The content and process of some recent learnings

I have just finished a two day symposium. It has been wonderful to sit in on the papers, questions and discussions of others. However, getting to enjoy what I have been doing makes me [even] more angsty about the gap between my current capabilities and the researcher I would like to be. Thinking about it, it makes sense to still have things to learn. However, there is that nagging doubt that maybe I will never get ‘there’.

Being a PhD student seems to involve a lot of trying to look sideways at what others are doing in order to guess what I should/ could be doing across so many domains. Through reading some work in progress from other students I have been lucky enough to get a glimpse the practicalities of working up an article for publication, turning a spoken paper into a written paper and even just working ‘data’ into writing. I do not think it is a failure of tertiary education that I am [hopefully] working things out this way; there are certain things in life you have to set out to learn rather than sitting around waiting to be taught.

Working out how my work stacks up with what I should be doing is a bit tricky. There seems to be so much politeness in the circles I find myself in, I feel like I only hear what is considered ‘bad’ work when the person responsible for the work is out of ear shot. Of course, just because somebody says something bad about a paper does not make such an assessment particularly valid. Yet I find myself wondering how to work out what bits of my work ‘float’ and what needs to be changed. Other students and early career academics often praise the peer review process of publication as being the one way to get detailed feedback. However, how can you tell before your work gets to that stage?

In my field work I had to move from guessing what people think to asking (through blunt questions and testing ideas in conversation). What is the equivalence of this in academia? One obvious (and necessary) strategy seems to be doing the leg work of writing up coherent drafts as ideas progress. I know I need to be more explicit about the questions I want my supervisor to answer.

I took to the symposium a paper I had thought a lot about, and I decided to cram it full of ideas I wanted people to respond to. The paper which resulted was at the expense of the work drawing on the reading around the paper I had undertaken. While I felt uncomfortable about this, I thought it might lead to a better outcome than when I blasted the room during a PhD conference with a lot of theory and did not get a single question. Plus, it was tempting to treat this new situation as an opportunity to take up (rather than fight against) my supervisor’s suggestion that my thesis should be descriptive with a simple argument. After all, where is the line where an analytical argument becomes theory anyway? In the end, while I was grateful for the empirical comments I got, I did not get the sort of engagement I was looking for from anybody. Reflecting back now, I can see how the absence of key elements of an expected academic paper and how blasting the room with data both contributed to closing off discussion. A painful [and slightly embarrassing] lesson [hopefully] learnt.

Working with data, ideas and drafts is a slow process. My paper did not need to go in front of the audience in order for me to identify the weaknesses, but being so slow to commit to any format meant that I did not give myself the opportunity to set the paper aside and rework it into a more appropriate piece of work. It would be nice to go on and say now that I will be organised and that I will commit to get things into a full draft earlier. I would like to commit to writing up proper drafts within self imposed deadlines, instead of working on disjoined sections for months on end. However, I know my next deadline is just around the corner and so I will just forgive myself, gather up my learnings and enjoy putting the next paper together in the hope that I will slowly move towards a style of working which allows me to produce work I can enjoy sharing.

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