Getting the story right – the final phase of my PhD!

wordcloudJulyI’m now entering the final phase of my PhD! Now that sounds vaguely ridiculous as it only seems like yesterday that I started. But I am now at the point of finishing off my fieldwork and beginning that rather daunting bit that means I have to try and make sense of it all. For me it still feels like I don’t know much, like there is so much reading still to do and so much data to make sense of, that it’ll take years to get to that end point of the completed thesis.

This middle stage, the second year, has been fun, manic, challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It’s involved talking to and interviewing people I have never met before, as well as many I know well. It’s involved taking up other people’s time, often at times that are most busy for them. It’s also involved a significant degree of personal learning, confidence, engagement, listening and energy. There were times when I have felt stretched beyond what I could cope with, completely out of my comfort zone, bombarded with information and exhausted from long days and late evenings full of meetings, interviews and debates. There have also been times when I’ve felt extremely grateful for how cooperative people have been, energised by what I have heard, motivated by discussion and a fair amount of empathy for the people who have shared their challenges with me.

There have also been times when I’ve wondered whether or not the questions I am asking are the right ones, whether the information I am gathering is actually what I need. In fact there have been many times when I have wondered about that and indeed still do – only time will tell.

I guess I’ve reached that stage now where all of those questions and self doubt begin to take centre stage, where a year to analyse data and write up just doesn’t seem long enough. For me I know what I need at this stage, I need to be able to see the story that I’m trying to tell, the story that takes the reader through my research. At the moment I’m not quite sure what that is, but gradually as I write up notes, transcribe interviews, go back to the theory and keep reading and thinking, little parts of that story begin to emerge. It’s almost like it’s there, but just out of reach! There’s also possibly too much, too many different routes I could take through the data, that would confuse the main messages and reduce the main characters to a minor role. So picking out the right story and the right main characters is all part of the trick going forward.

At the moment, there’s a story about influential people and how they operate overtly and covertly to influence policy agendas. There’s obviously a story about the importance of elections in providing opportunities for policy change, where policy priorities are debated and framed before, during and after the election. But more likely there’s a story about personalities, about key influencers and decision-makers, their style and approach, as well as who they talk to and take notice of. There’s also something there about solutions, looking at the same solutions that keep cropping up, year after year, to the same problems, but never quite seem to gain traction, but just maybe they will this time? Add to this the role of party politics and the media in influencing the policy prioritisation process and you can see that there’s a lot to consider.

Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, I’m actually looking forward to the writing process. I love making sense of information, bringing it together in a story that others can read and hopefully enjoy. The process is inevitably frustrating, long and painful at times, but that moment when it comes together, when clarity appears and the story is just right, well that’s totally worth waiting for!

I feel privileged to have been able to take the time out to do this research, to have the support and help of so many people, it’s a far cry from where I thought I would be right now and I’m loving it (mostly). The School for Policy Studies at Bristol University have been outstanding in their support throughout. My two supervisors (Alex Marsh and David Sweeting) are just great, providing the questions, support, encouragement and nudges I need at all the right times. Others in the school have put up with me talking about my research, provided feedback, suggested reading and most importantly of all, provided me with the encouragement that says ‘yes’ I can do this.

So now it’s time to get on with it, to make sure I reach the end of my PhD journey.

The art of writing

The blog post that follows is a slight departure from my usual commentary on housing, policy and politics issues. It’s related to my phd work and comes from a blog I first wrote for the Bristol Doctoral College. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I don’t always do it well. I find it a creative process, that brings to life all those thoughts and ideas, commentary and debate that whirl around in my head, but frequently have no real outlet. Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had, in different ways and for very different audiences. I’ve had to adapt and develop my own style to respond to the demands of others, and to work to other people’s deadlines that often serve to stifle my own creative process. But, nonetheless, I enjoy writing. I write for fun here on this blog and write contributions to local news websites and magazines, such as Bristol 24-7 and The Bristol Cable, and for the professional press like the Planner Magazine. All of these provide an opportunity to write about things of interest to me, sometimes related to my research but often not, where I can freely express my opinion. That’s part of the fun of writing.

Over the last couple of years I have had to get used to a different kind of writing, one that is more controlled and evidenced, that fits with particular conventions. Last year, when doing an MSc, back in the academic world for the first time in over 20 years, I had to complete formal assignments and a dissertation. This involved a form of writing that was entirely different to anything I have done in a long time. Then this year, embarking on my PhD, I have once more had to develop my style further into academia, a style change I find both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because my inclination is to keep things simple, use simple language and keep away from jargon. Rewarding because when it works and I can combine simplicity with complexity there is a real feeling of achievement.

My approach to writing is to see it as a creative output, something that occurs naturally for me in response to learning. After all, what’s the point of all that learning if you can’t share it with other people? A blank page, for me, is an opportunity to articulate and share, rather than something to be scared of. Writing is like creating a painting, there are different layers that are needed to build the picture, which on their own make little sense, but together they can evolve into something worthwhile, a masterpiece that others will enjoy. I view writing my PhD in a similar way. There are layers that I will write at different times, continuously throughout the process, that need to come together into a coherent story at the end. There’s a complexity to this writing process, in terms of debate and argument, analysis and detail. But there’s also a simplicity about it, where carefully crafted pure and simple arguments can be brought together into quite a simple story. A story that will grab the readers attention, and will slowly but surely take them through the complexity in a way that makes sense. In a way that brings them to your conclusions with a sense of understanding and agreement.

There’s lots of advice to students about how to write, much of which suggests you set yourself a daily writing target, which you then stick to no matter what. I can see why the discipline of this is important and why it must work for many people, but I’ve tried this approach and for me the writing that comes from it is stifled, boring and constrained. If I’m not in the mood to write, then forcing myself to write just doesn’t work. I’ve written assignments like that and when I go back to read them I can tell that it was forced rather than creative thoughts that made up the report or essay. The work is dull and it’s lacking in energy, even if the points made are the right ones, the style is very different. I prefer an approach that feels more creative, one that has routine, but is based on my preferences, rather than someone else’s (there’s a good discussion here on creating routine when writing, drawing on the work of Ronald Kellog).

When I first begin the process of writing something new I try to avoid the clutter and distraction of notes generated from my reading. I start with a blank page. I then try to form my thoughts on what I have read into a short discussion of key arguments, issues and themes. I do this without the clutter of referencing and acknowledging who said what and how. I do it from memory, from thoughts that occur to me from reading my notes and I do it when I am feeling creative and able to write fluidly. For me this works, most of the time! Of course, sometimes the creativity is just not there, it’s beyond my grasp, I can’t think where to start or how to structure my thoughts. I’ve come to recognise those times and instead I do something else with my time, like more reading, organising files, and literature searching. All the time continually mulling over the story I want to tell and trying to work out how I can construct it. I may also use this thinking and reflecting time to write something else, something less constrained, where I can write freely without the confines of academic convention – something like a blog maybe! Eventually, often after much reflection, I am ready to write and can go back to the writing that needs to be done.

The challenge of writing is an integral part of any PhD. The only advice I have on writing is to do what works for you, try different approaches and look back on what’s worked when you’ve written things before. But above all, enjoy it, it’s a precious opportunity to express yourself, articulate your thoughts and tell the story of your PhD for others to enjoy.