What I learned from writing my PhD proposal

IMG_4673 (1)Just before Easter I handed in my PhD proposal. It was a major achievement for me, and I felt stoked. For those of you not familiar with PhD study, at my university the process is as follows: when you first enrol, you are really only a ‘provisional’ PhD student. Your first major job is to write a proposal. The proposal should outline your area of study, the key literature relevant to your field, the theoretical lens(es) through which you will view your study, and some of the specifics of your research design: research questions, methodology, ethical considerations. It’s about a 10,000 word document. (Or 10,700 if you’re me…) Your proposal is formally reviewed by a small committee, and, if it’s accepted, then, Pinocchio-like, you’re then a ‘real’ PhD student.

Now that I’ve submitted my proposal (yay!) I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from the experience of drafting, writing, reviewing with my supervisors, editing, re-writing.

  1. Diagrams and tables are your friend. As a former English teacher, and holding an MA in English literature, I prefer to express myself in words. However, my supervisors encouraged me to incorporate tables and diagrams to help convey ideas. Woah. That helps to keep the word-count down, and really helps me to be more succinct. It also helps break up long chunks of text for the reader. It was good advice.
  2. It’s hard to read 10,000 words in one go and keep in mind the overall argument and structure. I’m thinking about this from an editing point of view, but also if I, as the author, finds this challenging, then the reader is probably too. Sub-headings are another friend for both the writer and reader. I also found it helpful to think about each section as an essay: writing an introduction, body and conclusion. I then started to think about each paragraph in these terms. A seminar I went to on editing your own writing gave a tip which I used: go through your writing, reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. Focusing on topic sentences to make sure these are in a logical sequence and capture the unfolding argument was a useful strategy.
  3. Taking on feedback. Hmm. I’m not always that good with feedback. I freely confess I can take criticism personally and get defensive. Here is where I think I’ve been gifted with two awesome supervisors who couch their feedback in ways that support me to write better. I think it also helps that I have a clear sense on the aspects of my work that I am strongly committed to, and which areas I am happy to amend. For example: I triumphantly sent off a near-complete draft to discover that my supervisors really didn’t like one of the theories I was planning to explore. I wasn’t wedded to it, so that work went. I didn’t find it painful or crushing. Select the section, hit delete. New material went in to replace it. Perhaps this is a revised perspective on ‘holding your ideas lightly’: know which ideas you want to hold tightly to, and hold to those – this is your research after all – but those other ideas? How central are they? Maybe they can go.
  4. Finished is better than perfect. This is a big learning for me. For once, knowing that this work isn’t going to be graded, it will either be fine, need some revisions, or need major re-working, has released me from the tyranny of my A-type personality. I figure that my supervisors wouldn’t let me submit a proposal that was woefully sub-standard, so if they’re okay with it, then I should be too. Reading the piece through for the nth time to change a ‘thus’ to a ‘therefore’ will not a better proposal make. Get it finished, get it in. Job done.

So what do I still need to master? Aside from everything, I want to be able to capture my PhD in a snapshot, to be able to give the ‘elevator pitch’ I guess. In my faculty, once the proposal is accepted we have to deliver a 20 minute presentation on it. I’m hoping this will help me to distil the key aspects, and then to be able to give an overview to a layperson in ways in which they might find my work interesting. Or at least not boring. High hopes.