writing from the PhD thesis: letting go

I often meet post PhD people who are stuck. Even though they are now doctored, they are not over the Big Book.

Some of them are stuck in thinking how they might get something, anything, out of the thesis. A few of these people have just finished and are not sure where and how to start. Others are a way away from the post-viva celebration. They might have already had one or two shots at writing an article. Maybe they’ve even sent something to a journal and it’s come back with a lot of comments and exhortations to rewrite. And the requirements seem like such a lot, and so they put the paper away hoping that at some time in the future they’ll have the energy to revisit it.

Now one big reason for feeling stuck on getting articles out of the thesis is because people are still actually stuck in the thesis. This is not the only reason of course, but it is the one I’m going to talk about in this post.

It takes a long time to put a thesis text together. The writer has to juggle with multiple ideas and themes and findings and not only wrestle them into a logical order, but also create an argument. There is an overall thesis argument, and there is a mini argument made in each chapter. The text itself has to flow and feel coherent, and accordingly the writer spends time attending to the ways in which the reader can be smoothly guided through all of the twists and turns. At the end of all this, both the reader – and the writer – are presented with a complex and unified argument and book. It can seem very hard to undo the text which took so long and so much effort to put together.

So when the time comes to write, many people begin by isolating a single article to do first of all. Well you have to start somewhere, right?

The worst-case scenario is that they try to write the one article which sums up the entire thesis. Now this really is likely to go nowhere. If it took 90-100,00 words to argue the thesis case, it’s going to be pretty hard to jam it into 7,000.

But let’s not take that example. Even when people find they can identify one article, which is only a part of the thesis, to write it still seems as if the entire thesis creeps back in. It all has to be covered, or at least a substantial part of it. It’s impossible to write this bit without covering that bit too and that means that this other section has to be included and… and… before you know it, there’s too many words and the article is nowhere near an end.

The problem here is one of letting go of that entire Big Book that took so long to write, letting go of all those complexities and side issues and all that literature and methodological sophistication.

One strategy therefore is not to think about writing one article with all of its attendant problems of letting go and undoing. Rather, plan right at the start all of the possible articles that could be written. This means that you don’t have to worry about leaving some things out, because you know they will be covered in future articles.

So two steps to letting go.

Step One

It’s helpful to start the process of thinking of all of the articles to ask yourself some questions:
• Have I got anything to say about methodology or methods that isn’t already in the literature?
• Did I make a particular theoretical move in the thesis that I haven’t read about yet? Did I combine theories in a new or unusual way?
• Did my literature work reveal any patterns that deserve commentary?
• What was the single most important finding of the thesis? What was the close runner up?
• Was there something that I couldn’t spend as much time on as I wanted because it wasn’t directly germane to the question I was asking?
• Was there something unexpected that happened or that I ‘found’?
• Is there a taken for granted assumption in my area that my research really challenges?

It may also be worthwhile going back to the examiners’ comments, because they might have indicated some potential publishing options too.

Step Two

Having done this prior thinking, here’s a strategy that seems to work for a lot of stuck people I meet in workshops:

(1) Generate as many possible article topics as you can possibly think of through an initial brainstorm, a serious conversation with a friend or some timed list making.

(2) Sort the list. You could look at three kinds of sorting – those articles that you most want to write, those that people most need to read and those where you already know a journal that would be interested. These lists might of course be the same.

(3) Sit on the lists for a shortish period of time, say two weeks. Then talk through your big list and the sorted lists with a trusted colleague or mentor to decide on a real short list. One of the things to consider here is whether you need to publish something in particular first, in order to build on it for the second and third articles.

Once you’ve got your list of papers, all you have to do is write them, right? Well no. But having a list is a big step forward. You now have a publishing agenda.

In the next post I’ll talk about the publication plan as a strategy for refining the agenda and setting some goals.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, argument, Big Book, Dr, publication plan, publishing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to writing from the PhD thesis: letting go

  1. This makes a lot of sense! I think another good thing for supervisors to do is to encourage students to think about how they are going to publish work right through the PhD process. This really helps motivation, because there is nothing worse than sitting in your research silo and not thinking about the meaning of your work to a wider audience. After all, this is part of learning to become a researcher. In many ways this is why the European system makes sense (although I dislike it for other reasons!)

  2. Faizah says:

    Thanks for this Pat..my exact predicament at the moment…Looking forward to the next post

    • Kat says:

      Ditto. I have been feeling stuck as I published a few things during and felt I had published all the main things but looking at that list there is potential to draw out more ideas for articles and ideas to help me get started on new paths.

  3. Oh, this is quite sensible, thank you. I’m in a different rest-stop of the PHD path (the ‘research done, panel past, material collected, write it!’ part)…however, looking at the material as possible articles, even now that the Big Book is not even an ink-stain in my printer, makes it all more approachable.
    Thank you :D (and yes, I wish too that such advice were given to me a lot earlier in the process :)

  4. Prof. Susan says:

    Everyone needs to listen to Pat here, brilliant advice. It is really true that you get a book done by letting go of the dissertation to a large degree and standing back to see what you’ve got that resides at the middle point between your own passion as a researcher and what the audience is ready for or interested in. In the humanities, I see many people who get distracted with little article projects and spin offs and never get their book done, or get it done much later than they need to. Folks! Your book is your priority! Do the spin offs and little article things AFTER you’ve got a book MS together.

  5. Thanks for the post Pat! Thankfully my supervisors encourage a publishing agenda within the phd process. Thus, early on my 3rd year we decided to write a paper and submit it to a journal’s special issue. It did take a considerable amount of time to write the paper and review it twice to address the reviewers comments, but it is now published (end of 3rd year)! So, although I’m still writing my thesis – and yes, working on the paper might have delayed completion of some chapters – I believe it was a valuable experience, because: 1. it worked as a great motive, especially since it made me realise that ‘I have something good to say’ out of my research 2. it made me think hard about my contribution and where my research has an ‘impact’ 3. I found the reviewers’ comments, although at first sight rather heartbreaking, as extremely constructive and they really helped me to make my thoughts clearer. So, yes, I’m very glad I did this – but hopefully, I will also finish thesis writing soon :) Looking forward to your next post!

  6. Chi Yan Lam says:

    Reblogged this on Chi Yan Lam and commented:
    Came across this post on Twitter. Like other PhD graduates described in this article, I, too, am trying to publish my thesis work. Trying to compress and reduce the complexity of an entire thesis and repackage it into a sufficiently rich stand-alone article is challenging. His solution is to let go of the thesis, and start fresh in search of “simplexity”. Definitely worth a read.

  7. Georgina Green says:

    I had interest in my thesis from a book publisher but found it excruciating to change it in the way their readers suggested. Eventually I realised I had to reexamine my motivations for revising – to revise, not because I had to, but because I could see how it could be improved to communicate what I had to say better. Once I did that, I became unstuck. Thanks for this piece on this common stumbling block!

  8. Pingback: writing from the PhD thesis – the publishing plan | patter

  9. M-H says:

    Prof Susan, for many people The Book is not the aim. I understand that it may be in your world, but in many disciplines, especially the sciences, engineering and to some extent social sciences (at least in Australia), many academics may never write a whole book. What budding academics in these fields need to do is to publish as many articles as they can. Publishing articles out of your PhD can be difficult, for reasons that Pat discusses, but it is what PhD students and early career researchers need to focus on to get and maintain that first permanent position.

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