Why what you don’t do is so important in your Phd.

Doing a PhD (or any kind of doctorate) is hard, right? Yes. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s why it’s worth something. There is a lot of attention in resources for doctoral students about how to do things: how to do a lit review, how to design your study, how to analyse your data, how to write up, how to prepare for your viva or examination, how to publish etc.

But what about what you don’t do? What about how not to do things, and why this is important?

My argument in this blog is that pursuing doctoral study with an exclusive focus on what you do, rather than what you don’t do, can be counter productive.

So what might not doing be important in? Pretty much everything.

Not reading

I often talk to students about their reading and lit review work. A very common issue is a sense of there not being enough time to read enough, or an experience that the to-read pile gets higher and higher, despite hours and hours spent reading.

Central to all doctoral work, and indeed all research, is a clear notion of scope. Not only what you’re trying to do, but in regards to its relation to a wider body, or bodies, of work. You can’t read everything. Obviously. You can’t even read everything on your topic. Nor even in the journals that really closely relate to your work.

So one way or another, you’re going to be making decisions about what not to read. Doing this explicitly, and thinking hard about it, discussing it with supervisors and peers, is really important. Because, what you don’t read might have big consequences. But drawing these boundaries is also a productive, affirming aspect of being able to figure out what you’re doing and why it matters.

A sign of doctoral development in a student might therefore be a more sophisticated capacity to make and justify decisions about what not to read, and to articulate the significance of these decisions for the work at and.


Not theorising

This might be less relevant for some studies where there isn’t a big theoretical component. Here I’m really thinking about my experience working with students in arts and social sciences (and I’m definitely not saying there isn’t theory elsewhere). I have sat in many proposal presentations, and read many applications or confirmation of candidature documents, where the student proposes working with several theories.

Almost always, the response among assessors is ‘do you need all those theories?’. In some cases, there really is an imperative to draw on more than one theoretical resource, because different questions demand different analytical sensitivities (Nicolini’s 2009 work on zooming in and zooming out is good on this). But often, the really honest, deep down answer, to the question ‘why so many theories’ is ‘because they are there, they seem interesting, and relevant’. That is definitely not a good enough answer. If you don’t look at ‘power’, say, there will always be people who hear you talk about your work and say ‘but where’s power in all this?’. And if you do look at power, others will wonder where the gender aspect is, or class, or race, or materiality…


Not gathering data

This is a biggie, and it has two key components. The first is not using too many data collection / generation instruments in the first place. The second is knowing when to stop getting more data. Again this probably has more a social science feel, but I expect similar principles apply in some lab work, and probably archival and textual analyses too.

I honestly can’t remember the number of times I’ve read applications or proposals that have a design involving interviews, focus groups, questionnaires, and documentary analysis. Often, the best answer to my question of ‘why?’ is ‘because the student has read about them and decided they are possible’. I’m guilty of this myself. In my Masters I proposed observation, interview, focus group, think-aloud, a survey, and document analysis. I was rightly pulled up and told that this long list was a sign that I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the evidence I need. Just because methods can be used doesn’t mean they should. And even if they should, do they have to be? I wonder whether a criterion of necessity might be interesting to play with? Thinking about what is possible is useful in the early stages, so you don’t overlook interesting or niche alternatives. But then a shift in your thinking is needed. Too many methods risks overwhelming participants and setting up for a mile wide but inch deep analysis. The more methods, the harder it is to bring them together in a coherent whole, often.

The second component is when to stop. What is your ‘I’m a doctoral student, get me out of here?’ tacit when you’re in the field? Lots of students answer this by saying they will wait until they reach ‘saturation’: the point when they stop learning new things. Nice idea in principle? Possibly, but it’s a risky strategy in practice. I’ve been involved in studies where after years in the field, saturation seemed a long way off, because the data kept opening up new avenues of enquiry, and we were able to follow them. I’ve done others (my PhD and a recent ethnography) where something like saturation was reached. So it’s possible, but no guarantee that it will work as a good get-out strategy.

You might instead choose a time limit, or have one imposed on you by logistical issues in your research site, or by your university. Whatever the ultimate end-point, before you get there, it’s helpful and healthy to regularly ask yourself: am I getting valuable new data here? What would happen if this was the last piece of data I collected? Do I really, really need more data?


Not writing

A doctoral thesis can seem scarily, overwhelmingly big. It’s often the longest text you’ve ever written, and even scholarly books related to doctoral work end up being shorter.

One symptom that you’re not approaching your writing in the most helpful way is the sense (which may be subconscious) that everything is too important to leave out. It is not. The bar that an idea or piece of information, or reference to literature, has to jump over to be included in your writing should be a pretty high one. A reader can pick up very quickly when the author has set that bar too low. The writing feels loose, indulgent, unfocused, and leaves a sense that the text has control of the author rather than the other way round.

This is even more so when it comes to writing for publication in journals or book chapters.


Not arguing

This theme has two related but distinct aspects to it.

One is not making too many arguments, or not taking your arguments too far in your thesis. This is the argument of the kind that the word ‘thesis’ refers to itself: the argument “This is my contribution to knowledge, this is what I have found/done that no-one has found/done before, and this is why it matters”.

Again, you don’t want these to be mile wide and inch deep. But you don’t want to push them too far either. I remember being challenged by my examiners in my PhD viva to extend my arguments to say something about gendered differences in the learning of geography in schools. While my data seemed to fit with this notion, my sample was too small to say anything substantial about this, so I defended my decision not to take my arguments down that path. The examiners were pleased with my response.

As a regular examiner of doctoral work, the conclusions is something I read right at the start (something that many examiners do). I’m most impressed by clearly articulated, coherent, insightful arguments. Not by wide-ranging or over-reaching claims to grandeur or Nobel prize-winning, earth-shattering revelations. Making arguments is a fine balance between humility and boldly owning and ‘spruiking’ (a wonderful Australianism that refers to what traders might do to entice people to buy their products) your accomplishments. There’s no chance you’ll hit this balance unless you think long and hard about what you choose not to argue.

Then there is the other not arguing: not arguing with your supervisor, opponent, assessors, reviewers etc. Defending one’s work or position is central to scholarship, and learning the capacity to defend is crucial in scholarly becoming. But just as important is knowing when to defend, and when to say ‘oh, yeah, that’s a really important idea, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Hmm… I need to go away and think about this for a while’.

Now, what I’ve learned over the years, is that it isn’t always obvious what kind of response I’m expecting from students I supervise. Sometimes I’m goading them into defending their position. Sometimes I’m really trying to get them to think differently, or at least pause to explore alternatives. It would be useful if a little light flashed somewhere that told students which game it was at the time. There isn’t. What might you do to figure out which is which?


And finally, a reward for not doing…

For those of you who have reached the end, a prize! By thinking hard about what not to do, you potentially will benefit from:

Having less work to do

  1. Making what work you do choose to do count for more
  2. Enhancing the quality of your work because there is more critical selective thinking behind it
  3. Did I mention having less work to do?
  4. Feeling less overwhelmed by there not being enough time, or there being too much to do
  5. Having more time to do other things that really matter (like self-care, being with family and friends, watching crap telly…)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. Are there other things that learning not to do would be useful? (reading blogs about PhD work, possibly?!)


One thought on “Why what you don’t do is so important in your Phd.

  1. Pingback: Week 6 (already!) – Sociology and Me

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