Interview with: Dr Ryan Walter – Senior Lecturer (Political Economy) at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.
Introduction: Dr Walter is a Senior Lecturer (Political Economy) at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Dr Walter worked briefly as a professional economist before returning to university to complete a PhD in the history of economic thought, later published as A Critical History of the Economy (Routledge, 2011). He is currently working on two projects. The first examines the role of economic discourse in Australian political rhetoric. The second project is to study the ethoi and arts of reasoning that economists were obliged to defend in early nineteenth-century Britain in response to widespread hostility to the very existence of their discipline.
You recently offered an RhD seminar at UQ titled “A typology of research catastrophe and the timely and elegant thesis”. What is a research catastrophe?
In the context of a PhD I think a research catastrophe is either not finishing, or making yourself miserable for a sustained period of your life. And there are a few reasons that either one of those things can happen. A common one is setting yourself a task that is simply too big to finish in the time you have been given – which then produces enormous stress, or more commonly, you end up going over time. I know a number of people who ended up doing 10 year PhDs, and it’s always hard to make this seem like a good decision in retrospect.
Another problem is incompetence or, more commonly, mistakes. For example, mistakes with the quality of labour or the quantity of labour – so procrastinators or people who can’t generate momentum in their research because of their work habits.
Another major reason that research catastrophes happen has to do with what I call research sirens – distractions both inside and outside the thesis that lead you away from the work. So outside the thesis are things like love and other disasters (laughs). Within the thesis, a classic siren in a discipline such as political science is falling in love with theory and philosophy, such that people read deeply into these areas but not in a way that serves the thesis. As the early moderns knew, philosophy leads quickly into enthusiasm – what we would call madness.
What makes a thesis timely and elegant?
The timely and elegant thesis is one that is finished on time, or close to it, and is not a horrible experience. The elegant part has to do with the way you feel and comport yourself as a researcher who has this challenge in front of you that will take three plus years. It’s a bit like a marathon. And as we know, some marathon runners collapse, some never finish, and some finish looking worse for wear, so if you can cross the line with just a light sweat and a smile on your face then you have finished in an elegant way.
In your seminar you mentioned 4 skills (2 technical and 2 ethical) that you need to have in order to avoid research dangers. What are they?
Two of the skills are technical so they have to do with research in the social sciences and humanities. The first skill is narrowing down the topic. Most PhDs will start pursuing between 3 and 5 theses and it normally takes a year for a student to know which thesis they are actually going to submit. So if you know at the end of a year which thesis you are actually going to write, and by that I mean you can write down the five or six chapters and their titles and an abstract for it, then you know what the thesis is. But most people will take time to get to that. It’s simple arithmetic that if you are pursuing three theses at the same time but can only submit one of them then two-thirds of your work is wasted. Not completely wasted, since you are becoming a more widely read intellectual and exploring your area, but it is a waste in the sense that if that process drags on much more than a year you are really starting to bite into crucial time.
It’s good to know that taking the time to explore the topic is part of a normal process.
It’s absolutely the norm and depending on the topic some people can do it faster than others. I wouldn’t be panicking until it got past a year. One good tactic to help you get from those three theses to one is to be constantly planning three different theses in your head with tables of contents so you can separate them out. That stops you from falling into the temptation of trying to put them all together. The other tactic that I recommend is to think in terms of literatures. Which literatures will you read and which literature will you read most closely and be addressing primarily? A PhD student will have to master at least one literature, that is what a PhD is about in our field – but typically you won’t master more than one, even if your thesis tries to speak to other audiences in a more general way. So working out what the classical contributions to your field of research are, who reads them, who cites them, in which journals, that can be a way of putting limits on the thesis.
The other technical skill is writing. PhD students are professional writers for three years so you might as well do it well. How do you become a good writer? The basics are you need to first get your hands on the best style guides that are out there and then learn them, and internalize that advice and those conventions. You also want to find a writer who you admire and try and model them, even to the extent of seeing how they construct their paragraphs and sentences. What is it about their writing that is so impressive? Is it because they don’t use too many subordinate clauses? Is it because they talk you through their thinking? Is it because they have powerful images? You need to work that out and then try and copy them as best you can. Especially in our field when our ideas are typically complex, a lot of PhD students think their writing has to be sophisticated, so their writing tends to be ornate and filled with subordinate clauses, and they tend to use more of the Latinate words and are heavy on the jargon. That is the wrong thing to do, you should always aim for clarity because the argument is where the sophistication comes from, not the writing. The writing is a vehicle. If you are producing literature then you can make the argument that the relationship is reversed but this is not literature, this is professional writing so clarity should be the trump virtue.
Then there are the two ethical skills. One is to understand that you are the project manager of yourself. You are going to labour for yourself for the next three years. In terms of the quantity of labour my rule of thumb is that you need to do 4-5 hours a day that is absolutely focused work where you are more or less at the limits of your focus or concentration – thatmeans you can’t have e-mail on, be checking your phone, or doing Facebook and so on, it’s just you and the text. And then if you can do 2-3 hours of low yield work such as administration, writing e-mails, having a coffee with someone and chatting about your work, getting books from the library, all of those things should count as work. Especially the social stuff like having a chat with friends – that is a type of work for academics. The key point here is if you are having a flat day and you just don’t feel like doing it, then take the day off, because that is one of the beauties of the job, you do have tremendous freedom. So take the day off, take it out of your leave and recharge the batteries and come back in when you are ready to do 4-5 good hours.
Then there is the quality of the labour. You want the labour to be well organized. For example take notes of a high quality on the key texts in your field that you need to refer to. Notes should be discursive, like you are giving a summary talking to yourself out loud. They shouldn’t be in bullet points or dot points because then they are hard to make sense of after the fact. Your notes should include page numbers and key quotations and include your critical commentary on the text, relating it to other texts in the field. Every PhD student should use EndNote, if not for their bibliography then at least for managing all their PDFs and their notes. And if you get into the habit of writing the summary of all that you read, even if that summary is just a sentence with keywords, that means you are starting to build up a searchable database of texts that come with some added value.
Then the fourth skill is caring for yourself. Fear and doubt need to be managed. And the easiest way to manage that is to tell yourself that geniuses don’t get PhDs, consistent workers get PhDs. That also means taking time to keep yourself fresh intellectually. So 10% of your time, including the time when you concentrate at your utmost, should be spent on side-projects outside the thesis. That could be a journal article, for example, or an opinion piece or whatever you are into, but you need distractions from the thesis to keep yourself going.
Do you have any other words of advice for people working on their thesis?
The last 3-6 months of the PhD which I have been taught to call the ‘end game’ is when suddenly you work more hours, around 10-12 hours a day. A lot of that work isn’t intellectual in nature, it is just checking references, tidying up the documents, tracking down missing footnotes, dealing with administrative tasks. When that part starts you will be working harder so you need to prepare those people closest to you – that for those next 3-6 months, you really need to come first because you don’t want stress outside the thesis getting in the way of that final dash.
That is a lot of really good advice on how to approach a thesis, particularly the writing aspect which I know a lot of us, who are not originally writers, really struggle with. We always question am I doing enough work, how should I write this, do I need to sound more academic or not.
Any final thoughts?
The key at the end of the day is momentum. Each day you should finish knowing that you are a little bit closer and you know what you need to do tomorrow. So, you have to build momentum, it doesn’t necessarily come easily, but once you build it you need to understand that this is something to be cherished and maintained. If you don’t have momentum then you can start to panic, but if you have momentum don’t panic, everything is going well.
That is good advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview and share your thoughts with us.
Interviewed by: Shannon Zimmerman