A blog post yesterday on the Thesis Whisperer website argued strongly against PhD students writing from day one, as is advocated by at least some lecturers and supervisors. This proved to be quite a contentious post, and the comments after it showed a split pretty much down the middle. But some people, like me, appreciated the viewpoint, and were largely in favour of it.
When I started my second go at a PhD, having had to leave a full-time science one after falling seriously ill, I was determined to make the best possible use of my second chance. And that included being as efficient a student as possible, and making the most of my productivity. I wrote my history PhD literature review in the first three months, and then went straight on to start historical research in the archives. This was despite me being a part-time PhD student the second time around, and increasingly severely disabled as time went on. When I’d been a full-time science student it was normal to spend the first year reading and writing a literature review. That meant that when I fell ill in that first year, and deteriorated rapidly, I had made little concrete progress early on. Wasn’t going to let that happen the second time! But beyond the quick literature review I wrote very little in my history PhD before the halfway stage. Most of my creative processes went on in my head, as I focused on doing the archival research.
One of the history lecturers advocated the write every day from day one approach, and I strongly disagreed with him. Partly that was from my own personal circumstances, being so severely ill and disabled that I just didn’t have the time or energy to devote to that activity. But also it was that I needed to be doing other things for my PhD, and they had to take priority at that stage. And I think in productivity terms that can apply to more people than just me.
One point I definitely agreed with in the Thesis Whisperer post is that writing can be best done after ideas have had a chance to germinate, and that takes time. When I look back at my writing in the first year of the history PhD much of it – though not that literature review, which survived largely unscathed – is naive not because it was badly written but because it was written too early, before I’d had a chance to think things through properly. This is a lesson that I’ve applied in my post-PhD research and writings. I might scribble notes or create mind-maps on my iPad as I start each new piece of research. But I don’t do any more formal writing until I’m well advanced working through the primary sources, and my brain has had a good chance to think about things.
A counter-argument to that is that writing is a creative process, and I agree that you can come out with ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise when you start to write. But there’s a limit to how effective this can be early on in the thinking/ideas stage, and I would argue strongly that writing is more effective creatively later on than at the start. Some people will be different in this respect, for example finding brain-dump style writing very helpful in their early thought processes. But I’m not one of them. If I try brain-dumping before I’m far enough through the research and thinking stages I just produce gibberish of no worth.
One point I made in my comment on the Thesis Whisperer blog post is that I found writing my humanities PhD thesis very hard. I started writing up about halfway through the six years I was allowed as a part-time student, and the time that I ended up taking in the end. But I don’t think my writing difficulties then were due to my delaying starting the thesis writing, but rather that I was still struggling to work out my ideas and find my best voice. I was working through a process that took time, and starting writing early wouldn’t have helped significantly, because ultimately I needed to figure out the ideas in my head, and that took a while.
The Thesis Whisperer post was not so sure about how different – or not – the writing process in a science PhD was from a humanities PhD. I have an unusual perspective on this, having been both a science and a humanities PhD student. There are differences in the approach to the thesis, particularly structural, which meant that a university training course I went on which advocated the science model of writing the thesis, even for humanities students, really exasperated me and didn’t help me at all with my humanities thesis writing. A science PhD thesis is much more in the style of a traditional formal report, whereas a humanities PhD tends to be more abstract and layered, at least in my experience. But there are also similarities. Both sets of students work through the literature review stage, then generally do research and/or experiments, before writing up. Some write up sooner, but for me as a history PhD student the second-time around there was very much a three-stage process to the PhD: literature review, archival research with primary sources, and writing up the thesis. And it wasn’t so hugely different from my experiences as a science student.
Would I have done things differently if I hadn’t been ill and so restricted? I don’t think so. I was lucky that my first PhD supervisor, for the science PhD I had to leave, wasn’t a write-every-day type, and gave me more freedom to choose how best to work for me. I like to think that if I’d have been able to continue with that full-time PhD I would have discovered a way of working for me that’s not so dissimilar from how I tackled my part-time history PhD, and how I’m now doing things as a post-doc / honorary research fellow turning my research into more academic papers.