows. It informs change number 2, most profoundly of all. Before explaining that, however, an example can be offered. If I am asked to systematically search the literature – perhaps as my first of three research questions to facilitate publication – by what measure are my search criteria going to be known? I am still not sure what I am to ask such databases, if those answers are to best serve the question I am yet to know.

This question is what became of supervisory discussion in December. I have been researching much, and writing plenty. I have offered many half-baked parts of what is to come. And I have presented significant inroads into literature reviews that are ongoing, and everchanging in direction, focus, and interest. If I remove the time dependency of that first publication, the whole agenda of my supervision meetings changes too. And it has. For this lack of clarity is not a bad thing – quite the opposite in fact – but it does change everything. It changes what I mean by meaning. It changes what can be known by the meaning I am seeking. And determines the direction of questioning that may result. Mostly however, it changes how quickly I can be certain of what I am asking, and the quality of the question I ask. That is not to say early publication is a bad thing, but it is to accept early publication becomes a priority in of itself.

In scientific enquiry, the clear research question is paramount. It is the enabling constraint. Indeed, the clear research question is paramount to all research. It protects the researcher from the questions that do not fit that brief. It informs the direction; it presents logic and structure; and it presents a pathway towards methodology and reasoning of that choice. But if asking the research question is first, it also requires one to know quite clearly what one is looking for. This is the framing that perhaps sits neatly in the scientific method, or what Saunders (2007) calls the “research onion” of clarity in research more broadly i.e., starting outside and working your way in. Philosophical positioning and there inwards to the pin-point of confirmation sought. This clarity supports early publication. This early committed structure enables a clarity of a plan. But it is not so happily supporting my exploration i.e., that puts a goal around the clarity of what is asked best, and not asked first but asked often and perhaps asked last. I am not rushing to that question. Nor am I rushing to commit to those enabling constraints. For they may constrain what I am trying to enable.

Priority change #2. Monograph not publication.

If one must choose how to learn by these priorities, then clearly it is not publication but by monograph that my emergent perspective will be best served.

In lay-person terms, that simply means I am now committing to write a single thesis and have a tougher verbal examination at the end. Rather than have three tough debates with peers during publication of three papers, and a more civil discussion to conclude. Publication can wait. I am committed to the strongest finish, not the surest start. And that is not to stop my earlier publication of a part, or conference-worthy presentable element I deem more naturally concluded, as I go. In summary conclusion now, the false priority of my whole PhD experience, was not my finest start.

Priority change #3. What, why, and an ongoing how.

My questions in the first months of this PhD are summarised less about how to look, and more about what I am looking for and why.

This is not a change, but perhaps a better perspective on what the first few months of a PhD are. It is the norm to be scrambling for your questions, and the justifications of problems that may or may not be known. Unless your PhD scope has been written for you (i.e., as part of some wider research programme that your PhD is to become part of) the start of the PhD is a fog to adjust into. I feel sure I cannot be alone in the constant frustration that my forever questioning seems to need me to feel. And whilst training helps with the how to look, and how to convey what is found, the what and the why can only come from the repeated reading.

Repeated reading. A phrase that is worth repeating. Because that is the life of the PhD wannabe. Reading that is repeated and renewed, revisited, revised and retold. Get yourself a comfy chair, a decent desktop software overlay like Mendeley, and start identifying the many conversations going on in journal form. This for me is about following trails of wisdom, having new ideas revealed to me, and old ones connecting in new ways. Out of which, whatever knowledge I am constructing anew (or whatever is waiting there to be found), that path begins to emerge. How to search, and how to convey, is all well and good; but necessity teaches me those skills, and the university has all possible manner and teaching how online, but much harder is clarity on what I search for and why.

Priority change #4. Live with dissonance

Dissonance is that feeling of angst one feels within, when two truths are held but both cannot be. (cf. Leon Festinger 1947, Cognitive Dissonance).

Dissonance is a term I use often. Out of context, and much too much. But that is because it is about the best insight I have found. It conveys a meaning as to what conflict is about. Since my lowest day, it is perhaps dissonance that I have learned to live with most of all. That is, for me at least, what these early steps in my PhD have been all the more enjoyable for. They bring my dissonance to the fore, because there are many truths that cannot all be, and until that is understood better, those are matters I must endure. I continue to learn by reading and connecting. This is the grounding of knowing what is known, and beginning to form opinion upon what is not yet understood by all. As conversations in academic context, the privilege is to be able to draw opinion on both my dissonance, and the dissonance that surrounds. In other words, challenging what I know; knowing I am yet to know but knowing much that leads to the next; whilst also pointing to what is not yet known at all. If you are thinking of a PhD, be at peace with cognitive dissonance, and much more dissonance besides.

What then, am I to reveal in my first formal report?

I now understand how to navigate the literature well enough to read it, if not claim so clear an insight as to systematically review it. What conversations, and why I think I am of value to them, is a work in progress. But my research questions are now very close. And my ability to convey them now accepted as at least improved. The 62,745 words I have written, and I can call my own, all merely convey those insights and theorising of others. That count in of itself proof that I am still too verbose. My first report (a mere reflection of progress) is due the last day of this month.

…to be continued