Cut out the chatty gossip


At first the doctoral student is a little shocked. Literally, she is getting list after list of things to change on everything she has spent the last two years writing. ‘What is this?’ she wonders. Is she abnormally thick? Has she missed something during her education that was showing up in her unacceptable manuscript? Was it worth going on? Her self-confidence starts to take a beating when she reads another point from her supervisor´s list:

    9.‘Confusing! Why use the example if it is not important?’

“But it IS important!!” the doctoral student feels like screaming. “Why can’t she see that????” But of course the supervisor can’t see it because the doctoral student’s writing hasn’t made it clear. She must write it better so the reader will understand…

“How do you know?” the supervisor can scribble in a margin.

Like a little child, the doctoral student wants to answer back, “What do you mean, how do I know… It’s my dissertation. I know. Trust me!” But instead, she has to go back into the text and try to show what made her think the way she did, try to make her argument clearer.

“Don’t talk about people, talk about your argument.”

“Ohhh, but it is so much more fun to write a ‘Hello! Magazine’ version of theoretical arguments than an actual discussion of ideas,” the doctoral student thinks. And easier, besides. But she has to come to grips with the fact that she is working under a sociologist, not a Hello! Magazine editor, and cut out the chatty gossip about who said what to whom. Otherwise one would risk getting a point on the list like, “I’m tired of the fact that you always write about the researcher and not your empirical data or how it should be understood!”

And if the doctoral student doesn’t listen and write more concisely, she’ll get remarks like:

“You’re Rambling. What is the point. STATE IT – BACK IT UP WITH THEORY – GIVE EXAMPLES – CONCLUDE.”

It can be pretty painful to work through the lists. Not only does one start to question what one has been doing all this time, and why one had ever thought she’d been able to write, but because fixing the shortcomings the supervisor is pointing out takes work. Hard work. Sweaty work. Oye, it is a physical challenge to sit down and think through the jumps in logic the supervisor has pointed to and make the argument clear.

It is tough to try to pull that red thread through the text, making sure it appears and reappears in every new argument of the chapter, and that it is tied up neatly at the end of the chapter, yet somehow still leads onward to the next. And it is agonizingly difficult to try to make sections of ‘boring’ text more interesting. (Sometimes one really wants to sigh in desperation and tell the damn list, ‘It’s a dissertation; it’s supposed to be boring!’) And it hurts in the soul when one has to cut out page after page of unnecessary theory.

“This isn’t related to what you’re talking about,” the supervisor can say wisely, like Mr. Miyagi trying to get Daniel to stop throwing the right hooks and work on his blocks instead.

“But I’ve read all that. Can’t I just leave it in to get credit for reading it?” the doctoral student wants to plead. But she doesn’t. She bites her tongue, nods quietly, cuts out the unnecessary pages, and sneaks into the bathroom afterwards to dry her eyes. And then she goes back to her office to keep on working her way through the most recent list.

(Blog post 7 of 8 about being a PhD student in Sweden. Adapted from: Johnson, E. (2005) ‘Learning Karate, a metaphor for Ph.D. training’ in Mellström, Ulf (ed.) Kunskapens vägar och forskningens praktik Lund: Arkiv pp.87-96)